For more than 400 years, the slave trade flourished between Africa and the Americas, a process that saw untold millions of people delivered to new lands and established in varied cultures. This forced water-borne migration, perhaps the largest in history, shaped the cultures of numerous nations that still feel its effects. Captive Passage, an exhibition that opened at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., in early May, examines the maritime aspects of the Atlantic slave trade between the 15th and 19th centuries. The exhibition is the first of its kind, according to the museum, displaying the ships, artifacts and harsh way of life of the Africans on their journey west.
Visitors to the show follow the journey, first visiting a departure point made to feel like a West African-coast port town in the early 1400s. Perhaps the most compelling section, called the Middle Passage, offers a glimpse of the Atlantic crossing: one can enter a mock ship’s hold where slaves were jammed in as cattle, bound in chains. The museum has displayed many artifacts from its own collection and from other museums, including a 1799 pilot chart that depicts the Middle Passage, actual leg irons and a model of the slave schooner Dos Amigos.
The Arrival portion of the exhibit documents the varied port towns from Brazil to the Caribbean islands, to the East Coast of North America. The museum also examines the lasting legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. andquot;Most of all, the legacy of slavery can help us better understand who we really are as Americans, how we came to be a unique multiracial society and that, from our shared history, how we might learn to go forward and grow into the kind of nation for which our ancestors struggled,andquot; said Julia Hotton, guest curator.
A book of essays by slave-trade scholars accompanies the exhibit, published jointly by the Mariners’ Museum and the Smithsonian, where the exhibition will travel after leaving Mariners’ in late December. For more information, visit www.mariner.org/captive.