Captive Passage: The making of the Americas


WASHINGTON – The compelling story of the slave trade and the role it played in the development of the New World is the focus of a major traveling exhibition presented at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture.

Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas continues through Aug. 31. The Smithsonian stop is the first in a national tour that continues through 2007.

For nearly 400 years, the institution known as the transatlantic slave trade fueled the growing economies of the New World. Millions of Africans were torn from their homeland and forced into slavery throughout the Americas.

This had profound effects not only on Africa but on every aspect of developing New World cultures from Brazil to many parts of North America.

Maps and shackles. The exhibition features more than 200 objects and images drawn from private collections and from museums in the United States and Great Britain.

Through items ranging from historic maps and charts to slave trading documents, branding irons and shackles, Captive Passage recalls the pain as well as the geography and the timeline of the slave trade.

Visitors will be also able to hear recorded narratives of enslaved Africans and slave traders.

Shipping history parallel. Designed to tell the story of the slave trade from the maritime perspective, Captive Passage displays items that also trace the history of the shipping industry.

The exhibition features a one-of-a-kind scale ship model of the slave schooner Dos Amigos, constructed by award-winning ship model builder Joseph McCleary.

Cultural imprint. “Captive Passage allows us to tell a story of critical importance,” said Steven Newsome, director of the Anacostia Museum.

“There is no question that the labor of enslaved Africans was crucial to the rapid development of the Americas, laying the foundation for its fantastic wealth and prominence in the world economy. But it’s also true that the forced migration of millions of Africans – four times the number of Europeans who came before 1820 – left a permanent cultural imprint on the Americas as well.”

Departure. The “Departure” section introduces visitors to the West African coast, before Europeans arrived in the 1400s.

It features artifacts such as copper manillas, Katanga crosses, scales and weights, and other examples of currency traded between Africans and Europeans. Decorative items such as a Kuba hat illustrate the rich and diverse cultures that existed before the slave trade began.

Other artifacts and engravings show how African traders tapped deep into the African continent, capturing and enslaving people from many societies.

Farmers, artisans, leaders, women and children were marched from their homes to the coast, a journey that often covered hundreds of miles. Many thousands died along the way.

Those who survived were crowded into slave “forts,” heavily guarded prison fortresses from which they were loaded onto waiting ships.

Middle Passage. In this section, visitors learn that the documented brutality of the Middle Passage was an experience shared by all enslaved Africans, and for those who survived, it forged lasting bonds of kinship. For others it served as the impetus for resistance.

Hundreds of captives were crowded into each ship to endure weeks or months of dehumanizing treatment.

There were many shipboard revolts by the captives. While usually unsuccessful, the revolts were a constant threat to the financial success of the voyage.

Thousands died en route either from disease, mistreatment or suicide.

Arrival. A large mural identifies ports of entry in North and South America and the Caribbean. Rio de Janeiro, Belize, Port Antonio, Port au Prince, Charlestown (Charleston) and Havana are some of the ports where millions of slaves were unloaded during the course of four centuries.

Engravings show the disembarkation of enslaved Africans and active slave markets where Africans were sold. Other engravings and artifacts reveal slave life on plantations and in mines.

This portion of the exhibit also tells the story of enslaved Africans’ pursuit of freedom. A rare, colored lithograph shows a view of Montego Bay with Reading Wharf in flames and rebels destroying a main road.

A color-printed handbill, dated 1852, offers a $2,500 reward for a runaway slave.

Portraits of captives who led revolts or aided in slave escapes are also included.

Lithographs, photographs and paintings of slave ships being captured by the Royal Navy illustrate the long struggle against the illegal slave trade.

Legacy. Artifacts such as a candle stand and a bureau with a mirror made by North Carolina cabinetmaker Thomas Day are on view to document the fact that this free black man owned and operated one of the largest furniture-making businesses in the state during the early 1800s.

An engraving of the U.S. Capitol depicts one of many contributions made by African-American slave labor.

A portrait by former slave Joshua Johnson; poems by the young enslaved African Phyllis Wheatley; and an almanac created by scientific pioneer Benjamin Banneker, the free son of a former slave, are some of the many African-American contributions highlighted in the “Legacy” portion of Captive Passage.

The maroons. The Anacostia Museum has developed a show to explore the history of communities created by runaway slaves, also known as maroons, in South America and the Caribbean.

Resistance, Creativity and Survival: The Janina Rubinowitz Collection of Maroon Art uses paintings, wood carvings, photographs and objects used in worship ceremonies to tell the story of an African-based culture that still exists in the rain forests and the isolated villages of Suriname, in northeastern South America.

Rubinowitz, a painter and art educator, built her collection during nearly 40 years of making annual visits to Suriname to deliver clothing, medicine and supplies to impoverished residents and to spend time with people she considers members of her extended family.

The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, at 1901 Fort Place S.E., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is free.

Additional information is available by calling 202-357-2700.


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