Tag Archives: slavery
As a Ghanaian archaeologist, I have been conducting research at Christiansborg Castle in Accra, Ghana. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the castle is a former seventeenth century trading post, colonial Danish and British seat of government, and Office of the President of the Republic of Ghana. Today, it’s known in local parlance as simply “Osu Castle” or “The Castle”.
My research is the first archaeological excavation of the castle. I became interested in the history of the castle when several years ago, my aunt remarked,
Go to The Castle and see your surname inscribed on the castle wall.
I was confused. The story I’d grown up with was that my family – the Engmanns – descended from a Danish Christian missionary stationed on the coast. As I discovered after taking my aunt’s advice, there was a great deal that I did not know.
When visiting the castle, I noted a water cistern in the courtyard inscribed with the name “Carl Gustav Engmann”. This led me to the Danish National Archives, where I studied boxes of archival manuscripts written by Engmann. What I learnt during this early part of my exploration was that Engmann – my great great great great great grandfather – was in fact a Governor of Christiansborg Castle from 1752 to 1757. He later became a board member of the Danish Slave Trading organisation between 1766 and 1769.
What is more, oral and ethnographic accounts in Ghana revealed that during Engmann’s time on the coast, he married Ashiokai Ahinaekwa, the daughter of Chief Ahinaekwa of Osu, from whom I am descended.
The Castle is situated on the West African coast, formerly and notoriously known as the “White Man’s Grave”. The castle’s origins can be traced to a lodge built by Swedes in 1652. Nine years later, the Danish built a fort on the site and called it Fort Christiansborg (“Christian’s Fortress”), named after the King of Denmark, Christian IV.
Over time, the fort was enlarged and converted into a castle.
An impregnable imperial fortification, the castle contained a courtyard, chapel, “mulatto school”, warehouse storerooms, residential quarters, dungeons, bell tower, cannons and saluting guns.
The Castle was so vital to the Danish economy that between 1688 and 1747 Danish coinage depicted an image of the castle and the inscription, “Christiansborg”. The castle operation included a governor, bookkeeper, physician and chaplain, alongside a garrison of Danes, in addition to Africans, known as “castle slaves”.
Between 1694 and 1803, guns, ammunition, liquor, cloth, iron tools, brass objects and glass beads were exchanged for gold and ivory, as well as enslaved Africans. Approximately 100,000 enslaved Africans were transported to the Danish West Indies, comprising St Croix, St John and St Thomas islands.
The Danish Edict of 16 March 1792 officially marked the end of the Danish transatlantic slave trade, though it was not enforced until 1803.
Apart from a few brief periods, the site remained occupied by the Danish. In 1850, Denmark sold Christiansborg Castle to the British for £10,000.
At the castle, we adopt a collaborative, democratic approach to archaeology, working with local communities. The team includes Danish-Ga direct descendants whose ancestors lived close to the castle during the eighteenth century, and who continue to do so today.
Its focus on an archaeology “for, with and by” direct descendants emphasises its decolonising agenda. For these reasons, I use the term “autoarchaeology”.
Ultimately, it contests archaeologists’ legitimacy, authority and self-proclaimed exclusive rights as stewards, interpreters and narrators of the material past.
Prioritising direct descendants’ narratives and the histories they reconstruct, sheds light on little-known episodes in the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. At the same time, it reveals the complexities of the politics of the past in the present.
Together, we are rewriting history.
Words and Things
As a historical archaeology project, we employ a “multiple lines of evidence approach” to research. We combine several sources – objects, texts, oral narratives and ethnography since there are multiple, often competing understandings of the past.
In this way, our work challenges traditional historical interpretations of the transatlantic slave trade based on European colonial written accounts. Such sources present history from a European (often white, male, elitist) colonial perspective, frequently marginalising or disregarding African and Afro-European experiences.
We have excavated an extensive pre-colonial settlement. This includes the foundations of houses and what is tentatively thought to be a kitchen since it contains three stones (for balancing a cooking pot) and charcoal, in keeping with local cooking area design.
We have also retrieved what are commonly known as “African trade beads” that were produced in various parts of Africa, as well as Europe, including Italy and Holland. Ceramics include Chinese and European ceramics (Wedgewood and Royal Doulton), alongside local pottery.
An African smoking pipe and numerous Dutch, English, German and Danish clay smoking pipes were recovered from the site. European glassware ranges from every day usage to refined, luxury ware. There are a number of other small finds including a slate fragment, typically used for writing, as well as faunal remains, seeds, metals, stone, daub, cowrie and other shells.
With the assistance of local fishermen, we even excavated a canon immersed in sand that had fallen from the castle above on to the beach below. Under the castle, we also discovered the entrance to an underground tunnel that led to the nearby Richter House, formerly owned by a successful “mulatto” Danish-Ga slave trader. This tunnel meant captive Africans could be transported from the house directly onto slave ships at sea without much opportunity for escape or drawing the attention of others.
We plan to continue with the archaeological excavations, artefact analysis and educational outreach. The project has received generous support from all the current and former presidents of Ghana, the national government, Osu chieftaincies, Osu Traditional Council and the Osu community – without it this project would not have been possible. The excavated artefact collection will contribute to plans to develop the castle into a museum.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to wonder which one of these thousands and thousands of artefact fragments once belonged to my great great great great great grandfather.
This article is the fourth in the Black Lives Matter Everywhere series, a collaboration between The Conversation, the Sydney Democracy Network and the Sydney Peace Foundation. To mark the awarding of the 2017 Sydney Peace Prize to the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the authors reflect on the roots of and responses to a movement that has re-ignited a global conversation about racism. The prize will be presented on November 2 (tickets here).
My grandfather was Moses Topay Enares. He was only 12 years old when he was coerced onto a ship, put in the hold and fed stodge, a flour-like substance, until he arrived in Queensland.
His wife, who recorded and retold his story, tells of him being taken from the beach off the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. Moses passed on the Northern Rivers in New South Wales in 1961. He never saw his family from Tanna again.
Black Lives Matter is an inspired world movement of consciousness that gives voice to the resilience and self-determination of people of colour in their continued fight for freedom and social justice. This fight is very relevant to Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI). We are the descendants of some 62,500 people who were blackbirded from the 80 islands of Vanuatu and Solomons to NSW in 1847, with an influx to Queensland under the “indentured labour” trade.
Several words are used to depict the history of my people: indenture, slavery, kidnapping, blackbirding and Kanaka. But ASSI communities will tell any inquirer that we object to the use of the term “indenture” to describe what happened to our people when they were first brought to Australia. It’s a weak word that does not express the real truth of the physical and cultural theft of human beings.
We identify as Sugar Slaves, and we are confident and firm about correcting the “official” versions of history.
“Blackbirding” comes from the African slave trade and truly expresses the violence of what happened. There were 870 voyages back and forth to the islands that brought my people to Australia. Some were kidnapped, but it is also undeniable that our warriors chose to return more than once.
Nonetheless, the treatment of the Islanders was atrocious, exploitative and akin to slavery. When plantation owners went bankrupt, the workers were transferred as an asset with the sold property.
The grandfather of Gordon Johnson, a second-generation descendant of the blackbirding trade, was kidnapped from Malaita in the Solomon Islands and brought to Queensland to cut cane. Gordon says:
My grandfather was a respected chief, he had wives and a lot of land when he was stolen. His family thought he was dead for almost ten years. One day my grandfather got back to his island only to find that his right to land and his wives had all been taken. His family thought he was a ghost, so he was banished and travelled to Vanuatu in hope of starting a new life, but was blackbirded from Vanuatu back to Australia.
Gordon is now 67 and has found the courage to share his experience years after the trade was abolished. As a 13-year-old in 1963, he had no option but to work alongside his father in the cane fields on Howard Farm, Bundaberg.
The owner used to come round and check up on us while we were cutting and he used to flog me all over that field. He said I wasn’t cuttin’ proper. My father would have to sit back and watch ’cause he was warned that if he stepped in he would get a floggin’ too and our family would be kicked off the farm. Ten of us lived in a one-room hut.
The full truth needs to be told
Thousands upon thousands of men, along with a small percentage of women and children, were blackbirded to work under the harshest of conditions in the pastoral, maritime and sugar industries.
Blackbirding occurred not only in the cane fields, but also in the shipping industry. South Sea Islanders worked as seafarers and deckhands across the many ports of this nation.
In 1847, more than a decade after slavery was officially abolished throughout the British Empire, politician and entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd began the illegal blackbirding of 119 Islanders to work on his whaling and pastoral ventures in Eden and the Riverina in NSW. For Boyd it was a business proposition – one that has been documented as a human disaster.
Today, the bitter truth about our sugar trade is commemorated by Australian South Sea Islanders in NSW marking 170 years since our forefathers escaped from Boyd and walked back to Sydney. By various means about half managed to be shipped home, which resulted in many Tanna men drowning in Sydney Harbour. The others died.
Earlier this year Stan Grant called for the inscription on Captain Cook’s statue to reflect the truth.
In fact, the founding fathers of other townships, including entrepreneur Robert Towns (Townsville) and blackbirder John Mackay (Mackay), were part of a lucrative slave trade stretched to its fullest capacity for 40 years (1863-1903), regardless of illegalities and high death rates.
These cities are proud of their founders, but as with the case of Cook, a greater understanding and a broader discussion are needed. The full truth needs to be told.
Shireen Malamoo identifies as an Aboriginal/Kanak Woman. “Kanak” is Hawaiian for “bushman”, a word the overseers used in a derogatory way for the Islanders. Shireen is the granddaughter of a Sugar Slave taken from the island of Tongoa in Vanuatu and a descendant of the Birrigubba traditional owners from Plantation Creek on the Burdekin River in Ayr, north Queensland. She says:
Slavery affects people of colour globally and Australia’s version of slavery is based on the stealing of our African brothers and sisters across the Atlantic. In Australia, they attempt to hide the truth through the political manipulation of policy into the legal framework coined as “indentured labour”. Our warriors were paid a pittance for their work and bonded to completion of an unknown three-year contract with no idea what they were in for, let alone knowing if they would live or die.
Some 15,000 Sugar Slaves lost their lives to common diseases. This toll equated to almost 30% of the trade. Despite authorities knowing about this, the trade flourished.
In 1901, the new Commonwealth government, as part of the White Australia Policy, ordered the deportation of the entire Islander community, who were now denigrated as “aliens”. This was part of Australia’s ethnic cleansing.
Many Islanders legally belonged as British subjects and should not have been unlawfully deported. The 1906 High Court judgment authorising their expulsion was a self-interested abuse of the rule of law that sought to “create” a White Australian population.
So, four decades later, the islands and families who had been traumatised by the kidnapping of their fathers, husbands and sons witnessed the return of these peoples, distressed and disorientated, having been deported en masse from Australia.
It was a travesty, with cases of cultural warfare and further displacement as the island societies they once knew were no more, and were now foreign to the returning labourers and their families.
Fighting for the right to live
Ken Canning is a Murri activist, writer and poet, whose people are from the Kunja Clan of the Bidjara Nation in southwest Queensland. He says:
While different groups are campaigning on many important issues, the same issues will become meaningless if we don’t fight for the right to live.
My people did not just take the abuse they received. They were activists as well, making the most of the new situation into which they were forced. Historians call this agency, or taking control of your life even in adverse circumstances.
More recently, intrinsic agency by ASSI descendants is seen through our work in solidarity with Indigenous peoples fighting for the right to live full and fruitful lives as our basic human right.
My people have a complex identity that affirms the consequence of colonialism’s truth and confronts the injustices inflicted upon two very different Black cultures – Indigenous Australian and immigrant Melanesian. We have produced several exceptional and stoic leaders, such as Faith Bandler, Bonita Mabo, Bob Bellear, Shireen Malamoo and Evelyn Scott.
Because of our history of forced migration to a foreign land and our marginalised cultural identity, ASSI descendants today must strive to restore our right to sovereignty.
Our ancestry is now mixed with Indigenous Australians and we support the call for respect and appreciation of the oldest living civilisation. But we also want to restore our connections with our islands of origin, and to ensure that future generations of our people in Australia are treated with dignity as citizens.
As part of our advocacy work, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has included Australian South Sea Islanders in its statistical gathering. The 2016 Census recorded a 133% increase in participation from 2011, giving a demographic guesstimate of some 70,000 descendants nationally.
This joint government and community endeavour has led to Australian South Sea Islanders being given a place on many forms, including those used in hospitals and by Centrelink.
Despite these successes, ASSI communities continue to suffer a great decline due to a lack of defined policy for supportive state and national action. Especially needed are initiatives that inspire economic stability and broader community engagement in grassroots capacity-building programs. Our demographic remains marginalised, suffering the same disadvantage found in Indigenous Australia.
Queensland divides to conquer
On March 22 this year, the Australian government responded to the plight of ASSI by accepting the recommendations of a House of Representatives standing committee that they be reinstated as a specific target group identified under the Multicultural and Equity Policy.
The intention was to co-ordinate assistance by all three tiers of government. It was the most significant Commonwealth investigation into ASSI since Bandler persuaded Gough Whitlam to establish an inter-departmental committee in the 1970s.
Unfortunately, no-one bothered to tell the National ASSI Association Roundtable. We found out indirectly in late October.
Meanwhile, the Queensland government has already begun consultations with ASSI in the state, once more dividing to conquer. Lured by offers of local-level funding, regional ASSI organisations failed to work with the national body they inaugurated.
Does the Queensland government have good intentions? What are its real motivations? A senior government official was evasive when contacted.
Clive Moore, based on 40 years’ involvement with the ASSI community and a deep knowledge of our history, commented:
The Queensland government once more is manipulating ASSI, dividing them, offering them scraps. There is also an election looming and they want to shore up marginal seats.
The government realises the likelihood of class action being taken over its disgraceful behaviour in the 19th century, when the state seized the wages of the 15,000 dead ASSI to pay for the administration of the Sugar Slave trade and ultimately the forced deportations in the 1900s.
In today’s money the Queensland and Australian governments have misappropriated tens of millions of dollars, in the same way as Aboriginal wages were misappropriated. Of this Moore says:
Queensland’s government is protecting itself, not helping the modern ASSI generations. It is one Australia-wide community, and working within state borders is a deliberate impediment and not what the Commonwealth is seeking.
Today Australia is home to some 350,000 Pacific Islanders, recent and historical, who are achieving a cultural renaissance through reconnection and kinship. But the battle is hard, with recent seemingly positive initiatives exposing the lack of communication between the government and our people, as well as the provincialism of the states and the wider impediments put in the way of justice.
Real justice is an opportunity for our nation’s healing – and for a national action plan that sees community groups come to the table in truthful, meaningful and long-term dialogue with the federal and state governments of Australia.
You can read other articles in the series here.
Flailing devil-horn brows; cross-eyed glare; hooked nose; unkempt beard; angular cheek bones; reckless hair, and hands bound in the dark corners of canvas. That’s John Brown, as depicted by Ole Peter Hansen Balling in earthy oil-paint tones, circa 1872.
It was my fourth visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Airy, flush green olive trees, showery water fountains, golden shards of light; it beat the stuffy DC summer streets and the even stuffier Library of Congress newspaper reading room. But on this occasion, I paid particular attention to the opening line of the box of text beneath Balling’s portrait:
There were those who noted a touch of insanity in abolitionist John Brown …
It reminded me of a display I had seen at the Gettysburg Battlefield Museum just a few weeks earlier. A bold, capital-lettered, mega-font question was emblazoned on the wall, next to a rusty pike and a picture of Brown:
JOHN BROWN. MARTYR OR MADMAN?
And here I was, back at the gallery, staring at the same man, asking myself that same question, like thousands before me.
Born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800, Brown remains, over a century and a half after his death, one of the most fiercely debated and contested figures in 19th-century American history.
On the evening of October 16, 1859, just months before the American Civil War fully ignited, Brown led a band of raiders into the small town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in a bid to instigate a slave rebellion. Brown’s plan was to seize federal ammunition supplies and arm slaves with rifles, pikes and weaponry in order to strike fear into slave-holding Virginians, and catalyse further revolts in the south.
Greatly outnumbered by local militia and government marines, he was swiftly captured and sentenced to hang, which he did on December 2, 1859.
A symbolic man
While some abolitionists immediately labelled Brown a heroic martyr, others more cautiously warned against his violent approach. Southern newspapers, on the other hand, expressed disgust at how this violent madman could ever be deemed heroic.
Since the 1860s, Brown has been a symbolic cultural resource for interest groups to draw upon, define, explain, or galvanise a course of action or belief. Depending on one’s point of view, he has variously been claimed a heroic martyr for African Americans, one of the greatest Americans of all time, a cold-blooded killer and even America’s first terrorist. But is there a historical “truth” to whether he was actually (partisan bias aside) madman or martyr?
The very idea of martyrdom tends to proliferate during periods of social change and historical action. Martyr stories are also marked by personal quests, violence, institutional execution, and dramatic final actions that heroically demonstrate a commitment to a cause with disregard for one’s own life.
Brown’s violent raid at Harper’s Ferry at the dawn of the Civil War, his theologically-infused commitment to ending slavery, and institutional hanging fit perfectly into these historical patterns of socio-religious martyrdom. So why the “madman” moniker?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “madman” as:
A man who is insane; a lunatic. Also more generally (also hyperbolically): a person who behaves like a lunatic, a wildly foolish person.
Problematically, the first part of the definition – “insane” – connotes a mentally ill male, unable to fully control their physical and mental faculties.
But Brown was committed to his final act, and recognised violence, imprisonment and sacrifice as a forum for abolitionism. Consequently, it might be argued that his actions suggest a form of heightened (rather than lack of) self-control, something you’d expect of a martyr.
However, the second part – to behave like a “lunatic” or “wildly foolish” person – more aptly describes Brown’s personality. There is certainly a case for considering Brown’s final act at Harper’s Ferry to be “wildly foolish”. Even his most famous supporters such as Frederick Douglass described it as cold-blooded, if well intended.
Even if a present-day medical, neurobiological, or psychological analysis of Brown was possible, however, his actions would surely be considered outside the realms of what psychologists call a healthy “clinical population”. That is, his class of behaviours stretched beyond the limits – psychological, mental, physical – of the normative masses. Which begs the bigger question: is it not a streak “madness” that always makes a martyr?
So, the futile question of whether Brown was madman or martyr is irrelevant: Brown was, and will continue to be, both.
Philip Misevich, St. John’s University; Daniel Domingues, University of Missouri-Columbia; David Eltis, Emory University; Nafees M. Khan, Clemson University , and Nicholas Radburn, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Between 1500 and 1866, slave traders forced 12.5 million Africans aboard transatlantic slave vessels. Before 1820, four enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic for every European, making Africa the demographic wellspring for the repopulation of the Americas after Columbus’ voyages. The slave trade pulled virtually every port that faced the Atlantic Ocean – from Copenhagen to Cape Town and Boston to Buenos Aires – into its orbit.
To document this enormous trade – the largest forced oceanic migration in human history – our team launched Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a freely available online resource that lets visitors search through and analyze information on nearly 36,000 slave voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866.
Inspired by the remarkable public response, we recently developed an animation feature that helps bring into clearer focus the horrifying scale and duration of the trade. The site also recently implemented a system for visitors to contribute new data. In the last year alone we have added more than a thousand new voyages and revised details on many others.
The data have revolutionized scholarship on the slave trade and provided the foundation for new insights into how enslaved people experienced and resisted their captivity. They have also further underscored the distinctive transatlantic connections that the trade fostered.
Records of unique slave voyages lie at the heart of the project. Clicking on individual voyages listed in the site opens their profiles, which comprise more than 70 distinct fields that collectively help tell that voyage’s story.
From which port did the voyage begin? To which places in Africa did it go? How many enslaved people perished during the Middle Passage? And where did those enslaved Africans end the oceanic portion of their enslavement and begin their lives as slaves in the Americas?
Working with complex data
Given the size and complexity of the slave trade, combining the sources that document slave ships’ activities into a single database has presented numerous challenges. Records are written in numerous languages and maintained in archives, libraries and private collections located in dozens of countries. Many of these are developing nations that lack the financial resources to invest in sustained systems of document preservation.
Even when they are relatively easy to access, documents on slave voyages provide uneven information. Ship logs comprehensively describe places of travel and list the numbers of enslaved people purchased and the captain and crew. By contrast, port-entry records in newspapers might merely produce the name of the vessel and the number of captives who survived the Middle Passage.
These varied sources can be hard to reconcile. The numbers of slaves loaded or removed from a particular vessel might vary widely. Or perhaps a vessel carried registration papers that aimed to mask its actual origins, especially after the legal abolition of the trade in 1808.
Compiling these data in a way that does justice to their complexity, while still keeping the site user-friendly, has remained an ongoing concern.
Of course, not all slave voyages left surviving records. Gaps will consequently remain in coverage, even if they continue to narrow. Perhaps three out of every four slaving voyages are now documented in the database. Aiming to account for missing data, a separate assessment tool enables users to gain a clear understanding of the volume and structure of the slave trade and consider how it changed over time and across space.
Engagement with Voyages site
While gathering data on the slave trade is not new, using these data to compile comprehensive databases for the public has become feasible only in the internet age. Digital projects make it possible to reach a much larger audience with more diverse interests. We often hear from teachers and students who use the site in the classroom, from scholars whose research draws on material in the database and from individuals who consult the project to better understand their heritage.
Through a contribute function, site visitors can also submit new material on transatlantic slave voyages and help us identify errors in the data.
The real strength of the project – and of digital history more generally – is that it encourages visitors to interact with sources and materials that they might not otherwise be able to access. That turns users into historians, allowing them to contextualize a single slave voyage or analyze local, national and Atlantic-wide patterns. How did the survival rate among captives during the Middle Passage change over time? What was the typical ratio of male to female captives? How often did insurrections occur aboard slave ships? From which African port did most enslaved people sent to, say, Virginia originate?
Scholars have used Voyages to address these and many other questions and have in the process transformed our understanding of just about every aspect of the slave trade. We learned that shipboard revolts occurred most often among slaves who came from regions in Africa that supplied comparatively few slaves. Ports tended to send slave vessels to the same African regions in search of enslaved people and dispatch them to familiar places for sale in the Americas. Indeed, slave voyages followed a seasonal pattern that was conditioned at least in part by agricultural cycles on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The slave trade was both highly structured and carefully organized.
The website also continues to collect lesson plans that teachers have created for middle school, high school and college students. In one exercise, students must create a memorial to the captives who experienced the Middle Passage, using the site to inform their thinking. One recent college course situates students in late 18th-century Britain, turning them into collaborators in the abolition campaign who use Voyages to gather critical information on the slave trade’s operations.
Voyages has also provided a model for other projects, including a forthcoming database that documents slave ships that operated strictly within the Americas.
We also continue to work in parallel with the African Origins database. The project invites users to identify the likely backgrounds of nearly 100,000 Africans liberated from slave vessels based on their indigenous names. By combining those names with information from Voyages on liberated Africans’ ports of origin, the Origins website aims to better understand the homelands from which enslaved people came.
Through these endeavors, Voyages has become a digital memorial to the millions of enslaved Africans forcibly pulled into the slave trade and, until recently, nearly erased from the history of not only the trade itself, but also the history of the Atlantic world.
Philip Misevich, Assistant Professor of History, St. John’s University; Daniel Domingues, Assistant Professor of History, University of Missouri-Columbia; David Eltis, Professor Emeritus of History, Emory University; Nafees M. Khan, Lecturer in Social Studies Education, Clemson University , and Nicholas Radburn, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
The link below is to a very useful interactive map of the Atlantic Slave Trade – well worth a look.
The link below is to an article that looks at 5 ways people escaped from slavery.