Transatlantic slavery was a brutal system which forcibly shipped over twelve million Africans to the Americas and lasted over 300 years. It allowed African men, women and children to be stolen from their homeland, bought and sold as property and used to produce sugar, coffee, cotton and other goods for huge profit in the European and North American markets. This print was made to highlight the inhumane conditions under which enslaved Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean, forced to make the long voyage from West Africa to the Americas, tightly packed into the hold of ships and held in chains.
The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa. For centuries, it has been worn by women in different African countries and regions, in different forms, to reflect both communal and personal identities – which clan or tribe they belonged to, whether they were married, widowed, young or old, for example. This cotton kerchief, or headwrap, belonged to Nancy Burns (1800 – 1849). Born in Albany, New York, the daughter of slaves, she would eventually find work as a house servant and was painted in a portrait wearing the item in the 1840s. It represents a long history of cultural identity associated with women of African origin – particularly African-American women – that is still very much alive today.
Phillis Wheatley was a talented poet who acquired international renown and became the first black woman in both Britain and the USA to have a book published. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773, the year in which she was manumitted from slavery and became free. Her personal circumstances did not improve with the change in status, and she died in poverty aged 31, but her revolutionary writing has endured.
In the late 1700s, the image of a kneeling, enslaved African man, accompanied by the words ‘Am I not a man and a brother’ became the most prominent emblem for those wishing to abolish the Transatlantic slave trade, in both Britain and America. As well as appearing in books, prints and pamphlets, it was also reproduced on an extraordinary variety of everyday and household items – from crockery and soft furnishings, to jewellery and hairpins.
The 1800s saw a series of protests and uprisings in Britain, as people campaigned against slavery, unjust taxes and laws imposed by the government and in support of fair wages, the right to vote and to have their voices heard in parliament. Protest flags, posters and banners carrying radical slogans were a popular way for campaigners to get their message across at marches and rallies, and to cooperate without endangering individuals. The Skelmanthorpe flag was created in secret, in Huddersfield, initially to honour the victims of what became known as the Peterloo Massacre, in 1819.
The movement to abolish the Transatlantic slave trade was a long and difficult struggle. Campaigners for abolition used every means they could, including sugar boycotts, meetings, petitions, publications, and circulating images showing its shameful nature, to bring the issue to people’s attention in Europe. Enslaved Africans played an essential part, having long resisted their enslavement and treatment through ‘go-slows’, revolts, intellectual and religious claims, and demonstrable capacity to retain and transmit their African or creole (mixed) cultures and languages. Escaped or freed slaves forced judges and social elites to confront the issue through court cases, publications, and performances. Propelled by much of this pressure and evidence, William Wilberforce led the long political campaign to outlaw the slave trade in Britain.
Between the 1500s and early 1800s, millions of Africans were kidnapped, sold and transported to the Americas to work as slaves, in unimaginably cruel conditions, on hugely profitable plantations, producing sugar, tobacco and other commodities. These plantations were largely owned by Europeans and Euro-Americans. Britain grew rich on the profits from this transatlantic slave trade, which were reinvested into other economic sectors. Only in the late eighteenth century did public opinion slowly begin to turn against the trade in Africans, and campaigners for abolition used every way they could to bring the issue to people’s attention in Europe.
September 7, 2018 - Richard Moss
Ian Hislop has been on a mission to find stories of dissent, subversion and satire hidden within the vast collections of the British Museum for a new exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent. Showcasing over 100 objects that challenge the official version of events and defy established narratives, the items span three millennia […]
Olaudah Equiano was an African-born writer who documented his experiences of capture and enslavement, worked and travelled all over the British Atlantic world, and later became involved in the movement to abolish slavery. He was among the first and most effective black political activists within Britain’s African community. The recollections and arguments of people of African origin made a profound contribution to arguments for the abolition of the slave trade, adding urgency and authenticity to the work of fellow white campaigners.
Between the 1500s and early 1800s, millions of Africans were kidnapped, sold and transported to the Americas to work as slaves in unimaginably cruel conditions on hugely profitable plantations. These plantations were largely owned by Europeans and Euro-Americans. Britain grew rich on the profits from this transatlantic slave trade, reinvesting the profits in other economic sectors. Only in the late eighteenth century did public opinion slowly begin to turn against the trade in Africans, and campaigners for abolition used every way they could to bring the issue to people’s attention in Europe.