Whoever designed the layout of the Museum is a genius. There are so many subliminal cues about what we’re seeing and how the emotional impact resonates.
You see, it was all about three crops: sugar, cotton and rice. Labour-intensive to grow, but oh, so profitable in the marketplace. And the demand for products was explosive.
The leader in slave transportation was Portugal, which carried more than England, France and the Netherlands combined.
Even more surprising to me were these facts:
The most comprehensive analysis of shipping records over the course of the slave trade is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, edited by professors David Eltis and David Richardson. (While the editors are careful to say that all of their figures are estimates, I believe that they are the best estimates that we have, the proverbial “gold standard” in the field of the study of the slave trade.) Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.
[But remember, this number represents those recorded in shipping records, not the thousands of infants, children, the weak and elderly who were discarded along the way, those who died during forced marches after their villages were raided, or who escaped, committed suicide, perished of disease or mistreatment before being herded onto ships. The total number is estimated to be 20 million souls.]
And how many of these 10.7 million Africans were shipped directly to North America? Only about 388,000. That’s right: a tiny percentage.
[Ah, but we also found out that slave owners rapidly increased their valuable human inventory by breeding new slaves like sheep, either by themselves or by forcing men and women]
In fact, the overwhelming percentage of the African slaves were shipped directly to the Caribbean and South America; Brazil received 4.86 million Africans alone! Some scholars estimate that another 60,000 to 70,000 Africans ended up in the United States after touching down in the Caribbean first, so that would bring the total to approximately 450,000 Africans who arrived in the United States over the course of the slave trade.
What still haunts me the most? As we emerged from the dimness of the first few exhibit rooms into a soaring hall with the words of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence outlined on the wall in 3-foot high gold letters:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
But it’s a trick. Written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, they were and continue to this day to be – a lie.
At the age 44, a widower, he formed a relationship with a 16-year old mixed-race enslaved woman named Sally Hemmings. Even more bizarre – Sally Hemmings and her siblings were three-quarters European and half-siblings of Jefferson’s wife.
Over the years, he fathered six children who lived/worked in his house as slaves. Four of them survived to adulthood and were ‘freed’ as they came of age. DNA tests conducted in 1998 proved they were descended from Thomas Jefferson.
Sally Hemmings was still a slave when Jefferson died.