Spaces of Enslavement: Ships, Slavery, and Spatial Histories of the Atlantic Slave Trade

AHA Session 240
Saturday, January 8, 2022: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Rhythms Ballroom 1 (Sheraton New Orleans, 2nd Floor)
Laura Rosanne Adderley, Tulane University
Robert Wayne Harms, Yale University

Session Abstract

From the fifteenth through the nineteenth century, European and American-built ships transported millions of enslaved people from one Atlantic port to another. Men, women, and children—some of them infants—were forced on board as commodities in an Atlantic economy that largely relied on the labor of enslaved Africans and African descendants. Yet, we know very little about the circumstances of the people who endured the often months-long captivity on these ships or the experiences and backgrounds of the people who worked on them. Recent scholarly work has begun to uncover some of these histories, but there are significant challenges to doing so, in large part because very few documents tell their stories. In addition to analysis of written sources, this panel will employ spatial analysis and considerations of these ships as spaces of enslavement to help write about their experiences even when written sources remain scant.

This panel will center its analysis of the slave trade on these spaces of enslavement: the ships that were used to carry captives from port to port. Papers explore how a close analysis of these ships as spaces of enslavement helps reconstruct the lived experiences of the people on board, both free and enslaved. Andrea Mosterman combines archival research and spatial analysis to help reconstruct the lived experiences of the 421 people who in 1664 were forced to board the Dutch ship Gideon in the Kongo region of Soyo. In doing so, this paper contributes to the historiography of the seventeenth-century Dutch slave trade that rarely considers the lived experiences of the people enslaved on these ships. Jared Ross Hardesty examines the eighteenth-century illegal slave trade. New England ships used in illicit commerce carried various goods, and thus captives on board these ships often shared spaces with such commodities. Hardesty argues that these material and spatial circumstances—being stowed away with salt cod, timber, and horses—furthered the process that transformed people into property. Mary Ellen Hicks explores the labor of the free and enslaved African-born barbers and sangradores who worked on the nineteenth century slave ships that operated between Brazil and Benin. Her paper examines the conditions of their labor on these ships, and she explores how the material and spatial realities of these ships shaped their healing practices. Together, these papers cover a wide geographical and chronological range to put different slave trades and eras into conversation with each other.

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