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Captive skills

7 June 2010 by stepheng

I like traditional African arts and crafts, particularly things made out of wood and leather that reflect the ancient cultures of the continent.

The spread of African civilisation along the slave trade routes was something people who operated the evil trade probably did not anticipate.  Enslaved Africans brought strong cultural identities and a wide range of skills when they were forcibly taken across the Atlantic to work in the Americas.

Liverpool slave ship captains traded goods for human cargoes on the African coast then took their captives across the infamous Middle Passage to the New World.

Although the enslaved Africans were kept under close restraint on the voyages, resistance took many different forms. Revolts were regular occurrences along with suicides and refusals to eat.

Another form of resistance was the retention of African culture, especially religion. African belief systems survived the horrors of the sea voyage and helped the enslaved endure their ordeal.

necklace with wood and leather charms

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

On display in the International Slavery Museum, in the Merseyside Maritime Museum building, is a necklace carrying charms (pictured) which are an important part of African-based religions.

Once they landed in the Americas, enslaved Africans were sold to the highest bidder and the cash proceeds spent on commodities which were shipped to Liverpool.

On rivers in the Chesapeake Bay area on the east coast of North America they worked as sailors, boatmen and watermen. During the 1600s this area of Virginia and Maryland became the world’s largest producer of tobacco.

Others worked in the fisheries of Chesapeake Bay and as crab pickers. In 1772 1.5 million herring were caught, salted and pickled – mainly by women.
The forced labour of millions of Africans and their descendents transformed the landscape and future of the Americas.

Enslaved Africans and their descendents cleared the forests and bush, built roads and houses, dug canals, worked down mines and in forges. They grew sugar, cotton and tobacco and created the wealth that supported plantation owners and their families.

Among the skills Africans brought to the Americas were rice growing and metalworking. Many owners would hire out their skilled slaves to work for others, especially in the growing towns and cities needing expert workforces.

The museum has many contemporary illustrations of plantation life including a sugar estate and mill yard in Antigua, West Indies, by W Clark in 1823.

Antigua had first been colonised by the British in 1632 – the first crops were tobacco, ginger and indigo. Sugar became the main crop about 1674.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).

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