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Culture, Connection, And The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Source: World Ocean Radio/Peter Neill - February 12, 2018 in Radio

Culture, Connection, And The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
Photo: Peter Feghali/Unsplash

A recent east coast storm unearthed the remains of America’s last slave ship in Alabama: the Clotilda. These remains, and the artifacts from another slave ship, the São José-Paquete de Africa, are important symbols of the cultural relationship and interconnected history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In this episode of World Ocean Radio host Peter Neill speaks about maritime culture, the last slave ships, the atrocities of the slave trade, and the ways in which our cultural identity in the U.S. has been shaped by an amalgamation of cultures which has formed our settlement, movement, music, and language in powerful and positive ways.

Transcript:

Welcome to World Ocean Radio…

I’m Peter Neill, Director of the World Ocean Observatory.

There is but one ocean, that is perceived historically as a surface for exploration, transport, and trade, all factors in the making of civilization worldwide. But below that surface lies the detritus of the dangerous endeavor of voyaging, loss by storm, warfare, and ignorance of such a dynamic and challenging environment. That ocean has enabled connection for all time, and has built through the exchange of knowledge, skills, and traditions, a vast contribution to world culture.

One of the most tragic illustrations of this process is ¬¬¬¬, the buying and selling of slaves from Africa to the west, South and North America primarily, as cheap, dispensable labor. In the United States, there are there three major contributions to our cultural identity: the existing culture of native peoples living here for centuries; the ensuing European culture transferred through waves of immigration from England, Ireland, Scotland, and the continent; and the arrival of African culture through slaves that changed our nation’s patterns of settlement, music and language in powerful, undeniable, positive ways. Indigenous people, European people, African people – we are an amalgam of acculturation that lies at the heart of who we are.

We must never allow that fact, and those memories, to be lost, and to guard against such forgetfulness, we turn to material culture – the objects, sites, and other evidence of such history as our foremost tool for preservation. That commitment, evinced by museums, libraries, archives, cultural sites, and national and international organizations such as UNESCO, is an essential part of an endeavor to conserve and honor this collective past is all its forms and manifestations.

Recently, as reported in the Smithsonian Magazine on-line news, the remains of what is purported to be the last ship to transport African slaves to the United States was revealed following the effect of a powerful storm and flood condition in a muddy riverbank near Mobile, Alabama. Researchers claim that the ship may well be the Clotilda, built in the 1850’s as a transport for supplies from Cuba, purchased by a local businessman, and, commissioned to purchase 110 slaves in Ouimah, a port town in the present-day African nation of Benin. While slavery was then legal in the state of Alabama, it was in violation of US federal law outlawing the slave trade some 52 years before. If the vessel is indeed Clotilda, it represents an end, the last shipment of slaves, but also a beginning, the survivors of that ship reported to have formed a nearby community, called Africa Town, in the middle of the American deep south on the verge of the Civil War. Who knows where the ancestors of those slaves are now?

At the 2017 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as again reported by the Smithsonian, artifacts from another slave ship, the São José-Paquete de Africa, a Portuguese ship wrecked of the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1794 en route to Brazil from Mozambique carrying 400 slaves, were displayed as unique remnants memorializing the maritime aspect of the slave trade, an iron ingot used as ballast and a pulley block, recovered from a 200 year old ship and characterized “as thought to be the first objects ever recovered from a ship wrecked by transporting enslaved people.” The objects were on 10 –year loan to the museum and their conservation had been partially funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, a program of the Cultural Affairs Office of the US Department of State. The grant of $500,000 had been designated in 2016 by the American Ambassador through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as recognition of the importance of these artifacts as symbols of the unifying cultural relationship inherent in the vast interconnected history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

There is odd correspondence and symmetry in these examples – Africa and the United States, first and last, as if the story begins and ends, at extremes between which a story in which past, present, and future implication lies. The consequence of the slave trade is with us still; resultant racism is not lost to history, lives still and extends to and resonates with our daily lives and lives to come. The cry that “black lives matter” is an echo of ballast iron and wooden pulley, of the bones of ships lost and found. The continuity of history carries on through cultural preservation; this is how the memory endures.

The US Department of State website and Facebook page related to the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has today this statement: “Due to the lapse in appropriations, this Facebook page will not be updated regularly.” That cannot be. Memory cannot be truncated by budget cuts or ideological dis-appropriation. The implications of acculturation cannot be, like the power of an ocean storm, denied. There is wreckage there — disconnection – real, sad, and final.

We will discuss these issues, and more, in future editions of World Ocean Radio.

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