Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp 55–80 | Cite as

Maritime Museums and Transatlantic Slavery: a Study in British and American Identity

  • Phyllis K. Leffler


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  1. 1.
    Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1971) 76.Google Scholar
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    Marcus Wood, ed. The Poetry of Slavery: An Anglo-American Anthology, 1764–1865, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 605.Google Scholar
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  4. 4.
    See, for example, Ira Berlin, “American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice,” Journal of American History, 90 (March 2004), 1251-68Google Scholar
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    Cited in Sheldon Hackney, “The American Identity,” The Public Historian, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter 1997), 13.Google Scholar
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    A major exhibit on slavery, for example, opened in New York on October 7, 2005 at the New York Historical Society, demonstrating the place of slavery in building New York.Google Scholar
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    Letter from Tony Tibbies, Keeper of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, 19 May 2005.Google Scholar
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    Interview by Phyllis Leffler with John Hightower, President and CEO of Mariner’s Museum, January 29, 2003. See also “Major Exhibition on Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Opens at Anacostia Museum on Feb. 3,” Smithsonian Institution press release, January 24, 2003.Google Scholar
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    Before opening at South Street Seaport, New York, the exhibit was mounted at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture (2003), and at the Missouri Historical Society (2005). It is also scheduled for Mobile, Alabama.Google Scholar
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    A Maritime Museum On Merseyside: Feasability study, produced for the Merseyside County Council by Building Design Partnership and Robin Wade Design Associates. February 1979, Merseyside Museum Archives. See also Richard Foster, Proposed Maritime Museum: Outline Development Plan, March 1978, Merseyside Museum Archives.Google Scholar
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    Homer L. Ferguson, “The Mariners’ Museum,” paper presented to The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, New York: November 1937, in The Mariners’ Museum Library Archives. See also The Mariners’ Museum, 1930-1950: A History and Guide (The Mariners’ Museum, Publication No. 20, 1950), Foreward, 1. South Street Seaport, New York, had similarly lofty goals of a museum which was international in scope, with “New York being the connection - across the seas and via ships - with the peoples and customs that created our way of life.” [Peter Neill, “A Museum Like No Other,” Report from the President: Master Plan: 1985-1990, South Street Seaport Museum, Statement of Purpose.]Google Scholar
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    For diversity initiatives within the U.S. and England, see the goals of the National Park Service (; the goals of English Heritage (; and those of Re:Source (http://www.resource.govuk/index.html).index.html).
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    John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1680 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 3; see also 13, 14, 41–42.Google Scholar
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    Colley, Captives, 367. See also Harry Gouldbourne, “African Slaves and the Atlantic World,” in Gert Oostindie, ed.. Facing Up to the Past: Perspectives on the Commemoration of Slavery from Africa, the Americas and Europe (Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2001), 127.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and the Making of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)Google Scholar
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    For a full discussion of this in plantation museums, see Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).Google Scholar
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    Seymour Drescher, “Commemorating Slavery and Abolition in the United States of America,” in Oostinde, ed.,Facing Up to Slavery, 109.Google Scholar
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    Such a museum is being created in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and is scheduled to open in February 2007.Google Scholar
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    See museum’s website,
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    Tibbies, “Against Human Dignity,” ICMM Proceedings, 96.Google Scholar
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    Interview by Phyllis Leffler with John Hightower, January 29, 2003.Google Scholar
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    “Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity,” Gallery Text, Introduction to the Gallery.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., The Legacy of Transatlantic SlaveryGoogle Scholar
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    Ibid., Introduction to the Gallery.Google Scholar
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    “Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas,” Gallery Text, Orientation Section 1.Google Scholar
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    Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual representations of slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000). 296.Google Scholar
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    Interview by Phyllis Leffler with Julia Hotton, Guest Assistant Curator, February 3, 2003.Google Scholar
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    “Captive Passage,” Orientation Section, 1.1Google Scholar
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    Ibid., A Lasting Legacy, 6.4.1Google Scholar
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    Ibid., The Scale of Transatlantic Slavery. For more detailed information on the numbers of people enslaved and mortality statistics, see David Eltis and David Richardson, ed., Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 18, No. 1 (April 1997).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Chattel Slavery, The Impact of Slavery in AfricaGoogle Scholar
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    Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic World, 74.Google Scholar
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    For a further discussion of this relationship, see Daniel Baugh, “Maritime Strength and Atlantic Commerce: The uses of ‘...a grand marime empire,’” in Lawrence Stone, ed. An Imperial State at War: Britain from 1689 to 1815 (London: Routledge, 1994).Google Scholar
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    “Against Human Dignity,” Gallery Text, The Legacy of Transatlantic Slavery.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Black Achievement.Google Scholar
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    “Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas,” Gallery Text, West Africa Before Slaving. This wording appears to be the result of a simplification of the Liverpool exhibit. That text had a section on Chattel Slavery, which was not carried over, and another section named “The Dehumanising Effects of Transatlantic Slavery.” To distinguish chattel slavery from African Slavery, the word dehumanizing was used, explaining that African slavery did not involve “the devastation and death of its transatlantic counter-part.” Captive Passage collapsed some of these messages, leading to what was perceived as an offensive suggestion.Google Scholar
  64. 59.
    Marc Morano, “Civil Rights Pioneer Slams Slavery Museum Exhibit,” April 07, 2003, (
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    Marc Morano, “Smithsonian Denies Slavery in Africa Was #x2018;Dehumanizing,’” March 31, 2003, Capitalism Magazine (
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    “Captive Passage,” Gallery Text, The Triangle Trade, 1.2.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., A Lasting Legacy, 6.4.1Google Scholar
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    In Against Human Dignity the engagement of individuals is revealed through a group of plaques affixed to a wall, bearing street names. These names, still extant in Liverpool, refer back to individuals who created their fortunes through the slave trade. In addition, the labels occasionally mention specific people George Washington and the Mayor of Liverpool, Thomas Golightly, but the discrepancies with political values are not pointed out.Google Scholar
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    “Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas,” Object Labels, A2.2.5Google Scholar
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    Ibid.,GR3.5.3Google Scholar
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    Ibid., GR 1.2.2, GR 1.2.4, GR 1.2.5. The Anacostia version of the exhibit expands the description on John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Henry Laurens, a businessman from Charleston in the mid eighteenth-century who owned a plantation and traded in slaves. The Newport News version emphasizes his economic prowess only. The Anacostia exhibit reminds us that Laurens was a delegate to the Continental Congress, thereby reinforcing the economic/political hypocrisies. It is most interesting that this example of a southerner who was equally inconsistent as his northern counterparts is not included in the Newport News exhibit!Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Stanley L. Engerman and Eugene Genovese, eds., Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies (New Jersey, Princeton University Press. 1975)Google Scholar
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  79. 71c.
    Most recently, data on 27,000 voyages has been compiled and published in David Eltis, Stephan D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, The Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1562? 1867: a database CD-Rom (England, Cambridge University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
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    Herbert S. Klein and Stanley L. Engerman, “Long Term Trends in African Mortality in the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 18, No. 1 (April 1997), 40 ff; Stephen D. Behrendt, “Crew Mortality in the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century, Ibid., 49ff.Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Schultz, “African-American Literature,” in Springer, America and the Sea, 233ff. Springer recognizes that African-Americans sometimes also found freedom through the sea by escaping from slavery and sailing from New England ports.Google Scholar
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    Interview by Phyllis Leffler with John Hightower, Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia, January 29, 2003.Google Scholar
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    “Captive Passage,” Gallery Text, 3.5.1.Google Scholar
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    The Middle Passage depictions at both the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News and the Missouri Historical Society use sounds of human distress and images projected against a dark wall to elicit visitor reaction. Moans and groans from the recreation of the ship’s hold in St. Louis resonate throughout the entire exhibit, creating a background of pain and suffering.Google Scholar
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    “Captive Passage,” Object Labels, GR3.2.2, GR 3.3/4, GR3.3.4, GR3.3.5. The claim that tight packing increased profits has been challenged by current research. See above, footnote 57.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., GR3.3.3. The claim that tight packing increased profits has been challenged by current research. See above, fn.54.Google Scholar
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    Harry Goulbourne claims that Britons maintain a “national psyche” of “goodness” and pride because of the country’s role in promoting the abolition of the trade in 1807. Although the Liverpool exhibit mentions the place of Britain, the overriding message from this exhibit is that Britain was one of many nations that supported the racist and inhumane trade for centuries. For Goulbourne’s argument, see “African Slaves and the Atlantic World,” in Facing Up to Slavery, 127.Google Scholar
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    “Against Human Dignity,” Gallery Text, African Resistance, Resistance to Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation sections.Google Scholar
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    The concept of Americans as an “exceptional” people was first expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville; the thesis of exceptionalism was more fully developed by Seymour Lipset. See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1945), Vol. 2, 36-37; Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: Norton, 1966).Google Scholar
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    Robert R. Weyeneth, “The Power of Apology and the Process of Historical Reconciliation,” The Public Historian, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Summer 2001), 21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See, for example, John Carroll, Guilt: The grey eminence behind character, history and culture (London: Routledge, 1985)Google Scholar
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    Luigi Zoja, Growth and Guilt: Psychology and the limits of development (London: Routledge, 1995).Google Scholar
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    Interview by Phyllis Leffler with Sharon Ann Holt, Senior Historian, South Street Seaport Museum, February 4, 2003, New York City.Google Scholar
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    Telephone interview by Phyllis Leffler with Jackie Dace, May 9, 2005.Google Scholar
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    In the case of the Mariner’s Museum, Captive Passage resulted in an increase of Black visitation from 2-3% to 30%. (Interview by Phyllis Leffler with John Hightower, January 29, 2003.)Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Taylor & Francis Group 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Phyllis K. Leffler
    • 1
  1. 1.The University of VirginiaUSA

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