(Re)Searching a sunken American slave ship

This summer, a new program debuted on the museum floor: (Re)Searching an American Slave Ship. It highlights the ongoing research led by our curator of maritime history, Paul Johnston. Paul, an underwater archeologist, has identified the approximate location of the only known American slave shipwreck that went down with all the enslaved Africans onboard. This is the only known American slave ship wreck that went down with all the enslaved Africans onboard. It's an emotional and important story, and excavating this ship would contribute valuable new knowledge of the transatlantic slave trade.

Facilitators Justin Daley and Brianna Rossettie lead the public in their exploration of the slave trade and the methods to recover that history. Justin, a maritime archeologist, dives on shipwrecks and conducts underwater research. Brianna, a public historian, studies how to best interact with the public to facilitate learning in museums. 

The “(Re)Searching an American Slave Ship” cart program brings curatorial research to the museum floor through discussion and touchable props
The "(Re)Searching an American Slave Ship" cart program brings curatorial research to the museum floor through discussion and touchable props

Justin: This summer at the Smithsonian has been my temporary land-lover job. It's been a great experience helping people connect the field of underwater archeology to our program. In researching a slave ship wreck, like the Enrrique, there are a number of key objects I would expect to find. Several examples are included in our program. These objects could help answer many important questions about slave ships such as: how densely packed were they, what were enslaved persons fed, how were enslaved persons treated, and what was daily life on board like?

Brianna: I think (Re)Searching an American Slave Ship is a unique opportunity for visitors to get a "behind the scenes" look at groundbreaking research. It's been a very powerful experience facilitating a tactile experience with the program props for visitors to engage in a shared dialogue about our past and the complexities of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Justin: Like Brianna said, one of the most important aspects of this program is the reproduction and replica objects people can touch. I've noticed that the blunderbuss musket is one of the most fascinating objects for visitors. Traditionally used aboard ships because of its short length and wide range firing capabilities, the blunderbuss is a chief diagnostic artifact that underwater archeologists would expect to find on board an early 19th century slave ship like the Enrrique. This type of firearm was effective in defensive situations in which large groups of people would attack at close range. Situations often included crew mutinies, slave uprisings or keeping unwanted parties off the vessel. Ours is a working reproduction, but we also have one in the On the Water exhibition that is from the early 19th century, so visitors can see an authentic one as well.

 

A reproduction blunderbuss musket often helps museum visitors envision life on a slave ship
A reproduction blunderbuss musket often helps museum visitors envision life on a slave ship

Brianna: The blunderbuss really draws visitors to our program, but it also allows Justin and I to have deeper conversations about the musket in general and its role in trading. Muskets were frequently traded to Africans, which perpetuated conflict and fostered the growth of the slave trade. Holding the musket and feeling its weight lets visitors better grasp its central role on board ships and in trade transactions.

Justin: Other items I would expect to find on a slave ship would include glass trading beads and Spanish pieces of eight. Like guns, trading beads served as a major commodity used by Europeans to acquire African slaves. Spanish pieces of eight, a silver Spanish peso, were also used within the slave trade but intended more for European-to-European transactions.

Brianna: The beads and coins on our cart are really great tools for talking with our younger visitors. We can explore how beautiful they are and think about why they would have been so valuable. The color and design of these items allows such age groups to relate to the program even if they don't understand the complexities of the transatlantic slave trade.

 

Spanish pieces of eight and glass slave beads can sometimes help younger visitors connect with the story
Spanish pieces of eight and glass slave beads can sometimes help younger visitors connect with the story


Justin: Of all objects we would anticipate finding on a slave shipwreck, shackles would, by far, be the best identifier for a slave ship. All seafaring ships would have had iron restraints, but only a slave ship would have had hundreds of pairs on board. Both the quantity, and location, of shackles on a shipwreck will provide useful information regarding the number of slaves, and the condition in which they were kept.

 

Prop slave shackles
Prop slave shackles

Brianna: Talking to visitors about the shackles can be one of the most emotional parts of our program as it is a testament to the truly horrific conditions of life on board a slave ship. Holding the shackles to feel the weight of the chains allows visitors to imagine what life would have been like, restrained for months at a time. The hands-on aspect of this cart really allows Justin and me to facilitate a more meaningful interaction.

Brianna Rossettie is a master's student in Public History at American University. Justin Daley is an underwater archeologist out of Indiana University at Pennsylvania.

Learn more about the transatlantic slave trade in our On the Water online exhibition or in this episode of our History Explorer podcast. (Re)Searching an American Slave Ship will return to the museum floor soon. Check our events calendar. 

Posted at 10:12 am EDT in Intern Perspectives,Teaching & Learning