African Culture and the Middle Passage

These 19th-century objects came from areas of Africa that were homelands to millions of people sold into slavery. They express their makers’ sense of beauty, utility, and sacredness. The objects remained in Africa, but the ideas underlying these figures, tools, and instruments—what they meant and the cultures they represented—made it across the Atlantic with their creators.

Lent by the National Museum of Natural History

Eshu figure, Yoruba people, Nigeria

Rice hoe, Diola people, Senegal

Memory board, (Lukasa), Luba (Congo)

Thumb piano, Angola

Palm oil pot, Liberia


Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The slave decks of the ship Brooks, 1788

This famous plan has appeared in almost every study of the Middle Passage published since 1788. Working from measurements of a Liverpool slave ship, a British parliamentary committee filled the drawing’s decks with figures representing men, women, and children. The drawing shows about 450 people; the Brooks carried 609 on a voyage in 1786.


Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

A Middle Passage Narrative

Olaudah Equiano wrote an account of the Middle Passage in his 1789 autobiography. A portion of his story can be heard at the audio station in the “Web of Connections” area on the other side of the gallery.

Recent scholarship has called into question Equiano’s place of birth and whether his narrative is a firsthand account. Whether born in Africa or Carolina, many scholars agree that the basic content of Equiano’s narrative is a significant document that rings true.