Exhibitions

The Atlantic slave trade lasted for approximately five hundred years, from the time of first sustained European contact with the New World until the nineteenth century. Approximately eleven million Africans were enslaved and carried to the Americas. Just as no single European country dominated the slave trade, so no single African nation or tribe constituted the majority of enslaved people. Because African slaves were grouped together on plantations in America without regard for their varied cultures of origin, they were unable to retain their tribal identities and languages. Yet, even under the most adverse conditions, transplanted Africans managed to sustain some memory of their cultures and traditions. The loss of their heritage heightened their longing for their homelands across the sea. This longing — for one’s homeland and for one’s culture — is the core component of a diaspora. The term “African Diaspora” did not become a common term in the United States until the later twentieth century. In the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Black community forged new national and political identities. One hallmark of these new identities was the reinterpretation of the slave experience in light of the concept of diaspora.

The Spatial Origins of the African Diaspora

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the African continent was an unknown entity to western cartographers. On maps from the Renaissance, such as this 1633 map by Gerardus Mercator [25], the continent’s outline is delineated fairly accurately but its interior is depicted according to conjecture and hearsay. Europeans soon focused their energies, and their maps, on the coasts of West Africa from which they extracted wealth in the form of slaves, gold, and ivory. These economic interests are reflected in the names assigned to the different parts of this region, the “Slave Coast,” the “Gold Coast,” and the “Ivory Coast” [26]. Because they had little first-hand knowledge, Europeans depicted Africans according to stereotypes, as shown in this view of an African village with piles of ivory prominently displayed [27]. Such generalizations are typical of how Europeans depicted other cultures at this time.

Gerard Mercator, Jr. (Flemish, 1512-1594)
Africa ex Magna Orbis Terre
Copper engraving, hand-colored,18.5 x 47.0cm
From Gerardi Mercatoris et I. Hondii -
Atlas ou Representation du Mounde Universel
(Amsterdam: Jodocus Hondius, 1633)
Osher Collection

394.0001
Coste de Guinée Depuis le Cap Apollonia jusqu'a la Riviere de Volta ou la Coste D'Or

Jacques Nicolas Bellin (French, 1703-1772)
Coste de Guinée Depuis le Cap Apollonia jusqu'a la
Riviere de Volta ou la Coste D'Or
Copper engraving, hand-colored, 22.5 x 43.5cm
In volume 3 of Le Petit Atlas Maritime
(Paris: Ministre de la Guerre et de la Marine, 1764)
Smith Collection

1960.0001
Gvinea propria, nec non Nigritiæ vel Terræ Nigrorvm maxima pars, Geographis honiernis dicta utraque Æthiopia inferior

Homann Heirs (German, 1730-1813)
Gvinea propria, nec non Nigritiæ vel Terræ Nigrorvm maxima pars, Geographis honiernis dicta utraque Æthiopia inferior (ca. 1730)
Copper engraving, hand-colored, 45.5 x 54.8cm
In volume 5 of a five-volume composite atlas (1700-1760)
Smith Collection

The Enslavement of Africans

The economic foundations of the slave trade are evident in the cartouche image from this late-seventeenth century Dutch sea chart of West Africa, which depicts a slave auction in process [28]. In the foreground, Africans in chains are measured by Europeans, while other Europeans negotiate with African slave traders in the background. Note that because this map was designed for the purposes of coastal navigation, it shows little interior geography. Africans brought from the interior were sold to Europeans at several key ports along the West African coast. The European agents in these ports held the slaves in substantial fortresses until they could be shipped across the Atlantic. One of the largest of these was the fort established by the Portuguese at Elmina, in what is now Ghana, in the heart of the “Gold Coast.” It was shown prominently in maps of the period [29, labeled “Giorge del Mina”]. This massive fort [30] was captured by the Dutch in 1637 so that they could acquire slaves for their sugar plantations in Brazil, and marks the Dutch entry into the Atlantic slave trade. A later image of the battle demonstrates the significant role played by the African allies of both sides [31]. The West Coast of Africa was not the sole source of slaves; at various times, Europeans established coastal ports around Africa from which to export slaves. One of these ports was at the Cape of Good Hope; a mid-eighteenth century plan [32] of the Dutch fort and town there clearly marks the “Maison des Esclaves,” which is to say the slave holding pen listed as “D” just below the center of the plan.

Frederick de Wit (Dutch, 1630-1706)
Tractus Littoralas Guineæ a Promontorio Verde usque ad
Sinum Catenbelæ (ca. 1675/1739)(cartouche only)
Copper engraving, hand-coloreded, 48.3 x 55.6cm
In Atlas de la Navigation et du Commerce, edited by Louis Renard
(Amsterdam: Regner and Josue Ottens, 1739)
Smith Collection

4267.0001
Afrique ou Libie Ulterieure ou sont le Saara ou Desert, le Pays des, Negres, la Guinee &c

Nicolas Sanson (French, 1600-1667)
Afrique ou Libie Ulterieure ou sont le Saara ou Desert,
le Pays des, Negres, la Guinee &c. (1656)
Copper engraving, hand-colored, 17.5 x 28.9cm
In [Atlas de Sanson] (Paris: Pierre Moullart-Sanson, ca. 1697)
Osher Collection

't Casteel St. George d'Elmina, aan d'eene // en aan d'andre zyde

Willem Bosman (Dutch, b. 1672)
't Casteel St. George d'Elmina, aan d'eene // en aan d'andre zyde
Facsimile of a copper engraving,
From Nauwkeurige beschryving van de Guinese Goud-
Tand- en Slavekust. (Amsterdam: Stokmans, 1709)
Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

[Dutch Capture of Elmina in 1637]

Arnoldus Montanus (Dutch, fl. 1671)
[Dutch Capture of Elmina in 1637]
Copper engraving, 12.8 x 16.5cm
In De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weereld
(Amsterdam: Jacob Meurs, 1671)
Smith Collection

1757.0001
Ville et Fort du Cap de Bonne Esperance

Jacques Nicolas Bellin (French, 1703-1772)
Ville et Fort du Cap de Bonne Esperance
Hand-colored copper engraving, 21.7 x 16.7cm
From volume 3 of Le Petit Atlas Maritime
(Paris: Ministre de la Guerre et de la Marine, 1764)
Smith Collection