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Slavery--The Peculiar Institution

Part 1
Part 2: Flights to Freedom | The Amistad Mutiny | Other Liberation Strategies

Flights to Freedom

The Merchandise Of . . . Slaves, And Souls Of Men

The first captives came to the Western Hemisphere in the early 1500s. Twenty African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. A series of complex colonial laws began to relegate the status of Africans and their descendants to slavery. The United States outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, but the domestic slave trade and illegal importation continued for several decades.

This image depicts the miserable, cramped conditions of 510 Africans on board the bark Wildfire, who, while being smuggled into the United States in 1860, were captured by an anti-slaving vessel. The slaves were taken to Key West, Florida, and from there were sent to Liberia where the United States regularly repatriated "recaptured" Africans after 1808.

Image: Caption follows

"Africans on Board the Slave Bark Wildfire, April 30, 1860."
From Harper's Weekly, June 2, 1860.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-19607 (1-20)

Humans For Sale

To be sold. . .a cargo of 170 prime young likely healthy Guinea slaves.
Savannah, July 25, 1774.
Copyprint of a broadside.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-16876 (1-2)

Captured Africans were sold at auction as "chattel," like inanimate property or animals. Many literate ex-slaves discussed the degradation and humiliation they felt when they were treated like "cattle."

This 1774 broadside, typical of the advertisements used in the North as well as the South before the Civil War, advertises the sale of slaves and land, the availability of employment for an overseer, a recall of debts, and a reward for anyone who captured two runaway slaves. The captors claim that the Angolan Africans, scheduled to be sold at auction in Savannah, Georgia, were "prime, young, likely healthy." The runaway advertisement on this same broadside gives specific information about two African-born male runaways which includes height, complexion, build, and clothing.

Slaves Commandeer The Creole

Image: Caption follows
William E. Channing.
The Duty of the Free States or Remarks Suggested by the Case of the Creole.
Boston: William Crosby & Company, 1842.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (1-15)

In November 1841 the 135 enslaved African Americans on board the ship Creole overpowered the crew, murdering one man, while sailing from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Led by Madison Washington, they sailed the vessel to Nassau, Bahamas, where the British declared most of them free. This pamphlet's author, William Channing, refutes the American claims that the property of U.S. slave owners should be protected in foreign ports.

In the diplomatic controversy that followed, Ohio Congressman Joshua Giddings argued that once the ship was outside of U.S. territorial waters, the African Americans were entitled to their liberty and that any attempt to reenslave them would be unconstitutional. Censured by the House of Representatives, he resigned, but his constituents quickly reelected him and sent him back to Congress.

Avenues Of Escape

[NOTE: Image not available in online exhibit]

Billy G. Smith and Richard Wijtowicz.
Blacks Who Stole Themselves: Advertisements for Runaways in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728-90.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1989.
General Collections. (1-17)
Courtesy of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Thousands of newspaper advertisements attest that African Americans availed themselves of many avenues of escape. This book's ironic title conveys the fact that what was actually stolen from slave owners was not theirs to give. What the slaves took--themselves--belonged to them already but was denied because of slavery. The volume includes a profusion of examples of runaway slave advertisements that appeared in just one newspaper during the eighteenth century. Such notices contradict the argument that enslaved people were content with their condition.

Advertisements On Runaways

The African American resistance to slavery is demonstrated time and time again in the successful and unsuccessful attempts to escape from bondage. The owners' equal determination to protect their investment is demonstrated by their assiduousness in pursuing the runaways. Advertisements like this one on flyers or in newspapers aided bounty hunters and kidnappers, as well as bona fide law enforcement officers, who worked together to return escapees to their owners.

Image: Caption follows

$200 Reward. Ranaway from the subscriber . . . Five Negro Slaves.
Broadside. 1847.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (1-16)

The Amistad Mutiny

A Portuguese slaver purchased Africans in West Africa. Transported to the Caribbean, the captives found themselves in the hands of Cuban slave dealers on board the Spanish schooner Amistad. In transport from Cuba the Africans, led by Cinqué , rebelled, killed the captain and three crewmen, and ordered the rest to sail to Africa. By day the crew complied, but at night they sailed west and finally landed near Long Island, New York, where the vessel was seized by U.S. authorities.


Joseph Cinquez, the brave Congolese Chief . . . .
By James or Isaac Sheffield.
New York: Moses Y. Beach, 1839.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-12960 (1-26)

In the New York Sun, where this portrait appeared in 1839, Cinqué is described as a "brave Congolese chief . . . who now lies in jail in arms at New Haven, Conn., awaiting his trial for daring for freedom." Cinqué is quoted as saying, "Brothers, we have done that which we proposed . . . I am resolved it is better to die than be a white man's slave."

A Contemporary Account of the Amistad

This book "compiled from authentic sources" by John W. Barber, was published in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1840, and reports the trials in the lower courts, but not the Supreme Court decision that freed the captives. The book contains biographical statements for each of the surviving Africans, with illustrations, including profile portraits of each captive. This history also provides information on the location of the Africans' homes, their occupations, family, local government, involvement with slavery and the slave trade, and details of their capture and sale.

Image: Caption follows

A History of the Amistad Captives: Being a Circumstantial Account of the Capture of the Spanish Schooner Amistad . . . .
Compiled by John W. Barber.
New Haven, Ct.: E.L. & J.W. Barber, 1840.
General Collections. (1-25)

The Amistad Mutiny--Supreme Court Decision

President Martin Van Buren and the Spanish administrators of Cuba wanted the Africans returned to stand trial for mutiny, but the Connecticut judge who heard the case disagreed.

Image: caption follows
John Quincy Adams.
A draft of a brief delivered before the U.S. Supreme Court, 1839-1841.
Lewis Tappan Papers, Manuscript Division. (1-12)

The U. S. appealed the case to the Supreme Court where former President John Quincy Adams argued that it was the Africans, not the Cubans, who should be treated sympathetically because they were free people illegally enslaved.

Image: Caption follows
The Supreme Court opinion by Justice Joseph Story on the Amistad Case. January 1841. Lewis Tappan Papers, Manuscript Division. (1-27)

John Quincy Adams argued the appeal on behalf of the Africans before the Court. He stated that they "were entitled to all kindness and good offices due from a humane and Christian nation." In January 1841, the Supreme Court rendered its decision relating to the Amistad affair. Adams won and the Africans were returned to Africa.

Affidavits From Sinqueh And Kimbo on the Amistad Mutiny

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Affidavit of Singweh, an Amistad African, 1839.
Holograph transcript.
Lewis Tappan Papers, Manuscript Division. (1-13)

While the Amistad mutineers were imprisoned in Connecticut, abolitionists attempted to teach them English and Christianize them. This affidavit, dictated to an interpretor by "Singweh" [Cinqué], leader of the rebels, and Kimbo, indicate that they were Mende, an ethnic group from present day Sierra Leone.

Cinqué details his capture and sale in Havana. He discusses the small food rations, the beating "on the head" he received from the vessel's cook, and his fear that the white men would eat him, apparently a common fear among Africans who had never encountered whites. Kimbo relates how he was captured, carried by force out of his country, and whipped after requesting water from his captors.

Image: Caption follows
Affidavit of Kimbo, an Amistad African, 1839.
Holograph transcript.
Lewis Tappan Papers, Manuscript Division. (1-28)

Cinqué--A Contemporary Drawing

This is artist Romare Bearden's rendition of Cinqué and the Amistad mutiny.

Romare Bearden.
Prince Cinqué.
Screen print, 1971. 29 x 19.
Gift of Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Foundation,
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6168 (1-14)
© Romare Bearden Foundation /
Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Other Liberation Strategies

Spiritual Freedom

In this work, An Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York, first published in 1787, an African American, Jupiter Hammon, makes it clear that he believes slavery is wrong but nevertheless recommends respectful behavior of slaves to masters and urges those in slavery to seek spiritual freedom through Christianity.

This title page to Hammon's address includes verses that emphasize God's acceptance of all persons regardless of color or condition of servitude. Hammon, who started writing poetry in the 1760s, was a slave for his entire life.

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Jupiter Hammon.
An Address to the Negro in the State of New-York.
New York: Samuel Wood, 1806.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (1-3)

An Enslaved Man Buys His Family From Slave Dealers

Michael Shiner diary, 1813-1869.
Holograph manuscript.
Manuscript Division. (1-4)

In his journal, Michael Shiner, a slave hired out by his owner to work at the Washington Navy Yard, gives details about the Washington, D. C., social and political scene, his work at the Navy Yard, and his successful journey to rescue his wife who was sold to Virginia slave dealers after their master died in 1832. Six months after the master's death, Shiner's wife and three children were sold to Franklin and Armfield, slave dealers in Alexandria, Virginia. On the seventh of June, Shiner wrote: ". . .i Went [sic] to great distress But never the less with the assistance of [G]od I got My Wife and Children clear. . . ." With the help of several white well-wishers, Shiner was able to purchase the freedom of his family.

Pursuing Artistic Freedom--Early Published Music And "Jim Crow"

"Long Time Ago," also known as "Shinbone Alley," is one of the few pieces of published music dating from before the Civil War that is believed to be a genuine African American tune. The song, published in 1833, comes to us filtered through a performance by a white artist, Thomas ("Daddy") Rice. It was offered for sale not as an example of African American music but as a part of Rice's repertory. It is, in fact, the standard picture of Rice in his blackface costume that stands at the head of the music.

"Long Time Ago" was republished with a different, sentimental text in 1939 as "Near the Lake Where Drooped the Willow." In this form, in a harmonization done by Aaron Copland in his Old American Songs of 1950, it is still widely sung.

Image: Caption follows

"Long Time Ago Negro Song . . . As sung by M.T. Rice in the Ethiopian Opera."
Baltimore: John Cole, 1833. Sheet music.
Music Division. (1-21)

Slavery--The Peculiar Institution:   Part 1 | Part 2

Exhibit Sections:
| Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Search