Recently, the Project was contacted by Jonathan Highfield, Professor of Postcolonial Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) Department of Literary Arts and Studies, to explore the possibility of collaboration with us on Middle Passage history. Fifteen members of his class, Dialogue across the Diaspora, will travel to South Africa to assist students at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town to mount an exhibit, “Ships of Bondage,” at the Slave Lodge Museum. The exhibit opens December 3, 2013, in Cape Town and includes information on ships’ crews and owners, origins of enslaved people, differences in slavery in Haiti, South Africa, and the US, and the global networks of human trade over hundreds of years.
We are most excited with the prospect of perspectives on this history by young people. The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project will post on the blog excerpts from the RISD students’ journals and photographs of the trip. We also plan to join this effort with allafrica.com as an example of international connections with the history of the Continent, the Caribbean, and the US.
The Slave Lodge is the second building erected in Cape Town by the Dutch as they established a way- station for provisioning ships, securing captives, and supporting European merchants involved in the burgeoning global economy based upon international trade which included human cargo. The earliest enslaved people on the Cape came from Dutch territories in the East Indies and India and are the ancestors of the “Cape Coloured” population. Later, captured Africans from the east and south were detained in the structure known as the Slave Lodge and placed on ships headed west. The Slave Lodge has, since the end of Apartheid, served as a museum devoted to studying and presenting the history of enslavement in South Africa from the 16th to the 20th centuries. In the early period of North American trade, New England ship merchants, to avoid major European competition in West Africa, regularly navigated the Cape of Good Hope, arriving on the Continent’s east coast at Madagascar and Tanzania, where they purchased people from Arab and Swahili traders. In researching this history, the role of Rhode Island as the center of North American trade from the beginning has been more clearly defined. This is one reason that RISD is involved in this trip and also preparing a local exhibition in Providence in January 2014 featuring film, photographs, sketches, writing, and other art forms.
Rather than presenting this history of captive people in a routine manner – such as numbers, images, abuses, the exhibit’s approach is to incorporate as well the human history of resistance to enslavement and the loss of freedom, the consequences of displacement, and the complicit continuation of oppression through centuries by political, cultural, and economic methods. This is a huge task, but it is important work that the Project supports enthusiastically.
This is a pilot endeavor but may serve as a model for expanding the blog’s presentation and interpretation of Middle Passage history and African enslavement. Professor Highfield has informed us that student materials will be available after the trip has been completed. It will be, for all of us, a work in progress.