Slave ship exhibit: Dignity survives voyage of damned


In the end, the message aims to instill dignity, not outrage over pain and suffering. But a new exhibit at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum is a chilling document of the sordid centuries of the African slave trade.

"If pride and dignity can survive on a slave ship, it can survive anywhere," says Dr. Elmer Martin, co-director with his wife, Dr. Joanne M. Martin, of the North Avenue museum that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

"Into the Hold: The Slave Ship Experience," a permanent exhibit opening today, takes visitors below the decks of a 19th-century slave ship.

In the lobby of the converted firehouse, visitors will see two life-sized wax figures: a slave ship crew member brutally branding the right shoulder of a manacled, nearly nude African woman.

At the entrance to the exhibit, visitors draw lots to learn their fates -- whether torture, illness, death, being tossed to sharks or, rarely, escape.

Inside, they can climb together, three to five at a time, into the cramped space allowed the human cargo, and can handle the TC heavy neck irons the captives wore. Figures of chained captives, including small children, show the horror of the holds.

Throughout the exhibit, text drives home with numbers and historical narratives the inhumanity of the trade that flourished between 1518 and 1865:

* Between 20 million and 60 million Africans died in the middle passage voyages from Africa to the Americas.

* Shipmasters routinely threw captives overboard for a variety of reasons -- including insurance fraud and a depressed slave market.

* Sharks circled the vessels throughout the voyages, and the museum exhibit depicts a hand extended above the bloody waves as a shark feasts.

* Slaves were often branded three times: once with the brand of the buyer financing a voyage, again with the coat of arms of the king or nation under whose flag the ship sailed, and once more with the brand of a private owner.

* Upon arrival in the New World, survivors suddenly found themselves fed, washed and otherwise treated well, fattened up for the slave auctions.

An excerpt from a 1986 book, "World of Sorrow," quotes Capt. John Newton: "In their merciful ignorance as to what was to happen to them, they suddenly felt a sense of freedom, curiosity and joy. But this joy is short-lived, indeed. The condition of the unhappy slave is in a continual progress from bad to worse."

The exhibit also depicts the solidarity of suffering. Clergyman Robert Walsh observed in 1829, at a Brazil slave market, that captive boys bonded together and politely took food he gave them. "It was quite delightful to observe the unselfish manner in which they distributed them so generously to one another," reads an excerpt from his written narrative.

Another display, quoting a planter, notes that while African captives often were of vastly different cultures and languages, "when they emerged from the dark, stinky hold of the slave ship, they viewed themselves as shipmates and the bonds they formed as common sufferers lasted forever."

Dr. Martin, a sociology professor at Morgan State University, says he hopes visitors will leave the exhibit carrying that sense of unity.

"The main thing we hope to achieve is really to get young people to understand the depths to which we sunk, but how we hung in here. . . . They can see how far we have come," he notes.

A video apparition, "the spirit of the slave ship" (played by actor Edwin Rue), tells visitors not to leave with anger, Dr. Martin says, and to remember, "we didn't go through such dying by the millions so you can kill each other by the thousands, so you can dope yourselves up."

"It's almost like their ancestors are speaking to this generation of young people," Dr. Martin says.


What: "Into the Hold: The Slave Ship Experience"

Where: Great Blacks in Wax Museum, 1601 E. North Ave.

When: New permanent exhibit opens today. Hours: Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays noon to 6 p.m.

Admission: $4.50 for adults; $4, college students and senior citizens; $3 children ages 12-17; $2.50, children ages 2-11. Also group rates

Call: (410) 563-3404

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