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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Brooks (Brookes) slave ship diagram; as seen in diagram from Thomas Clarkson’s “History of the Rise, Progress and "Accomplishment of the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, London; 1808; sold for $2,645. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
Endless waves. Storms. Cramped quarters. Poor diet. The journey to the New World on 18th century slave ships was anything but easy. Compartments on board many ships were about one foot wide--built for barrels not humans.

An estimated 15 million slaves were shipped to the Americas between 1540 and 1850. Males were chained together by twos, hands and feet, with virtually no room to sit, stand or lie down.

Between the 17th and the 19th centuries slave ships grew in size from 100 to 300 tons--the bigger the ship, the bigger the payoff. Rigged for speed, most vessels carried between 200-300 captives.

When slaves were fed meals consisted of horse beans, yams, rice and occasionally a small serving of beef or pork. Death rates were high. More than half the captives died before reaching the Americas. Disease and starvation were the main causes of death.

Age, health, endurance and an ability to produce children determined how much each would ultimately fetch on the block. Purchased in Africa for $25, slaves were sold in the Americas for about $125.

All slaves shared one thing in common. They were someone else’s property. They were sent to the south to make farms profitable and there was no money in idle slaves.

Deck plans for the slave ship “Brookes” built in Liverpool in 1781 revealed that each male captive was given less than a 6-foot by 16 inch area to move around. The vessel packed in 450 slaves. It measured 297 tons with main, lower, quarter, and half-decks, a cabin, gun room, gratings, and slave compartments for men, boys, and women.

Like a mass grave its decks were loaded with hundreds of slaves packed spoon wise, head to toe and toe to head. An early image of the Brookes and its captives stacked like silverware showed the inhumanity of the slave trade firsthand and helped bring about abolition. It was one of the first political posters demonstrating the power of imagery.

As Union armies pushed their way into the Confederacy during the Civil War slaves began to slip away from their plantations and head north to safety.

“I make up my mind to go,” said one slave when he realized Union troops were close at hand, and I leaves with de chunk of meat and cornbread an am on my way, half skeert to death.”

By the time the American Civil War ended in 1865 about four million slaves were emancipated.

“The best way to help them is just let them help themselves,” said abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Jim Crow segregation laws kept most ex-slaves from their basic civil rights for decades.

On Feb. 25, Swann Auction Galleries, New York, featured a selection of slave era items in its Printed & Manuscript African Americana auction. A number of early slave ship diagrams were offered for sale in the auction. Here are some current values for items offered.

African Americana

Slave ship diagram; untitled engraving of Arab slavers herding Africans toward ship; circa late-18th century; together with another engraving of a slave ship hold; $1,560.

Brooks (Brookes) slave ship diagram; as seen in cutaway diagram from Thomas Clarkson’s “History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, London; 1808; $2,645.

Runaway slave poster; $100 reward for Negro James; 1813; 10 inches by 8 inches; $3,120.

Slave shackles; middle passage; wrought-iron; circa late-18th early 19th century; $4,080.

Runaway slave poster; $200 reward for Negro Henry; 1857; 10 ½ inches by 14 inches; $5,280.

Slave ship woodcut; from “The Mirror of Misery” or “Tyranny Exposed” vignette title page; seven large woodcuts in text; 1807; $6,480.

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