Inhuman Traffic: The Business of the Slave Trade

24 May 2007 – 6 April 2008

Room 69a Coins and Medals display

Admission free

In 1778, Londoner Ignatius Sancho, who had been born almost 50 years earlier on a slave ship en route between West Africa and the Americas but later won his freedom, wrote a letter to his friend describing his anger at the Slave Trade:

The grand object of English navigators - indeed of all Christian navigators - is money - money - money… In Africa, the poor wretched natives - blessed with the most fertile and luxuriant soil - are rendered so much the more miserable for what Providence meant as a blessing: - the Christians' abominable traffic for slaves - and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings - encouraged by their Christian customers - who carry them strong liquors - to enflame their national madness - and powder - and bad fire-arms - to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.

The new exhibition explores this Inhuman Traffic by looking at how the trade functioned, and at how it was ended. Gold and ivory first brought European traders to West Africa, and tobacco, guns, textiles, sugar and rum enabled the trade to flourish. The small display examines these and other commodities involved in the slave trade, and the way Africa, Europeand the Americas became linked in a global trade network, featuring objects from the museum’s collection of coins and medals, alongside objects from other parts of the museum, many of which are rarely or never seen on display.

Some objects in the display showcase new research into the provenance of objects in the Museum’s collections. For example, four cowrie shells which have been in the collection for almost 200 years, but which we now know were given by Mansong Diara, ruler of the slave-trading empire of Bambara, to Scottish explorer Mungo Park. Park’s account of his travels in West Africa, published in 1799, could not avoid discussing the slave trade, and was used by campaigners arguing both for and against the trade. These shells look like any other cowries, but they have a remarkable story to tell.

Stories of the people involved in the trade and its abolition are central to the exhibition, featuring resistance leaders including Toussaint l’Ouverture, Olaudah Equiano and Nanny of the Maroons alongside others (including some whose names we don’t know) whose acts of resistance and rebellion were crucial to the turning of European public opinion against the trade.

In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in London. A campaign began, with petitions, pamphlets and protests organised across the UK, and tokens were issued bearing the now-famous image of the kneeling African, asking “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” The parliamentary spokesman for the group was William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, who in a parliamentary speech in May 1789 said, “Let us put an end at once to this inhuman traffic—let us stop this effusion of human blood.” The end came, gradually, beginning with the passage in 1807 of the parliamentary bill banning the slave trade. But this was just one small part of dismantling the trade, which had been lucrative and profitable for the traders, but at a terrible cost to so many people. Slavery was legal in the British colonies for another 30 years, and legal and illegal trading continued. Speaking in 1852, 14 years after his escape from slavery in Maryland, and 13 years before slavery would be banned in the United States, Frederick Douglass condemned the trade as an “inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the laws of God and of man.”

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk