The Museo del Oro’s latest temporary exhibition delves into the international web of 18th-century trans-Atlantic trade, both human and otherwise.
On loan from the Nantes History Museum, from a collection of the Ducs de Bretagne, the exhibition focuses primarily on La Marie Séraphique, a French trading ship owned by a Jacques Gruel. The exhibition details the preparation, journey and aftermath of the ship’s maiden voyage, a triangular trade trip.
Departing first to the pre-colonial West-African coastal state of Loango, (what is now the western part of the Republic of Congo), the ship trades its first cargo for another kind entirely, human slaves. It then sets sail across the Atlantic to the French Caribbean territory of Saint Domingue, (now the western part of Haiti), where it sells the slaves, re-stocks with goods from the Antilles, before finally setting sail for home.
The meticulous detail of the preparations for the voyage on display, including plans which feature a drawing of where individual slaves would be placed on the ship, as well as the careful estimates of the food and water supplies needed to transport a large human cargo on a perilous journey across the Atlantic, inspire protestations of hypocrisy as the inhumanity of slave transportation was plotted while recognising the very humanity that needed sustenance to survive.
Items such as a sketch of slaves made to dance on the deck of the ship, also demonstrate a similar point. Whilst the captains of slaving ships strove to ensure their ‘cargo’ arrived alive and in good condition, the methods employed to make this happen, recognized the physical and mental activity required for survival.
Also on display is a contemporary copy of The Black Code handbook of French regulations for slave owners of the day. With passages ranging from the practical to the perverse, the book demonstrates France’s approach to regulation of its overseas territories and above all, the politics of slaves as property.
The exhibition shows the international web of trans-Atlantic trade involved in perpetuating conditions for slavery. Goods carried from Europe (often from Asia and beyond), were traded for slaves in Africa. Slaves were then traded in the Caribbean and the Americas often for local goods, which were then traded in Europe. This is well documented through a pair of portraits of merchants, the Master and Mistress who sit in splendor, surrounded by global products.
Entering the exhibition, the viewer descends a sloping ramp to a wall covered with historical text, and the ship’s name highlighted each time it was written.
The story continues with a snapshot of the geographical landscape of the French Caribbean, and interesting context on the contemporary geopolitical situation, with maps detailing wider European territorial presence in the area. The Spanish territories in Central and South America have references to Cartagena as a major slave port.
Continuing to introduce the ship, trading in general, and the life that awaited slaves in the islands, the exhibition concludes by shifting its look to slave liberation, from grassroots revolts on the northern coast of modern-day Colombia to the Haitian revolution, independence and its first black monarchy.
A well-crafted, thought-provoking exhibition, A Bordo de un Navío Esclavista inspires audiences to reflect on the history of the Caribbean and the origins of our ethnically-diverse and culturally rich identities.
Museo del Oro – Cra 6 No.15-88.