During the course of the slave trade, millions of Africans became involuntary immigrants to the New World. Some African captives resisted enslavement by fleeing from slave forts on the West African coast. Others mutinied on board slave trading vessels, or cast themselves into the ocean. In the New World there were those who ran away from their owners, ran away among the Indians, formed maroon societies, revolted, feigned sickness, or participated in work slow downs. Some sought and succeeded in gaining liberty through various legal means such as “good service” to their masters, self-purchase, or military service. Still others seemingly acquiesced and learned to survive in servitude.

The European, American, and African slave traders engaged in the lucrative trade in humans, and the politicians and businessmen who supported them, did not intend to put into motion a chain of events that would motivate the captives and their descendants to fight for full citizenship in the United States of America. But they did. When Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “All men are created equal,” he could not possibly have envisioned how literally his own slaves and others would take his words. African Americans repeatedly questioned how their owners could consider themselves noble in their own fight for independence from England while simultaneously believing that it was wrong for slaves to do the same.

This exhibit explores the methods used by Africans and their American-born descendants to resist enslavement, as well as to demand emancipation and full participation in American society. Strategies varied, but the goal remained unchanged: freedom and equality.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

“Roots Odyssey” By Romare Bearden

Twentieth-century artist Romare Bearden presents a stylized depiction of the odyssey of captives from Africa to the United States. The ship shows the low decks that were constructed on slaving vessels so that the maximum number of African captives could be transported. A black man's silhouette frames a view of the African continent, a U.S. flag, and seabirds thought to symbolize the souls of Africans returning to their homeland.

One of the preeminent African American collage artists, Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte on September 2, 1914, lived in Pittsburgh and Harlem, and died in New York on March 12, 1988. He was a 1935 graduate of New York University and honored with many honorary degrees and awards, including the National Medal of Arts, awarded by President Ronald Reagan in 1987.

Romare Bearden. Roots Odyssey. Screen print, 1976. 28 3/4 x 22 7/8. Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Foundation Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6169.(1–10) © Romare Bearden Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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The Geography Of The Atlantic Slave Trade

This map's elaborate cartouche (drawing), embellished with an elephant and two Africans, one holding an elephant tusk, emphasizes the pivotal role of Africa in the Atlantic trading network. The South Atlantic trade network involved several international routes. The best known of the triangular trades included the transportation of manufactured goods from Europe to Africa, where they were traded for slaves. Slaves were then transported across the Atlantic—the infamous middle passage—primarily to Brazil and the Caribbean, where they were sold. The final leg of this triangular trade brought tropical products to Europe. In another variation, manufactured goods from colonial America were taken to West Africa; slaves were carried to the Caribbean and Southern colonies; and sugar, molasses and other goods were returned to the home ports.

“Chart of the Sea Coasts of Europe, Africa, and America . . .” From John Thornton, The Atlas Maritimus of the Sea Atlas. London, ca. 1700. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (1–11)

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West Africa During The Eighteenth Century

During the 1700s when the Atlantic slave trade was flourishing, West Africans accounted for approximately two-thirds of the African captives imported into the Americas. The coastal ports where these Africans were assembled, and from where they were exported, are located on this mid-18th-century map extending from present-day Senegal and Gambia on the northwest to Gabon on the southeast.

This decorated and colored map illustrates the dress, dwellings, and work of some Africans. The map also reflects the international interest in the African trade by the use of Latin, French, and Dutch place names. Many of the ports are identified as being controlled by the English (A for Anglorum), Dutch (H for Holland), Danish (D for Danorum), or French (F).

Guinea propia, nec non Nigritiae vel Terrae Nigrorum maxima pars . . . . Nuremberg: Homann Hereditors, 1743. Hand-colored, engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (1–5)

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Liberation Strategies

An Attempted Mutiny Aboard The Brigantine Hope

Captured Africans often mutinied on board slave trading vessels. Rarely, however, did these attempts at liberation lead to the Africans' return to their homelands. In this testimony William Priest discusses an unsuccessful mutiny of Africans on board a Connecticut vessel en route to the United States from West Africa.

The captain, while trading for goods and slaves in Senegal and Gambia, experienced difficulties with some of his crew members. He replaced several, beat others, and eventually, was himself murdered and thrown overboard by his crew. After the captain's demise, the slaves rebelled, killed one crew member, and wounded several others before they were suppressed after seven of them had been killed. Priest's testimony specifically relates to inquiries about the captain's death.

A slave revolt aboard the brigantine Hope, March 17, 1765. Holograph transcript. Page 2. Peter Force Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (1–1)

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Denmark Vesey Slave Rebellion Plot Unveiled

Colonial and early national newspapers contain some actual accounts of slave insurrections, of small-scale slave uprisings, and many rumors about them. This report details plans for an unsuccessful 1822 slave rebellion led by Denmark Vesey, a free black man, around Charleston, South Carolina. Foiled in their efforts by slave informers, about thirty-five African Americans were captured and hanged. However, the report states that “enough has been disclosed to satisfy every reasonable mind, that considerable numbers were involved.” One informer noted that Vesey told a meeting of the rebel group they would seize the guard house and magazine to get arms. Then they would “rise up and fight against the whites for our liberties.” Vesey then read from the Bible about the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Lionel H. Kennedy and Thomas Parker. An Official Report of The Trials of Sundry Negroes, Charged with an Attempt to Raise an Insurrection in the State of South Carolina . . . . Charleston, S.C.: James R. Schenck, 1822. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (1–6)

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Walker's Appeal—a Call To Arms

Originally published in 1829 by David Walker, who was a second-hand clothing dealer in Boston, Massachusetts, this volume was outlawed in many states because of its call for the violent overthrow of slavery. Walker, a native of Wilmington, N.C., was born September 28, 1785, of a free black mother and slave father. He advocated uncompromising resistance to slavery, contending that African Americans should fight “in the glorious and heavenly cause of freedom and of God to be delivered from the most wretched, abject and servile slavery. . .”

African Americans throughout the South got hold of Walker’s Appeal, enraging Southern governments. Less than one year after the publication of the Appeal, Walker was found dead of unknown causes. A $1,000 reward had been offered for his death.

David Walker's Appeal in Four Articles, together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World . . . (September 1829). Edited by Charles M. Wiltse. New York: Hill and Wang, 1965. General Collections, Library of Congress (1–18)

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Nat Turner Slave Insurrection

During the 1831 uprising in Southampton, Virginia, led by Nat Turner, who was himself a slave, slave rebels systematically went from house to house killing about sixty whites before they were disbanded. In the suppression of the revolt about one hundred African Americans died and authorities hanged sixteen more.

In these confessions, Turner's lengthy autobiographical statement, he says that God led him to bring judgment against whites because of the institution of slavery. He had a vision in which “white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in streams. . . .”

The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia . . . . Richmond: Thomas R. Gray, 1832. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (1–8)

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Governor Of Virginia Discusses The Revolt

James Hamilton, the governor of South Carolina, requested that Virginia governor John Floyd discuss the factors that led to the Nat Turner revolt in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, the most well known slave revolt in U.S. history. About sixty white people were killed. Governor Floyd's lengthy reply is in this letter.

Floyd blamed the “spirit of insubordination” on the “Yankee population” in general and Yankee peddlers and traders in particular who shared Christianity with the slaves and taught them that all are born free and equal, and “that white people rebelled against England to obtain freedom, so have blacks a right to do.” Floyd placed the blame for masterminding the plan on the church leaders, but he believed that all the discussions about freedom and equality led to the uprising.

John Floyd, governor of Virginia, to James Hamilton, governor of South Carolina. November 19, 1831. Holograph letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (1–7)

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Fear Of Slave Revolts

In addition to numerous published accounts documenting white fear of slave uprisings, many private letters discuss problems brewing on individual plantations. In this letter, John Rutherford, an agent for Virginia plantation owner William B. Randolph, wrote to Randolph indicating that a concerned neighbor near Randolph's Chatworth plantation feared “fatal consequences” if the overseer did not cease his “brutality” toward the Chatworth slaves.

After the Chatworth overseer received a demanding letter of inquiry from Randolph, he answered on September 14, 1833, stating that he had whipped some of the slaves because they were idle or had escaped. Although three escapees had not returned, the situation was under control and work was proceeding as usual.

John Rutherford to William B. Randolph on the slave mutiny at Chatworth, Richmond, Virginia. September 1, 1833. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (1–9)

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Sabotaging The Peculiar Institution

Many abolitionists like Joshua Coffin argued that the existence of slavery in the United States constituted a real threat to public peace and security. He used this volume to show how often slaves rose up against their owners to demand their freedom. In it he describes slave resistance through large and small-scale rebellions in the North and South, work slow downs, poisonings, arsons, and murders. He discusses many mutinies, including one on a Rhode Island ship when captives near Cape Coast Castle (in present-day Ghana) rose and “murdered the captain and all the crew except the two mates, who swam ashore.”

An Account of Some of the Principal Slave Insurrections . . . . Compiled by Joshua Coffin. New York: The American Anti-slavery Society, 1860. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (1–19)

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Flights to Freedom

The Merchandise Of . . . Slaves, And Souls Of Men

The first captives came to the Western Hemisphere in the early 1500s. Twenty African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. A series of complex colonial laws began to relegate the status of Africans and their descendants to slavery. The United States outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, but the domestic slave trade and illegal importation continued for several decades.

This image depicts the miserable, cramped conditions of 510 Africans on board the bark Wildfire, who, while being smuggled into the United States in 1860, were captured by an anti-slaving vessel. The slaves were taken to Key West, Florida, and from there were sent to Liberia where the United States regularly repatriated “recaptured” Africans after 1808.

Africans on Board the Slave Bark Wildfire, April 30, 1860.” From Harper's Weekly, June 2, 1860. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-19607 (1–20)

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Humans For Sale

Captured Africans were sold at auction as “chattel,” like inanimate property or animals. Many literate ex-slaves discussed the degradation and humiliation they felt when they were treated like "cattle."

This 1774 broadside, typical of the advertisements used in the North as well as the South before the Civil War, advertises the sale of slaves and land, the availability of employment for an overseer, a recall of debts, and a reward for anyone who captured two runaway slaves. The captors claim that the Angolan Africans, scheduled to be sold at auction in Savannah, Georgia, were “prime, young, likely healthy.” The runaway advertisement on this same broadside gives specific information about two African-born male runaways which includes height, complexion, build, and clothing.

To be sold. . .a cargo of 170 prime young likely healthy Guinea slaves. Savannah, July 25, 1774. Copyprint of a broadside. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-16876 (1–2)

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Slaves Commandeer The Creole

In November 1841 the 135 enslaved African Americans on board the ship Creole overpowered the crew, murdering one man, while sailing from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Led by Madison Washington, they sailed the vessel to Nassau, Bahamas, where the British declared most of them free. This pamphlet's author, William Channing, refutes the American claims that the property of U.S. slave owners should be protected in foreign ports.

In the diplomatic controversy that followed, Ohio Congressman Joshua Giddings argued that once the ship was outside of U.S. territorial waters, the African Americans were entitled to their liberty and that any attempt to reenslave them would be unconstitutional. Censured by the House of Representatives, he resigned, but his constituents quickly reelected him and sent him back to Congress.

William E. Channing. The Duty of the Free States or Remarks Suggested by the Case of the Creole. Boston: William Crosby & Company, 1842. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (1–15)

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Avenues Of Escape

Thousands of newspaper advertisements attest that African Americans availed themselves of many avenues of escape. This book's ironic title conveys the fact that what was actually stolen from slave owners was not theirs to give. What the slaves took—themselves—belonged to them already but was denied because of slavery. The volume includes a profusion of examples of runaway slave advertisements that appeared in just one newspaper during the eighteenth century. Such notices contradict the argument that enslaved people were content with their condition.

Billy G. Smith and Richard Wijtowicz. Blacks Who Stole Themselves: Advertisements for Runaways in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728-90. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1989. General Collections, Library of Congress (1–17)
Courtesy of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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Advertisements On Runaways

The African American resistance to slavery is demonstrated time and time again in the successful and unsuccessful attempts to escape from bondage. The owners' equal determination to protect their investment is demonstrated by their assiduousness in pursuing the runaways. Advertisements like this one on flyers or in newspapers aided bounty hunters and kidnappers, as well as bona fide law enforcement officers, who worked together to return escapees to their owners.

$200 Reward. Ranaway from the subscriber . . . Five Negro Slaves. Broadside. 1847. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (1–16)

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The Amistad Mutiny

A Portuguese slaver purchased Africans in West Africa. Transported to the Caribbean, the captives found themselves in the hands of Cuban slave dealers on board the Spanish schooner Amistad. In transport from Cuba the Africans, led by Cinqué , rebelled, killed the captain and three crewmen, and ordered the rest to sail to Africa. By day the crew complied, but at night they sailed west and finally landed near Long Island, New York, where the vessel was seized by U.S. authorities.


In the New York Sun, where this portrait appeared in 1839, Cinqué is described as a “brave Congolese chief . . . who now lies in jail in arms at New Haven, Conn., awaiting his trial for daring for freedom.” Cinqué is quoted as saying, “Brothers, we have done that which we proposed . . . I am resolved it is better to die than be a white man's slave.”

Joseph Cinquez, the brave Congolese Chief . . . . By James or Isaac Sheffield. New York: Moses Y. Beach, 1839. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-12960 (1–26)

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A Contemporary Account of the Amistad

This book “compiled from authentic sources” by John W. Barber, was published in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1840, and reports the trials in the lower courts, but not the Supreme Court decision that freed the captives. The book contains biographical statements for each of the surviving Africans, with illustrations, including profile portraits of each captive. This history also provides information on the location of the Africans' homes, their occupations, family, local government, involvement with slavery and the slave trade, and details of their capture and sale.

A History of the Amistad Captives: Being a Circumstantial Account of the Capture of the Spanish Schooner Amistad . . . . Compiled by John W. Barber. New Haven, Ct.: E.L. & J.W. Barber, 1840. General Collections, Library of Congress (1–25)

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The Amistad Mutiny—Supreme Court Decision

President Martin Van Buren and the Spanish administrators of Cuba wanted the Africans returned to stand trial for mutiny, but the Connecticut judge who heard the case disagreed.

The U. S. appealed the case to the Supreme Court where former President John Quincy Adams argued that it was the Africans, not the Cubans, who should be treated sympathetically because they were free people illegally enslaved.

John Quincy Adams argued the appeal on behalf of the Africans before the Court. He stated that they “were entitled to all kindness and good offices due from a humane and Christian nation.” In January 1841, the Supreme Court rendered its decision relating to the Amistad affair. Adams won and the Africans were returned to Africa.

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Affidavits From Sinqueh And Kimbo on the Amistad Mutiny

While the Amistad mutineers were imprisoned in Connecticut, abolitionists attempted to teach them English and Christianize them. This affidavit, dictated to an interpretor by “Singweh” [Cinqué], leader of the rebels, and Kimbo, indicate that they were Mende, an ethnic group from present day Sierra Leone.

Cinqué details his capture and sale in Havana. He discusses the small food rations, the beating “on the head” he received from the vessel's cook, and his fear that the white men would eat him, apparently a common fear among Africans who had never encountered whites. Kimbo relates how he was captured, carried by force out of his country, and whipped after requesting water from his captors.

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  • Affidavit of Singweh, an Amistad African, 1839. Holograph transcript. Lewis Tappan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (1–13)

  • Affidavit of Kimbo, an Amistad African, 1839. Holograph transcript. Lewis Tappan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (1–28)

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Cinqué—A Contemporary Drawing

This is artist Romare Bearden's rendition of Cinqué and the Amistad mutiny.

Romare Bearden. Prince Cinqué. Screen print, 1971. 29 x 19. Gift of Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Foundation, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6168 (1–14) © Romare Bearden Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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Other Liberation Strategies

Spiritual Freedom

In this work, An Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York, first published in 1787, an African American, Jupiter Hammon, makes it clear that he believes slavery is wrong but nevertheless recommends respectful behavior of slaves to masters and urges those in slavery to seek spiritual freedom through Christianity.

This title page to Hammon's address includes verses that emphasize God's acceptance of all persons regardless of color or condition of servitude. Hammon, who started writing poetry in the 1760s, was a slave for his entire life.

Jupiter Hammon. An Address to the Negro in the State of New-York. New York: Samuel Wood, 1806. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (1–3)

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An Enslaved Man Buys His Family From Slave Dealers

In his journal, Michael Shiner, a slave hired out by his owner to work at the Washington Navy Yard, gives details about the Washington, D. C., social and political scene, his work at the Navy Yard, and his successful journey to rescue his wife who was sold to Virginia slave dealers after their master died in 1832. Six months after the master's death, Shiner's wife and three children were sold to Franklin and Armfield, slave dealers in Alexandria, Virginia. On the seventh of June, Shiner wrote: “. . .i Went [sic] to great distress But never the less with the assistance of [G]od I got My Wife and Children clear. . . .” With the help of several white well-wishers, Shiner was able to purchase the freedom of his family.

Michael Shiner diary, 1813–1869. Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (1–4)

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Pursuing Artistic Freedom—Early Published Music And “Jim Crow”

“Long Time Ago,” also known as “Shinbone Alley,” is one of the few pieces of published music dating from before the Civil War that is believed to be a genuine African American tune. The song, published in 1833, comes to us filtered through a performance by a white artist, Thomas (“Daddy”) Rice. It was offered for sale not as an example of African American music but as a part of Rice's repertory. It is, in fact, the standard picture of Rice in his blackface costume that stands at the head of the music.

“Long Time Ago” was republished with a different, sentimental text in 1939 as “Near the Lake Where Drooped the Willow.” In this form, in a harmonization done by Aaron Copland in his Old American Songs of 1950, it is still widely sung.

“Long Time Ago Negro Song . . . As sung by M.T. Rice in the Ethiopian Opera.” Baltimore: John Cole, 1833. Sheet music. Music Division, Library of Congress (1–21)

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