(Reuters) – In late August 1619, a ship carrying “20 and odd” African men and women docked at Point Comfort, today’s Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.
Their arrival, 400 years ago next month, was recorded by English settler John Rolfe and is believed to be the first of captive Africans to reach the shores of Britain’s North American colonies.
Their long and treacherous journey across the Atlantic may have begun in Angola, historians say, believing that once they arrived, they were sold for food.
“Those African people who were on that ship were specifically sold in a trading transaction that we now recognize as something that became common during the transatlantic slave trade,” said Rebecca Nelson, assistant curator of projects at Wilberforce House Museum in the British city of Hull.
“There were African people in America before that date but not having been sold in the same specific way.”
Millions of African men, women and children were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean between the 16th and 19th centuries. Many died in horrific conditions. Those who survived were forced into servitude and worked on plantations.
Ahead of the 400-year anniversary, Reuters photographers visited museums in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, South Africa and Britain displaying items from the Africa to North America slave trade.
They have produced a series of pictures depicting items such as chains, shackles, neck braces, whips and documents listing auctions and the treatment of slaves as well as punishment records.
A small wooden model of the “Brookes” slave ship is among the items on display at Wilberforce House, named after William Wilberforce who successfully campaigned to have the British parliament ban the slave trade in 1807. The model was used by Wilberforce during his speeches to parliament.
“By using this, he was able to show men who had never ever been to see a slave trip or had visited any docks, or warehouses or plantations themselves … how terrible the conditions for the enslaved Africans were on board these ships,” Nelson said.
Reporting by Russell Boyce and Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Frances Kerry