Monday, December 28, 2009

The Bahamas' Role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Up on Bay Street in downtown Nassau sits the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation. The curator, Mr. Byron Trotman, was very helpful in explaining how slavery in the Bahamas differed from that in the United States.

As you may know, the Islands of the Bahamas were a British territory, and the plantation system was established here much like in the southern US. The Bahamas also lies on a major trade route.

The building above is currently a museum, but in days past it was a slave auction house. The arched windows used to act as 'display cases.' Slaves to be sold were dressed up and put under the arches for inspection before sale.

The slaves were taken to various plantations in the islands. The whole system is actually considered a relative failure. The weather was too harsh, the land too rocky, and as a result none of the traditional cash crops succeeded. Tobacco and sugar cane could not grow (there was mild success with cotton) and many european plantation owners abandoned their land and slaves. These freed slaves made up much of the Bahamian population. Often taking the name of their owners, many of the residents today are descendants of these slaves. The last names of 'Burnside' and 'Adderley' are common throughout the islands.

Many of the imported slaves also trace their roots back to two specific tribes in Africa: the Congo and the Nango tribes. These names are also routinely referenced in Bahamian culture.

The abolition of slave trading was passed in British Parliament in 1806. Britian was the earliest of the major nations to do so (before the US, Spain, or France). Since the Bahamas were on a major trade route, many slave ships that passed through were captured and the onboard slaves were freed and released on the islands, making up a separate chunk of the Bahamian population.

The Emancipation Act was passed in British Parliament in 1834, and all remaining slaves in the Bahamas (and British empire) were freed after a four year apprenticeship in 1838.

Since plantations did not thrive in the Bahamas, the economic boom and growth didn't occur until the US Civil War, when the blockade runners would leave Nassau and run steel and weapons into ports in the United States.

Although slavery in the Bahamas and the US ended long ago, other forms of slavery still exist in the world. The United Nations defines slavery as 'anyone whose movement or decision-making abilities are curtailed such that they do not have the right to choose their employers.' It is estimated that more than 27 million people still live as slaves today.

For more information on slavery in the Bahamas, check out "Bahamian Loyalists and Their Slaves" by Gail Saunders.