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On the Move: Stories of African American Migration and Mobility: Transatlantic Slave Trade

Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade is the umbrella term for the 300-year triangular pattern of ship routes which included the forced movement of enslaved people from Africa to the Americas, the shipment of raw materials from the Americas to European manufacturing centers, and the return of finished goods from Europe to Africa. In the United States, we often cite the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia in 1619 as the beginning of the Black experience in this country.     

Exhibit materials

Port of Roanoke Records, volumes 1 (1771) and 3 (1774)

These port records were kept by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Iredell, Sr. (1751–1799). Between 1768 and 1776, Iredell worked as the deputy customs collector for the Port of Roanoke in Edenton, NC. Port Roanoke was one of five official points of entry and served most of the Albermarle settlement. In this role, Iredell would have inspected ships filled with human cargo, recorded the conditions on board, and collected money from the ship’s captain. 

In these two volumes we see clear accountings of the import and export patterns at the Port of Roanoke in January 1774. Line 9 of the “imports” ledger records the ship Nancy arriving from Tobago with ten Negroes on board. Line 13 of the “exports” ledger shows Nancy headed to Barbados with foodstuffs and lumber. Exports of goods to Cadiz, a port city in Spain, complete the third leg of this triangular trade. The well-worn path of slaves and supplies from the Caribbean to the Americas is clear.

James Iredell Papers, 1771-1799 (00365) 

Slave auction advertisement, 1829-1870

It is unclear whether the Havens and Bonner families kept this advertisement because they were trying to buy or sell enslaved people, or why they were engaged in either practice in Macon, GA, hundreds of miles away from their own plantations near Washington D.C. and Portsmouth, NC. While the largest sales happened around port cities like Savannah, GA, Charleston, SC, and St. Augustine, FL, smaller slave markets existed throughout the Southern states. Slave traders like G.W. Wylly made a fortune selling enslaved individuals around the region and Black families paid the ultimate price.  

Havens and Bonner Family Papers, 1829-1890 (05410)

Accounts of the schooner, Betsy, 1791

Like this account book from the ship Betsy, most records documenting the slave trade in the 18th century are devoid of traces of the humanity of the cargo. Many slaves traders in the Americas and the Carribean took the enslaved Africans through a process called “seasoning,” designed to degrade and strip the individuals of all ties to their homelands, starting with their names. Betsy’s log shows this process with the documented transfer of a man named George from New Bern, NC to Montego Bay in Jamaica on Betsy. He was purchased for £60.00, equivalent to approximately $9,000 in 2019. 

This collection contains manifests, bills and certificates of unlading, letters, accounts, and other items pertaining to shipping between New England, South Atlantic ports, and the West Indies. Sales of slaves are mentioned in an accounting document regarding trips between Newbern, N.C. and Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1792. Also included is a book of accounts of Killey Eldredge (fl. 1793-1798), Massachusetts ship captain, with owners of two ships, kept during a voyage from Massachusetts to Charleston, S.C., 1793-1794, and on a voyage to England, Ireland, and France, 1796-1798. 

Ships' Papers, 1756-1842 (01065)


Omar Ibn Said

“Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language." -  Omar Ibn Said

Ambrotype of Omar ibn Said, circa 1855

Omar ibn Said was a highly-educated Muslim man who was captured from his homeland of Senegal, West Africa and brought to the United States as a slave in 1807. Said wrote his autobiography in 1831, which includes details about his abduction, his escape from Charleston, SC and his eventual re-capture in Fayetteville, NC. Not only does Said write about his life, he writes about his faith, often in Arabic. Said’s life history challenges perceptions of the educational and language traditions in Africa, the role of religion, and the lived experience of an enslaved person in the United States.  At the time that this image was taken, Said was enslaved by General James Owen in Wilmington, NC. Said became well known in the community when rumors spread that he was descended from African royalty. Visitors to Owen’s family also marveled at Said's advanced age, his ability to write in Arabic and his capacity for telling folk tales. 

Ambrotype Collection, 1852-1880 (P0007)

Ambrotype of Omar ibn Said

Albumen print of Omar ibn Said

The reverse of this photograph has a short biography about Omar ibn Said by Alfred Moore Waddell, written in 1905. Waddell and the DeRosset family were associates of the Owen family. Reproduced and transcribed on Documenting the American South.

DeRosset Family Papers, 1671-1940 (00214)

Omar ibn Said albumen printAlbumen print of Omar ibn Said, verso

23rd Psalm written in Arabic by Omar ibn Said and laid into the scrapbook of John Frederick Foard, 1856. 

John Frederick Foard, an associate of the Owen family, asked Said to write the 23rd Psalm in Arabic during his visit to the Owen home in 1855. Foard pasted the passage in his scrapbook and included an image of it in his 1904 publication, North America and Africa: Their Past, Present and Future, and Key to the Negro Problem. 

Omar ibn Said manuscript in Foard scrapbook

Sūrat al-Naṣr, سورة النصر, circa 1857.

A verse from the Qur’an written in Arabic by Omar ibn Said, roughly translates as praise of God and a prayer for forgiveness in the belief that God is returning soon. At the time of its writing, Said attended a Presbyterian church regularly and had, at least ostensibly, converted from Islam to Christianity. Said’s conversion may simply have been a means of survival though he may sincerely have found solace in the similarities he perceived between Christian and Muslim scripture. Sūrat al-Naṣr is understood to be Omar ibn Said's latest known extant writing. A note on the verso incorrectly states that it is the Lord's Prayer. Reproduced and transcribed at Documenting the American South.

Surat al-NasrSurat al-Nasr 2

Additional resources