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Class Year

2009

Abstract

Years after being kidnapped from his native Ibo village as a young boy, Olaudah Equiano vividly recalled his wonder at seeing a European ship for the first time. Although he failed to realize it at the time, that same ship, and the Atlantic currents it navigated, would shortly transport him and millions of his countrymen to lives of slavery on the far shores of a distant continent. In addition to providing a convenient avenue for the initial transport of slaves, water enabled the development of a trade network linking scattered plantations in the Caribbean to centers of trade in North America and Europe where the products of coerced black labor were bought and sold. Even more detrimental to African identity than the systematic exploitation the sea enabled was the insurmountable barrier it presented to the continuance of native customs and identities. Like the slave ships that traversed the ocean currents, however, black culture eventually subverted the rigid order imposed by nature. The presence of black sailors onboard the ships which sustained the colonial Atlantic World created an unparalleled opportunity for strengthening black identity. The seamen assumed the roles of cultural ambassadors, spreading word of the diverse cultures and patterns of life they encountered in their travels to their brothers and sisters in bondage. Capitalizing on the inherent inequality of shipboard life to assert their identities as autonomous equals, black sailors brought hope and, occasionally, freedom to American slaves, all the while undermining the efforts of slaveholders to create a docile labor force.

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