Object of the Week: Shackles used to imprison people below the deck of slave ships

By Ben Miller | 06 January 2016

Object of the Week: This week we bring you a brutal reminder of the Transatlantic slave trade

A photo of a pair of brown shackles used to imprison Transatlantic slaves
© Courtesy Brown University Library
These shackles were once used on slaver ships during the so-called Middle Passage second leg of the Transatlantic slave trade – and were even later used as evidence of the inhumane business.

Forced to endure a brutal journey lasting months on end, densely-packed slaves were restrained and imprisoned below deck in the hold of ships bound for the Americas from the West Coast of Africa.

“The shackles are difficult to look at and evoke strong emotions,” says Dr Richard Benjamin, the Head of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, where the artefacts will stand poignantly within the Enslavement and the Middle Passage gallery.

“But it is important that they are on public display so that people can tangibly experience the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade.

“A similar pair of shackles was purchased in Liverpool by the campaigner Thomas Clarkson as evidence against the transatlantic slave trade.

“They were presented in front of Privy Council in 1788 as part of its enquiry into the transatlantic slave trade. An engraving of the shackles with a detailed description also appeared in Clarkson’s antislavery pamphlet.”

A photo of a pair of brown shackles used to imprison Transatlantic slaves
© Courtesy Brown University Library
Before arriving in Liverpool, the shackles will be displayed at the John Hay Library at Brown University in the United States.

“They are important because they are the material objects which pressed the flesh of a human being and brings to the fore the violence of slavery,” says Professor Anthony Bogues, the Director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and the Brown University Library, which has secured the loan.

“Such material objects are necessary for us to have a full and frank conversation about the character of slavery and the making of our modern world.”

The shackles are the second acquisition announced by the museum under the Transatlantic and Contemporary Slavery Collecting Project, which is part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme.


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