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ExhibitionCommerce on Land + Sea

Maritime spaces served as landscapes of power for colonists, but also provided unique opportunities for enslaved Africans to seek relative autonomy and freedom.

Rivers and waterways are important transportation routes and commerce centers. A mix of peoples and goods flowed along the Potomac River. Markets featured fish and other foods, and luxury goods like imported coffees.

European slavers transported a seemingly inexhaustible source of slave labor by sea and sold these men, women, and children on land.

  • Map showing marked out farm fields and river.

    A map of George Washington’s plantation, 1801

    Courtesy Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

  • Text advertisement with a picture of an African in grass skirt holding spear.

    Charleston, South Carolina slave auction advertisement, 1769

    Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

    Rivers to slavery and freedom

    Slavers transported and sold men, women, and children into servitude along rivers and waterways. But waterways also provided transportation for those seeking to escape by secreting themselves aboard boats and steamships.

  • Color illustration of a fish.

    The Shad. (Clupea Sapidissima), Sherman Denton, ca. 1896

    Courtesy HathiTrust

    Shad for sale

    The Potomac River was a lucrative source of trade and commerce. Slaves, when possible, used the informal economy to barter and exchange fish for other goods.

  • Color illustration of a portion of a coffee plant, showing both the beans and leaves.

    Plate illustration of coffee from An Historical Account of Coffee. ..., John Ellis, 1774

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Stimulating slavery

    Coffee (Coffea Arabica), can be traced back to Ethiopia. Merchants transported the plant by ship to the Caribbean. Widespread demand for the beans contributed to the rise of slavery and colonialism.

  • Open book showing typewritten text.

    The Natural History of Coffee, Thee, Chocolate, Tobacco. ..., John Chamberlayne, 1682

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Coffee’s cure

    Some people believed coffee had medicinal benefits, especially in non-tropical climates: “where there is gross habit of Body, and a cold heavy Constitution, there Coffee may be proper, and successful; ...”