Road Trip Through History: The Old Slave Mart

Restored plantations are favorite history-nerd attractions when you travel in the American south.*  It is harder to find historical road trip stops that deal with the slave labor behind the plantation gloss.

By Brian Stansberry - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The Old Slave Mart in Charleston, South Carolina, is a museum devoted to the history of the slave trade.

Before the American Civil War, Charleston, South Carolina was one of the richest and most cultured cities in North America.  It was also a major slave port.  More slaves were shipped to South Carolina than to any other mainland British colony.**  By 1708, slaves made up the majority of the colony’s population.  In the last two years before Britain and the United States outlawed the slave trade in 1808,*** Charleston had more registered slave ships than any port except Liverpool.  After 1808,  the demand for slaves in the United States was met through a domestic slave trading system.****

Charleston was a major center for collecting and reselling slaves within that system. The Old Slave Mart Museum is located in what is believed to be the only building used as a slave market still in existence in the American South.  As Ryan’s Mart, it was part of a complex of buildings used in the slave trade, including a barracoon, or slave barracks,***** a kitchen, and a “dead house” or morgue.  The museum building was the auction house.

The museum is divided into two sections.  The exhibit on the first floor tells how the slave market operated.  The exhibit on the second floor, titled “Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery” looks at slave resistance and culture throughout the world of the Atlantic slave trade.  To my mind, the first floor exhibit is the more successful because it is more focused.  The museum uses the details of how a particular market worked and tells the stories of individual slaves, creating a grim and vivid picture of slave trading system in the American South.  The fact that surprised me most?  Charleston sold slave owners annual badges for their slaves, similar to modern tags for pet cats and dogs. Fees were set based on the  category and skills of the slave. It was both a tax on slave owning and a way to control the movements of black slaves who were hired out by their owners.  A small indignity when seen against the horrors of slavery, but one that upset me out of proportion to its reality.  Perhaps because it is such a banal symbol of oppression.

The second floor exhibit takes on an enormous subject in a small space.  It is much more general and consequently less powerful–though the map showing when and where slave revolts occurred was an eye-opener.  In all fairness, I might have enjoyed the second floor exhibit more if I hadn’t just finished writing a book on the Atlantic slave trade.  A visitor who doesn’t have all that detail in her head would learn a lot.

Uneven as the museum it, I strongly urge you to visit it when you’re in Charleston–“lest we forget” sums it up.

*For that matter, restored houses of the rich and relatively rich are popular just about everywhere.  We are fascinated by how the wealthy lived.  I must admit, after visiting dozens of these over the years, I’ve lost my taste for restored plantations, gracious homes and palaces unless they have a larger historical significance.

**As I mentioned recently, the majority of African slaves were taken to Latin America and the Caribbean.

***The laws were not entirely successful. (Think Prohibition or the war on drugs.) In fact, immediately after the laws were passed, slave trading continued on an even larger scale.

Brazil replaced Britain as the most important slave-trading nation.  Other European companies continued to trade in slaves, often with money from British investors.  British slave traders continued to sail throughout the nineteenth century, sometimes registering their ships with foreign countries.

At first, Britain used diplomatic measures to pressure other governments to outlaw the trade as well.  For instance, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain convinced France and the Netherlands to abolish the trade.  Soon, however, Britain resorted to force.  Beginning in 1819, the British Navy attempted to enforce the ban by patrolling the African coastline and treating all slave ships as pirates.  France and the United States reluctantly joined the effort.  At least 160,000 slaves were rescued.  Those who were not saved often suffered worse conditions in their voyage across the Atlantic than had previously existed in the Middle Passage.  Since convicted slavers were executed for piracy, slavers sometimes threw their captives into the ocean when they were pursued by the authorities.

Despite the dangers of running the naval blockade, the slave trade continued through the 1860s.  Scarcity meant higher prices for the shipments of slaves that reached the Americas.  An American-owned slave ship was caught sailing from New York only months before the Civil War.  (We need to remember that the American economy as a whole benefited from slavery and the slave trade, not just the South.)

****And smuggling.

*****Barracks somehow seems too nice a word.  Other possible translations include hut, holding pen, and enclosure.  Since the salesroom is the only surviving building, it’s hard to know which is more accurate.





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