The Top Deck on the Slave Ship 'Wildfire,' 1860

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This record was last updated on 28 Mar 2017

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Engraved from daguerreotype, published in Harper's Weekly (June 2, 1860), vol. 4, p. 344

This widely reproduced engraving shows the emaciated survivors of the Middle Passage on the top deck of the American slave ship Wildfire, owned by New Yorkers. Captured in April 1860 by the U.S. Navy within sight of Cuba (its presumed destination), the Wildfire had violated the U.S. law, enacted in 1808, prohibiting the importation of slaves from overseas. Taken on board at the Congo River, the 510 captive Africans who had survived the Atlantic crossing (90 had perished during the voyage) were taken to Key West, Florida. A correspondent for Harper's Weekly boarded the ship soon after it anchored and wrote a very vivid and lengthy account of the captives and their physical condition. His description started with the observation that all of the Africans he saw on the deck were "in a state of entire nudity, in a sitting or squatting posture . . . . They sat very close together, mostly on either side . . . . About fifty of them were full-grown young men, and about four hundred were boys aged from ten to sixteen years." When he descended into the deck below, he "saw sixty or seventy women and young girls, in nature's dress, some sitting on the floor and others on the lockers, and some sick ones lying in the berths. Four or five of them were a good deal tattooed on the back and arms, and . . . three had an arm branded with the figure '7' which we suppose is the merchant's mark." The published account gives many other details on the ship and the conditions of its enslaved passengers (Harper's Weekly, June 2, 1860; see also image HW007). During the Atlantic slave trade, most captive Africans were transported across the Atlantic in a state of complete nudity (see Jerome Handler, The Middle Passage and the Material Culture of Captive Africans, Slavery and Abolition, vol. 30 [2009], pp. 1-26).