Water’s Edge Museum, Part 1: The Middle Passage Arrival Port

I’ve written this article after recording a podcast with return guest, Dr. Clara Small, the foremost authority on all things when it comes to the story of the black experience on Delmarva. (You can listen to that podcast by clicking this link.) We had her on last year, and she was the inspiration behind the email I describe below. Be sure to check out the podcast, and also my first article about Dr. Clara as well as our first conversation.

As a podcaster and blogger, there are hallmark moments which will forever be etched into my mind as special. One of these moments was the day I opened my email to find the first message I’d received from a listener. Not only was it a message of appreciation for previous episodes, but it was a tip for new content based on what I’d done in the past. It checked a few boxes for me.

First, it was confirmation that people were indeed listening to what I was producing. Second, it was confirmation that the content was meaningful in some way. And finally, it was confirmation that people wanted me to do more. If you’ve ever created anything hoping others would engage with it and show appreciation in some way, then you know what all that confirmation meant for me as a creator. 

I was quick to respond to the email with a thank you, and I moved on the tip. They had suggested I check out a new museum called Water’s Edge Museum.

“The Water’s Edge Museum proudly presents Black farmers, professional sailmakers, military figures, musicians, watermen, and crab pickers—The Founding Black Families of America who harnessed knowledge and power, and placed it firmly and confidently into the hands of their descendants.” I checked out the website and made an appointment to go see the museum.

Water’s Edge Museum Website

As it turns out, Oxford had made an appearance on a early episode of Delmarva’s Own. One end of The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry leaves and arrives in, well, Oxford. I mentioned this ferry in the 2nd full episode we ever produced. It was part of a trivia game I played with my guest, Ray Hoffman. (Currently, it is one of our most listened to episodes, and you can find it here.) I was early for my appointment, so after locating the museum I drove around the small, remote town and quickly found the waterfront with the ferry parked in place, closed for the season. I parked for a few moments, taking in the beauty of the blue sky and the glimmer of the water. If I hadn’t been familiar with the ferry due to my previous podcast, I’m not sure I’d have recognized anything special about the spot. There’s no denying its beauty. But the beauty alone doesn’t make it unique in this part of the world. There are miles of shoreline with views like the one I was enjoying.

When one drives to the little beach here, they’ll likely drive the main road, Morris Street, and pass by Robert Morris Inn before turning right on to the aptly named Strand Road. Driving from west to east you’ll see a small beach of grass or sand – depending on where you decide to place your blanket – to your left. The small beach is interspersed with trees. It resembles a park more than a beach. To the right you’ll find a row of good-sized, two-story houses complete with covered porches and a terrific view of the tranquil waters along the edge of the shore. 

Tranquil beauty abounds.

While the beauty of the location is undeniable, I wasn’t able to find anything in particular as to why the Water’s Edge Museum chose Oxford as it’s home. Oxford is small, with a population that seems somewhat smaller, if that’s possible. It took me 5 minutes to see the whole town – literally. I lunched at Oxford Market, a convenience store complete with everything you might need if you had a summer home in the area. The deli counter was the only open establishment I could find in town on that sunny but cold January day that would make me a burger or submarine sandwich. I chose the former and a bag of chips.

When my appointment time arrived, I was met at the door of the museum by the Museum Director, Candace Henry. We entered a comfortable room adorned with various paintings on the wall, benches to sit on, and displays about religious stories and music throughout. Candace took me on a tour through the history of the Black American experience on Delmarva, and how much of the experience has been hidden through the years. Henry, who was a descendant of some of the people who posed for the paintings now hanging on the wall, was good and piqued my curiosity several times. 

There was a lot to take in, and as can sometimes happen with me, I quickly forgot some details as Henry moved through the years and development of the black residents of the region. The Delmarva region is large, and they could have chosen any number of places just as beautiful as Oxford to create the museum. So, I asked her why they chose Oxford.

“Oxford,” she began, “is the only documented middle passage arrival port where captive Africans arrived on the Eastern Shore [of Maryland].”

“Ooooh, I see.” I replied, pretending her answer had cleared things up. The fact was, it hadn’t, and I was a bit embarrassed.

I didn’t know what the middle passage was. So, I was still a bit lost as to why Oxford was the chosen location for the museum. The way she’d dropped “middle passage” led me to believe it was something I should have been familiar with. 

I gathered it had something to do with slavery, and perhaps there was a passage  – a slave trade shipping route – that went up through the middle of the United States or something. Maybe Oxford was one of the stops on that middle passage up through the United States. I went home with her answer on my mind, knowing I had some research to do before I could really know the story of the black residents of Delmarva.

As it turns out, I was partly right and partly wrong about what the Middle Passage was.

I was right in that the Middle Passage was in fact a slave-trade shipping route.

The most simple definition for the Middle Passage is this: it was the sailing route of slave ships from the coast of Africa to the United States.

With this in mind, please understand there is no simple way to explain the middle passage, just as there is no simple way to tell the complete story of our country’s participation in slavery. But, if someone were to ask you for a short answer to the question, “What was the Middle Passage?” you can adequately answer them by saying, “The Middle Passage is the shipping route slave ships used to bring captive people from the shores of Africa to the shores of the United States. It was a brutal, horrendous trip under the best of circumstances in which an estimated ⅓ of the captives died in transit.” That’s it; and, don’t forget the second sentence. The answer is incomplete without it.

To fully understand the story of the Middle Passage, I find it helps to understand two key concepts. The first is relatively simple. It’s the date January 1, 1808 which serves as one line of demarkation in the story of North American chattel slavery. This is the date when The Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves went into effect bringing an end to the legal importation of enslaved people to the United States. If enslaved people arrived on United States shores after this date, it was against United States federal law. So, technically speaking, the Middle Passage, inasmuch as it transported enslaved people, was “closed” after January 1, 1808.

(Note: In my research for this post, I discovered reams of information regarding how the United States skirted or ignored this law, both in the north and south.)

Second, we would do better to understand the slave trade as an industry which not only engaged in trading human labor, but also the goods produced by slave labor. These goods were shipped to other parts of the world, as were goods needed to support the trade. The result was a pattern of shipping routes known as the Triangular Trade route. Here is an oversimplification of who the Triangular Trade route worked. There were three main shipping lanes involved.

The Triangular Trade Route

The Middle Passage: Captive people from Africa are forced to endure horrific conditions journeyed to America and disembarked upon arrival to their destination.  This would be either to the

The Triangle Trade Route of the Slave Trade

West Indies (various islands in the Caribbean) and/or US Colonies/States.

America to Europe: Goods, largely supplied by the labor of enslaved people would leave the United States and travel to Europe, usually Liverpool, England. These goods included sugar, tobacco and  cotton harvested by enslaved people (and later textiles which had been made with cotton harvested by enslaved people).

Europe to Africa: Textiles, rum, other manufactured goods were shipped to Africa to trade or as payment for more enslaved people.

As you would correctly assume, the “triangle” is a major over-simplification of what was going on. But I’m simple-minded, so it helps. That said, we need to understand there was more to the trade than just the enslaved people, and it was about more than just “cotton or tobacco.” We aren’t taught a lot about the other interplaying parts of the slave trade. Here’s what I mean…

When I think of slavery, my stereotypes kick in and I think of the Confederate States of the U.S.. But the reality is that the slave trade existed to benefit more than just the southern part of the US. It benefitted Europe first and then the European colonies. And, after the American Revolution, it continued to benefit the United States as a whole. Though the majority of enslaved people were in bondage in the south, there were also enslaved people in the North. Further, there was a remarkable number of enslaved people in the West Indies (Caribbean) which were a critical part of what made the wheels of the triangle trade work. Sugar and molasses were the bearings and grease for the entire operation. The parts of the Caribbean where we now like to spend vacation were largely consumed with sugar production. Sugar was profitable and was the main crop of the region, not food. The labor of growing and harvesting the sugar cane as well as the process of turning cane into sugar and its byproduct, molasses, was carried out by enslaved people. And, like all people everywhere throughout history, the people in the area – enslaved or free – needed to be eat. The food to feed them came from…North America. 

The food feeding the slaves was not free and the funds which paid for the food played a major part in driving the economy of the fledgling New England region in the 17th and 18th century. “The scale of the trade from New England alone is astonishing. On the eve of the American Revolution, almost 80 percent of New England’s overseas exports went to the British West Indies”(Farrow, Lang, and Frank, p. 49). North America also sent livestock and lumber to the West Indies. We were dependent on the work of enslaved people for multiple reasons. We purchased the products their labor produced, enriching the owners of the plantations, and we sold the needed goods to support the enslaved population (food, livestock, and lumber). The slave trade was multi-faceted from he get-go.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “what does this have to do with the Middle Passage?” It’s a fair question with multiple answers.

  1. I ramble.
  2. The Middle Passage was just one horrendous part used to feed a large trade industry.

But you’re right, I should get back to the topic at hand – Delmarva, and more specifically, Oxford, Maryland.

Prior to 1808, Oxford was a stop on the Middle Passage shipping route. In fact, as far as we know it was the only Middle Passage arrival port on Delmarva. Official records tell of 4 Middle Passage journeys to Oxford. They occurred from 1763-1772, all originating in Senegal. On these four voyages from the coast of Africa directly to the colonies, 390 captives were transported to Oxford. 71 of these captive people died during the trip. 319 were sold into bondage. 

There were 26 other recorded trips where enslaved people were transported to Oxford. In all, we know that 634 captives were transported, 99 of whom died in transit, the remaining 535 sold into bondage. (You can find all of this information broken down concisely in a document compiled by Barbara Paca, Ph.D., and posted on the Water’s Edge Museum website, linked here.)

There is one unfortunate irony to all of what I have said above, and to which I dedicated one complete podcast episode. When it comes to the history of Delmarva’s black founding family’s, slavery is only the means by which they were brought to these shores. The intended ends was to enrich the country. As it turns out, the forced labor of chattel slavery was just the beginning. From the moment the first enslaved people were forced into bondage, something else was happening. The human souls didn’t just come as a source of free labor, regardless of the intent of their impressers. They also came with feelings, hopes, aspirations and dreams. These are the things the Water’s Edge Museum desires to bring to the light. It’s all the things we should be talking about in addition to, and perhaps instead of slavery. These are the things we’ll address in parts 2 and 3.

Stay tuned. Or as we say in the podcast world…subscribe.

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