Race, Childhood, and Pandemics

Race, Childhood, and Pandemics" highlights 18th century imagery and literature on African children as they were captured and began the maritime Middle Passage to the Americas. Due to anti-Black racist assumptions about African children’s alleged immunity to tropical diseases, slave traders desired them for labor. During the Middle Passage, African children experienced physical and sexual violence and mental trauma aboard slave ships. Adding to their abuse was the tight space of these vessels which created an environment for viral illnesses to thrive. They symbolized both prey and profit during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This panel details those painful experiences.

William Blake, Family of Negro slaves from Loang (London, [between 1791 and 1796]). Engraving.

Created by English printmaker William Blake, this engraved print depicts an intact family unit in modern-day Congo. Printed in London and titled “Family of Negro Slaves”, Blake attempted to illustrate the occupation of the region by Europeans. This family unit as a group carries their fish and vegetables, implying their nutritional habits of the group as well as the specialization of household labor. Before colonization and the international slave trade, African households had their own cultural understanding of health as well as their own notion of childcare.

[Scenes from Guinea] (New York, [1827]). Wood engraving.

Published in New York, these three illustrations show the sequences of events involving the capture of an African family and child separation by European captors. The first picture shows a mother attempting to pull her child away from a slave trade as Europeans raid their village for the international slave trade. Although some historians argued how Africans sold each other into the international slave trade, most enslaved people, including children, were captured for sell. The second image shows the confined, polluted space of the slave ship where children roamed the deck. Last, this picture shows an African person being sold at the auction. For some children, this was their first time being separated from their family if they were not separated during the European raids.

A new account of Guinea, and the slave-trade (London, 1754). Engraving. Courtesy of Wellcome Library.

Published in London, William Snelgave witnessed various violent attacks toward enslaved children upon the slave ship as its traveled across the Atlantic. In this account, he detailed an encounter watching a mother fight for her child. Through racist / anti-Black narratives, Europeans thought African parental care abused black children and provided lackluster care. Therefore, some Europeans intervened to “protect” black children from their own mothers. This mother-child separation prevented black mothers from providing healthcare to their children as the slave ship became an incubator for illness.

William Blake, Group of Negroes as imported to be sold for slaves (London, [between 1791 and 1796]). Engraving.

Another illustration from William Blake, he depicted a slave trade forcing women and children to the auction block to be sold. In the background, the slave ship sits at the port, implying they just finished their journey across the Atlantic. You can see how emaciated, emotionless, and bare these women and children are after their journey. Although they have spent months on a ship, these families may be separated at the auction block.

Granville Sharp, Extract from A representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery (Philadelphia, 1771). Courtesy of John Adams Library at the Boston Public Library.

Published in 1771 by Granville Sharp, this slave advertisement in Philadelphia showed the demand for children who showed physicals signs of immunity from Smallpox. The pandemic created a demand for children or youth who could not become vectors of the virus for their enslavers. Enslavers viewed enslaved children’s perceived immunity as means of demanding more money for their commodification.