The Middle Passage refers to the transition through the Atlantic where enslaved people were tightly packed, chained and shipped to their next destination. Accounts such as the ones from Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa, The African) narrate stories of the level of torture of the conditions that these people had to face through the Middle Passage. Here is a fragment from his book:
At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. But this disappointment was the least of my sorrow. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential.
The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.
This is probably one of the most difficult topics we got to face as researchers. Although we are trying to produce content that aims to engage with a wide range of audiences, including young people and children, it is very important for us to highlight the un-human like treatment that enslaved people had to face through the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. One of the many focus areas of around the middle passage has been the ships. For example, the International Slavery Museum Liverpool (ISM) has showcased a special interest around such ships and the artefacts that surrounded those life experiences throughout that passage. For the illustrations, we wanted to showcase that this was the point of departure, and crossing the Atlantic towards the so-called New World.
We focused on the voyage for the final interaction point. The ships were based on historic illustrations between 1857 and 1780. The connection to Liverpool, in this case, is showcased through the illustration of a ‘Liverpool Slave Ship’ by William Jackson, also showcased at the ISM. There were other illustrations that depicted enslaved people, but we wanted to keep a more flowing narrative in relation to the cultural contribution. Nevertheless, we believed that it was still important to remember the Middle Passage through the narrative.
Ee wan wabina ikuk and Lukembe tuning
Since it is impossible to find an actual recording of the from the Middle Passage, we chose a song that tells the story of Uganda’s freedom. It says: “Girls are like birds in the river. Uganda has her freedom. I’m thinking of my girl. Oh, the eyes of women.” The performer is a singer named Opia.
There is a wide range of instruments such as the Lukembe or lamellophone, drums and wooden pipes. Despite that the record indicates that the song was recorded in Alarek, Labwor, northeast Uganda, the performer noted that they were from Achioli, Uganda.
The soundtrack belongs to the Peter Cooke Uganda Recordings Collection at the British Library. You can find the full record here. Below is a 30-second sample, which has been now cleaned and optimised to be played on our installation.
Lukembes or lamellophones are very are also found in almost every part of the world. Here is a video of a more modern lamellophone song.