On Friday, October 11, 1850, insufficient cargo at Baltimore made it difficult for Bath captain John C. Lowell of the Sewall-owned John C. Calhoun to ensure a profitable voyage to New Orleans. His solution? To transport enslaved people for auction. “I engaged this morning 80 negroes at $12 p head & think the prospect good for 40 or 60 more at the same rate,” Lowell wrote to the Sewalls. “Please say nothing about my taking negroes” (Sewall Family Papers, 22.365.7).
The Sewalls, like other northern businessmen, did not have to be told to keep quiet. While the economic link between Bath shipping companies and southern slavers was no secret at the time, the closeness of this relationship has been well hushed within the annals of history. But as researchers assume a more inclusive focus, evidence of Maine mariners regularly transporting and greatly profiting off enslaved people is coming to light. Furthermore, the fact that so many Bath-built vessels were used in the cotton and West Indies trades inextricably implicates the businesses, individuals, and communities who profited from them in the capture, sale, and enslavement of Africans and African Americans. In fact, the John C. Calhoun itself is a tribute to the staunch anti-abolitionism of its namesake, the U.S. Vice President who adamantly defended slavery and protected white economic interests in the antebellum South.
This is the undertold angle of Maine’s maritime history that Bowdoin College Professor and Chair of the Africana Studies Department Tess Chakkalakal’s Introduction to Africana Studies students are exploring as they curate a new exhibit at MMM, open now. In the exhibit, students juxtapose previously unexhibited documents alongside more typical maritime artifacts—ship portraits, tools, souvenirs—prompting visitors to re-examine perspectives on Maine’s maritime history. In doing so they are not only gaining professional experience in archival research, interpretation, and curation, they are developing an appreciation for the importance of inclusivity in both interpreting history and accomplishing meaningful work. In this collaboration between Bowdoin College and Maine Maritime Museum, students are applying their classroom learning on history, race, and culture to a vital public discourse that connects Maine’s maritime past with today’s national conversation on racial equity.
Museum educators, including Luke Gates-Milardo and Sarah Timm, together with Professor Chakkalakal have co-designed a curriculum that synthesizes Africana Studies course content with Museum Studies. Throughout the first half of the semester Bowdoin hosted MMM educators to present on object interpretation and exhibit curation, including a lesson at Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Since then, students have engaged directly with MMM’s collection through online research and tours of the galleries, library archives, and collection storage as they compose analytical essays on selected items from the museum’s collection.
Through their research, students have learned to appreciate the complexities of the past, understanding that even the most accepted historical narratives can privilege one perspective and, over time, erase another. To celebrate Maine’s maritime heritage without critique not only indulges an incomplete history, it encourages a national identity in which the oppressed become voiceless and wealth, despite the horrors of its acquisition, equates power. In the exhibit, MMM educators and Bowdoin students hope to combat historical exclusion in pursuit of a more accurate history. This work is necessary, for without acknowledging the sometimes painful complications of our past, we will forever be ill-equipped to understand the complexities of our present.