The Business of Slavery

By: Emily Phan

Northwest African American Museum

          For my cultural artifact, I wanted to find something that relates to the slavery time period. I figured going to a museum would be my best bet. I visited the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) in Seattle. This museum exhibits art, history, and culture. While making my way throughout the museum, I almost got sidetracked and forgot why I was there. Once I got to the history wing of the museum, I immediately saw so many artifacts that I could have used for this assignment. What caught my eye was this receipt. I remembered learning that slavery it was often used for business, which included owners hiring out their slaves. I felt that this artifact would make me think more into this topic. For this blog, I am going to tie in my artifact with examples from 12 Years a Slave. This photo of the artifact is the best I could do. I was limited by the glass display case giving off a glare and the “Do not cross.” rope. The information card reads:

“This 1746 receipt is typical of the documents that were issued when slave owners loaned their slaves out for work.”

Courtesy of Eileen Penny Clark

        The receipt shows the handwriting of owner, Nathaniel Potter, lending his Negro to Molly James Cahoone. I could not distinguish what the rest says, but my preeminent guess would be the price for borrowing or renting per day. I looked into who the generous donor was and I was thinking she might be a historian. What came up in my Google search is that she is a collector of historical artifacts! My impression is that she has a pretty cool hobby and I wish I could ask her how she came across this piece. After viewing and studying the receipt, I find that this artifact is a great representation of slavery being portrayed as a business.

          Slavery in the 1700’s existed throughout the world. The receipt clearly displays that the transaction took place the day of September 6, 1746. During this time period, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was taking place. Slaves are being taken or kidnapped from their land are sold to slave traders and branded (Pittman, 2015). They are packed tight on ships, lying down with no room to move. After the slave traders reach their destination, this is where business comes into play. The slaves would then be up for sale, either through auctions blocks or by having a set price (Curtin, 1969). Buyers would purchase slaves to work on their plantation, which are mostly tobacco or cotton plantations.

            An example that shows how slavery is a business would be in the movie 12 Years a Slave based on the story of Solomon Northup. In the movie, there was a fair amount of business being done. The movie depicted a scene where there was an auction block and during this scene you could see a business negotiation being performed between the buyer and the seller (McQueen, 2013). Once a slave is bought, they are considered property to their master (Dr. Pittman, personal communication, October, 2015). Although it is not shown, it is likely that with the purchase of a slave, papers are given to the buyer to prove ownership.

            Paperwork was necessary to keep track of which slaves bought, sold, or rented. The receipt that was written by Nathaniel Potter for Molly Cahoone may be for several reasons. Some reasons being, his plantation producing no crops so he would have to make money through lending his slaves or Cahoone having a debt to pay off and is need of slave labor. When a settlement like this is formed, having it written down on paper for records would keep slave owners from losing money and their slaves. The receipt is also a model for how slave owners treat their slaves like property rather than human. The receipt included specifics of loaning out the slave, such as date and price. In the course of this time, having papers of ownership also indicates that if anything were to happen with the buying or loaning of a slave, it could be taken to court (Thomas).

            The movie came to an ending scene where a friend of Solomon showed up to the planation he was at with free papers  (McQueen, 2013). Out of the many forms of papers, free papers are genuinely the most important since it provides evidence for a slave’s freedom (Dr. Pittman, personal communication, November, 2015). To counteract the notion of Solomon being a freed man rather than a slave, Master Epps ran out holding up papers to prove that he bought Solomon and that Solomon is his property (McQueen). I believe that since he was free to begin with, there would be no case.

            On a final note, it was hard to grasp that there was a piece of history in a glass box for everyone to see, sitting in Seattle. After learning about slave trades and slavery being seen as a business during this time period, seeing that receipt just proves how inhumane slaves were treated. It is proof of someone being rented for labor or whatever the case may be.

Works Cited:

12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. Screenplay by John Ridley. By Solomon Northup. Perf. Chiwetel Ejiofor. Regency Enterprises, 2013. Film.

Curtin, Phillip D. Atlantic Slave Trade (1969) “Slave Trade: the African Connection, ca 1788” EyeWitness to History, (2007).

Dunaway, Wilma A. The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. New York: Maison Des Sciences De L’homme/Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Pittman, Dr. LaShawnDa (2015). Strange New Land 1619-1776 [PowerPoint slides].

Pittman, Dr. LaShawnDa (2015). Transatlantic Slave Trade [PowerPoint slides].

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, n.d. Print.

3 thoughts on “The Business of Slavery

  1. This was a very interesting blog. Firstly, I didn’t know that this museum existed. I agree that it is fascinating how an artifact from so long ago is within driving distance of our home. I love how you tied the artifact with not only the 12 years a slave movie but also slavery as an institution. So much of what we learn in class can be tied into this as well. It is amazing how something so small can have such a huge meaning. Good writing, I enjoyed the entire piece.

    Warmest regards,


  2. 1. Yes, the title is very straight to the point as to what the blog will be about.

    2. Yes, she included a photo of a 1746 receipt that documented hiring out a slave from one owner to another. It’s a really great artifact seeing something that old to have survived until today.

    3. In class, we’ve seen in movies and discussed in lecture about the importance of documentations during slavery. I would like to know where this originates from and what was the situation for the hire out.

    4. Emily did a great job at connecting to 12 Years a Slave and to course materials from lecture. It’s interesting to see that she actually went out to find an artifact. I’m actually interested in going to NAAM now.

    5. The organization of this paper was written well, keep it up!


  3. First of all, great title and fascinating cultural artifact. I did not know such a museum existed! I found it really good that you showed why the time period was important for African Americans and that you tied our class lecture into your analysis of the time period— great job and definitely recommend doing the same thing for blog two! You do a good job connecting the artifact to course material, class discussions, and power points.I would have liked to maybe hear a little bit more about the ways that the slaves were treated on plantations. You bring up a little bit in the last paragraph about how inhumanely slaves were treated but if you elaborated a little bit I think it would be great! Overall great job, there were a few areas where the re-working of sentences would make the blog read better.


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