January 12, 2023

Gallery Exhibit: “If We Must Die … We Will Fight to the Death!: Resistance and Revolt Aboard the Slave Ship”

BTKE4F African captives fight against a 18th century the slave ship crew. Captives greatly outnumbered the ships’ crew and rebellions

During the spring term 2023 the Stone Center will explore the phenomenon of physical resistance by African captives caught up in the grip of European slavery. Using information, images, and testimony from various sources, along with the work of historians and other scholars, we provide information that will help audiences better understand how captive Africans fought, from the very moment of subjugation, for their freedom.

Unlike other work on resistance that focuses on actions by enslaved individuals that took place in various parts of the Americas, this exhibition, instead, focuses on what we call the “first acts of self-emancipation”, by those who fought back aboard slave ships by any means necessary. This approach allows us to examine both the individual and collective practices of enslaved individuals who had been captured by slavers or who were sold by those in power among and within African nations.


This exhibition includes information on the nationality of European slave ships, the numbers of voyages, the dangers and travails of the passage, and destination of slave ships. We also highlight the roles of the various European nations as they pursued the riches that the commerce promised despite the devastating effects it had on the African communities and nations that fell victim to the greed and exploitation that typified colonial enterprises.

If We Must Die … We Will, then, Fight to the Death, benefits greatly from the scholarship of those who’ve taken the time to pore over commercial documents, insurance records, oral testimonies, and legal briefs among other materials that, taken together, provide a more complete picture of the individual and collective resistance of enslaved captives. In particular we highlight Eric Robert Taylor’s If We Must Die: Shipboard Insurrections in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade (LSU Press,2009) Taylor’s compelling arguments in ‘If We Must Die …’ provided much of the conceptual foundation for mounting this exhibition.

His work, like that of many other scholars delving into this topic, compelled us to examine more closely the notion that the slave ship was the death of all perceived hope by those who had been taken aboard. This exhibition highlights scholarship, testimony and oral records, as well as other sources that acknowledge the resistance of captives and argues that many were never fully resigned to their apparent fate as previously suggested.

Other parts of the exhibition focus on the dynamics of the slave ship including its construction, on the inhuman conditions under which enslaved individuals were transported, and a specific focus on some of the more noteworthy rebellions, or insurrections that appear in the literature.

If We Must Die … We Will Fight to the Death!: Resistance and Revolt Aboard the Slave Ship
also features an installation by internationally renowned sculptor and artist Toni Scott, as well as other contributions of her work that centers the humanity of enslaved individuals.

About Toni Scott: 

Toni Scott is a versatile artist known for her creative use of various mediums; sculpture, painting, digital art, photography, and installations. She is passionate about exploring the connections between people of all races, highlighting the shared experiences of humanity, and promoting reconciliation through her art.

Photo: Courtesy of Toni Scott

Scott’s work challenges societal interpretations of beauty and the myths that have marginalized people of varying identities. Her personal multi-ancestry, identity, and experiences inform her art practice, and she draws inspiration from her own life and that of others to create works that reflect the complex realities of power inequality based on race across economic, political, social and cultural dimensions.

Using found objects, Scott endeavors to create a sense of connection between the viewer and the subjects of her work, encouraging them to find beauty in the overlooked and discarded.

Scott’s work has received international recognition, and her installations and exhibits have been featured in prestigious institutions worldwide, the Getty Research Institution, the Cornerstone gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, The California African American Museum and The Arthur Sackler Museum of Art in Beijing, China.   The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among many others. Her dedication to promoting diversity and representation in the art world has been recognized by the Minnesota Street Project’s California Black Voices Program Grant, by her Presidential appointment as the first featured artist to receive a multi-year exhibition platform at California State University Dominguez Hills, and as co-host of The Skirball Cultural Center’s “The Art of Protest,” where she presented works that address social issues.

Scott holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from UCSB, where she also served as an Artist in Residence and Fine Arts lecturer after graduating from USC. Her work has been featured in several publications, including “Creative Souls, African American Artists in Greater Los Angeles,” “Bloodlines: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” and the Peking University Catalog, “DNA: Bloodlines and the Family of Mankind,” among others.

Gallery Speaker Series

The exhibition opening on Thursday, February 2 occurs simultaneously with a companion speaker series that features leading scholars whose work address some aspect of the special world and Culture of the enterprise of slavery and the slave ship.

The first speaker in the series is historian and scholar activist Marcus Rediker who will describe the unique social dynamics that came to define European slavery as recounted in his The Slave Ship: A Human History (Penguin Books, 2008). Rediker’s other works include an important recasting of the story of the Amistad in The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (Penguin Books, 2013).

On March 8, International Women’s Day, we will also spotlight another notable scholar when we host University of Washington Professor Sowande Mustakeem, whose Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex and Sickness in the Middle Passage (University of Illinois Press, 2016) describes how the transport of human cargoes comprised a violently regulated process that served as the foundation for the institution of slavery.

Importantly, she offers a critique of conventional studies of the slave ship and recounts how this process, and the narrative, are often gendered to focus on male captives. She says these narratives should be re-examined to also consider the comparable and differential effects the slave enterprise imposes on women, children, teens, infants, nursing mothers, the elderly, diseased, ailing, and dying.

The final presentation in the companion speaker series occurs on March 30 and will be delivered by Lisa Lindsay, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at UNC-Chapel Hill. For this series she will speak on her work in progress on women as victims of the trade. Her Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade (Pearson, 2007) is a highly regarded text that focuses on the unique character of the commerce in human beings as commodities, which fundamentally changed how ‘humanity’ was understood and misunderstood, around the world.