An estimated 1.8 million Africans lost their lives at sea during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

A memorial ribbon on maps and charts would remind mining companies and others working on the seabed of the historical importance of the area and the possibility that culturally significant artifacts might be found there, argued scholars from Duke, The Ocean Foundation, other universities, government agencies and NGOs in a recent commentary in the Journal of Marine Policy.

“We’re not in any way suggesting a ban or restriction on mining, but we do want to help ensure that activities on the seabed are sensitive to the cultural heritage of the Middle Passage,” said Cindy Van Dover, Harvey W. Smith Distinguished Professor of Biological Oceanography at the Nicholas School, who co-authored the commentary.

According to the group’s research, more than 12.5 million Africans were carried across the Atlantic on an estimated 40,000 slave-trading voyages between 1519 and 1865. At least 1.8 million perished under horrendous conditions on the two-month voyage and were thrown overboard.

It may be possible, the authors suggest, that mining operations working a mile or more underwater will come upon artifacts of the Middle Passage, including an estimated 1,000 slave-trade shipwrecks. A wreck, if found, might contain human remains and artifacts deserving preservation like that afforded to the wreck of the RMS Titanic.

“We hope that this research encourages conversation about the cultural significance of the 
Atlantic seabed and for these cultural values to be considered alongside the environmental concerns and economic interests associated with deep-sea mining,” said Phillip Turner of Seascape Consultants Ltd., who earned his PhD in marine science and conservation from Duke’s Nicholas School in 2019.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, nations that are members of the International Seabed Authority – which grants permits for deep-sea mining – have a duty to protect these remains and artifacts, Turner and Van Dover noted. Designating the seabed in that area as a virtual memorial site could provide an added motivation to honor that duty.


Map of slave-trade voyages across the Atlantic