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Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade,
1500–1800

September 16, 2013–January 5, 2014

Textiles, Colonialism, and the Slave Trade

Agostino Brunias (1728–1796). Linen Day, Roseau, Dominica — A Market Scene (detail). West Indian, for British market, ca. 1780. Oil on canvas; 19.6 x 27 in (49.8 x 68.6 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Textiles played a crucial role as one of the most frequently used forms of currency exchanged for enslaved Africans. West African merchants were discerning customers; to please them, foreign traders supplied preferred textiles such as fine Indian cottons with woven patterns of stripes or checks. This market was lucrative, and by the middle of the eighteenth century some European textile manufacturers began to specialize in producing imitations of these Indian cottons for the Atlantic slave trade.

Textiles also offered opportunities for individual and collective expression. While a small percentage of the population could afford to dress in fine silks, most people owned at least some cotton clothing. In the colonies, both enslaved and free persons of color used fashions such as eye-catching head wraps to subvert European authority, preserve cultural traditions, and construct personal identities.

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