Slave Ships and the Middle Passage

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Slave Ships and the Middle Passage

During the four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade , an estimated twelve to fifteen million Africans were shipped from the west coast of Africa to the New World on slavers, or slave ships, to be sold as slaves. For the kidnapped Africans, this passage was almost unbearably horrible.

The suffering began well before the journey to the New World. European traders either kidnapped or purchased African men, women, and children from rival tribes. The captives were bound together and marched to the coast—sometimes hundreds of miles away—heavily burdened with goods for trade. When they reached the coast, many of the captives were brought to forts called barracoons, where they were confined in hot, airless cellars. Others were simply brought to the shore, where European ships bearing guns, rum, and other goods had come to exchange their wares for human beings. The European sailors then brought the captives to the slave vessels.

The slave ships remained anchored off the coast until they had a full cargo of captives. Many of the Africans being taken aboard came from inland societies. They had never before seen ships, the ocean, or white men. Most had been torn from their families and they faced an unknown and very frightening future. Sailors who witnessed it described the terrible sound of the Africans crying out in utter anguish as they were boarded onto the slave ships.

Middle Passage

The Atlantic slave trade was a triangular, or three-legged, trade. A captain in Europe would load up his ship with trade goods and sail to Africa.

There he would exchange the goods for slaves. He would then take the Middle Passage, the base of his triangular run, transporting the captives from Africa to the West Indies or South America to sell them. In the West Indies the captain took on a cargo of rum or other goods, which he would transport back to Europe to start the cycle over again. Later the American colonies developed a triangular trade based in New England rather than Europe. The triangular trade ensured great profits because a captain was never forced to sail with an empty hold. Historians estimate that somewhere between thirty thousand and fifty-five thousand Middle Passage voyages were made between 1503 and 1888, the year slavery was finally outlawed throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The ships

Slave ships were regular cargo ships (ships used for carrying goods) that had been converted to carry slaves. Slave ship owners wanted to carry as many Africans as possible so their profit would be greater. They divided the hull (the main frame of the ship) into “between decks,” or “tween decks.” These were dark, airless, and cramped decks immediately below the main deck of a sailing ship. There the human “cargo” would be confined throughout most of the journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

In the early days of the trade slave traders attempted to make some provisions for the welfare of their human cargo, such as “loose packing” (not overcrowding the slaves), arguing that the fewer the slaves who died the greater the profits. Later most slavers became convinced that it was more profitable to pack slaves into every available square foot of space, a practice called “tight packing.” With good winds the voyage could be made with little loss of life in two months, but if the winds were poor the trip could last several months, and most of the human cargo would be lost.

The male captives were packed into the dark decks of the ship in spaces only as wide as their bodies and usually between three and four feet high—a space so small they either had to crouch or lie down. The males were usually shackled together, with the right foot or wrist of one captive shackled to the left foot or wrist of another. Women and children were usually not shackled. They were kept in separate quarters, where many were sexually assaulted by the slave ship crew.

Keeping the captives in cramped quarters without relief would often make them lame by the trip's end, which would clearly make them bring in less money in a slave auction, or sale. Thus the slave traders found it necessary to bring small groups of captives on deck for short periods during the day and force them to “dance” to restore their blood circulation. On deck the men were heavily shackled. Nets had to be rigged along the ship's sides to prevent the slaves from leaping overboard and drowning themselves.

Life at sea

Food for the captives varied from trader to trader. Horse beans—huge, foul-tasting beans usually used to feed horses—were one of the common elements of a slave ship meal. The beans were mixed with palm oil and flour and covered with red pepper to hide the bad taste. Many slaves refused to eat and had to be force-fed by a device that resembled a funnel, which was forced down the slave's throat. Because stores of water took up so much space on a ship, water rations were usually very small; dehydration, or the body's condition when suffering from a lack of water, was common among the captives.

Sanitation needs of the captives were usually ignored. Seasickness and dysentery (severe diarrhea) created appalling conditions in the between decks. Infectious diseases spread quickly. Many of the captives died of dysentery, smallpox, and what the slavers called “fixed melancholy,” or simply despair. The heat was often unbearable. The sailors whose job it was to oversee the captives were generally a rough lot. Equipped with whips and lashes, their treatment of the captives was often inhumane.

Perhaps the most difficult time for the captives was in stormy weather, when they were forced to remain below deck all day and night and were not given their normal rations of food or water. The cramped quarters smelled of vomit, human waste, and often the rotting flesh of those individuals who died.


The captains and crews of the slave ships lived in constant fear of slave uprisings. All slave ships hired extra crew and armed them. Any sign of resistance by the captives was severely punished. In fact slave rebellions on these ships were fairly common; a few were successful. Most often the captives rose up in rebellion as they were being boarded into the slave ship off the coast of Africa. Realizing this was probably their last chance to see their home again, they risked death rather than face the frightening journey and their futures as slaves in the New World.

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Slave Ships and the Middle Passage

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