Middle Passage

views updated May 14 2018


MIDDLE PASSAGE. Even before African slaves arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619, the slave trade figured significantly in the economy of the Atlantic nations.

Established primarily by sea captains from England and New England, a system of trading routes developed among Europe, Africa, and North America and became known collectively as the triangular trade. Ships in these triangular lanes carried goods among the three continents, taking advantage of the fact that none of these regions was economically self-sufficient; each depended on the other two for goods they could not provide themselves. The so-called Middle Passage consisted of the leg across the Atlantic that connected Africa to the Americas.

The economics of such trafficking went something like this: England produced textiles and other manufactured goods like firearms and gunpowder, unavailable in either North America or Africa. This cargo made the voyage from England to the African "Slave Coast" to be traded for slaves and other riches such as gold and silver. The next leg sent these slaves and domestic goods to the West Indies and North American coast, where shippers traded their cargo for tobacco, fish, lumber, flour, foodstuffs, and rum distilled in New England before returning with these goods to England.

The inhabitants along the west coast of Africa had long recognized the practice of slavery; however, trafficking existed mainly to supply domestic slaves. Local kings would often sell surplus slaves, in addition to criminals, debtors, and prisoners of war, to European traders. However, the exportation of African slaves had its real origins in 1419, when Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal began to send expeditions to explore the West African coast. By 1444, Europe began to buy African slaves, and the first leg of the slave trade triangle became established. Demand for slaves proved to be greater than the usual practices could provide, and coastal tribes resorted to slave-catching raids to supply Europeans' demands, using firearms supplied by slavers.

Renaissance Europeans discovered the existence of the Americas in 1492 when Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the New World during an attempt to find a sea-trading route to the Far East. The subsequent conquest of the New World encouraged transatlantic slave trading as early as 1502 in support of plantations instituted in the Americas. Bartolomé de Las Casas, later the bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, proposed in 1517 the large-scale importation of African slaves to replace the local Indian slaves, whom he deemed unsuitable. The following year, the Spanish Crown authorized the first direct shipment of slaves from Africa to the Americas and, by 1595, began to grant the asiento, permits providing for slave-trading monopolies to Spanish dominions. The year 1619 saw the first African slaves in North American colonies.

Initially, Portuguese and Spanish colonies in South America and Central America bought slaves to work on sugar cane plantations, facilities known as the "seasoning stations" by the northern plantations because of the brutal conditioning that took place there. Although Portugal retained control of the southern transatlantic slave trade, several nations, especially England, challenged the Spanish for the northern Atlantic. In 1562, Sir John Hawkins became the first Englishman to carry a cargo of African slaves to the New World. His voyage netted such gains that Queen Elizabeth, who had publicly denounced slave-trading voyages, secretly invested heavily in Hawkins's subsequent slaving expeditions. Sir Francis Drake, Hawkins's cousin, commanded one of these ships.

In the late 1560s, Hawkins sailed his ships into the port of Veracruz on the Mexican coast, where he encountered a large and heavily armed Spanish fleet, which attacked and defeated the English vessels as part of their attempt to retain the monopoly over the northern transatlantic slave trade. British interest in the slave trade did not resume for a century, until after the English Civil War, when in 1672 Charles II chartered the Royal African Company, which quickly established England as the world's greatest slave trader. By the 1700s, due to increasing demand for African slaves, slave traders began to ship their cargo of Africans directly from Africa to North America.

The Middle Passage may have served to enrich many Europeans and Americans, but the enslaved Africans suffered extraordinary atrocities and inhuman conditions during these voyages. Estimates for the total number of Africans imported to the New World by the slave trade range from 25 million to 50 million; of these, perhaps as many as half died at sea during the Middle Passage experience. The journey from Africa to North America could take between thirty and ninety days. The vessels were called "loose packers" or "tight packers," where captives were laid side by side, coffin like, beneath the deck. The ships carried the stench of diseased and decaying

bodies, and slavers often threw unruly Africans overboard, which lured sharks along these shipping lanes.

Olaudah Equiano, of the Ibo tribe in what is now modern Nigeria, wrote an account of the horrors of the Middle Passage. Kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of eleven, Equiano recounted the shock of seeing white people purchase slaves in Africa and the fear aroused by the claim that whites ate Africans or drank their blood. The few first-hand accounts that exist consistently report that the unsanitary conditions aboard ship on the longer journeys created high mortality rates, encouraged by the incidence of smallpox, eye infections, gastrointestinal disorders, and body sores. "Fever" and "flux" were the terms used to describe common causes of death during the ocean crossing, and some slaves committed suicide by refusing to eat or throwing themselves overboard. Ships sometimes reported slave rebellions, and the result became a maritime standard of even harsher and more brutal handling.

Slave-ship captains were given incentives for delivering only healthy, salable men and women to American slave markets. As a result, certain circumstances could lead to the mass murder of their African cargo at sea. When captives seemed too sick to survive the journey, slavers were known to hurl the weak and infirm into the sea. At other times, storms at sea or shortages of drinking water might lead to the mass execution of captives as well. In fact, records show that captains who ordered Africans overboard at sea often sought reimbursement from insurance companies for their losses.

In 1807, England became the first nation to abolish the African slave trade, but not even the mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad in 1839 could put an end to the Middle Passage until the American Civil War came to a close in 1865. Only then did the United States outlaw slavery and end 300 years of Middle Passage horror and inhumanity.


Alderman, Clifford L. Rum, Slaves, and Molasses: The Story of New England's Triangular Trade. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1972.

Dow, George Francis. Slave Ships and Slaving. New York: Dover, 1970.

Equiano, Olaudah. Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Howard, Thomas, ed. Black Voyage: Eyewitness Accounts of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

Klein, Herbert S. The Middle Passage: Comparative Studies in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Plimmer, Charlotte, and Denis Plimmer. Slavery: The Anglo-American Involvement. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. New York: Norton, 1981.

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440–1870. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.


See alsoAmistad Case ; Antislavery ; Slave Ships ; Slave Trade .

Middle Passage

views updated May 23 2018

Middle Passage

The Middle Passage was a journey millions of African people made aboard European slave ships during the 300-year span of the Atlantic slave trade between 1600 and 1900. The Middle Passage should be viewed as a transformational midpoint in the history of African peoples that began in Africa and crossed the Atlantic Ocean into Europe and the Americas. By conceptualizing the Middle Passage in the middle of a historical chronology of enslavement, Africa and African life becomes the central interpretative milieu for understanding the complexities of this international system of human exploitation.

There is much that is still not known about the Middle Passage. For example, the exact numbers of Africans who successfully survived the Middle Passage is still a subject of immense debate. Scholars estimate the number of survivors to be anywhere from a low of 9 million to a high of 15 million people. Of even greater debate is the number of Africans who perished in the 3,700 mile journey from the west coasts of Africa to the Americas, a journey that could take up to four months to complete. Sadly, it is just not known, nor will there likely ever be an accurate accounting of the living and the dead as a result of the Middle Passage. However, the scholarly record on the causes of death for African people during this period is widely known.

There were many reasons why many Africans perished during these periods. The primary one was because of disease as a result of poor sanitation. In the holds of slave ships, African men and women were packed tightly and shackled at the wrists and ankles onto large multilevel vessels in spaces no bigger than a grave, and oftentimes they were stacked in spoon-like fashion on top of each other. In these cramped spaces these men and women were left to wallow in each other's excrement and mucous. The lack of adequate sanitation and ventilation in these tight quarters led to the outbreak of numerous diseases such as smallpox and dysentery.

Insurrection was another cause for the high death rate among African men and women. On the few occasions that they were released from their chains and shackles for exercise or to entertain their captors, many men and women would attempt to overpower the crew. Most of these attempts were unsuccessful and the African men and women who participated in these acts were severely beaten, whipped, and even killed for their subversiveness.

Suicide was also a prevalent cause of death to African men and women during the Middle Passage. Taking one's life as a response to their enslaved condition was not viewed as morally abhorrent in African cultures as it was in many Western cultures. This was because in most African religious orders, deceased ancestors were prayed to, worshiped, or called upon for guidance in many areas of everyday life in Africa. As such, death, even by suicide, was in many ways seen as an inevitable reunion with one's ancestors.

Besides the untold death rates, rape and sexual abuse aboard slave vessels was equally difficult to enumerate, yet it was believed by most scholars to have frequently occurred over the many voyages and passages from Africa to the Americas. African women were vulnerable to sexual exploitation primarily because they were mostly separated from African men on the slave ships. Equally, once captured, the men in the crew held compete control over the lives of their captives. And as was mentioned earlier, the captors could beat, whip, and kill the African men and women with impunity. As such, sexual access to African women was unbridled and their sexual availability was in many ways seen as part of the spoils for maintaining human cargo over the long and arduous voyage.

The Middle Passage has been called a "quintessential moment of transfiguation" for African people sent to the Americas (Gomez 2005, p. 71). For it was from this violent period of alienation and disorientation that Africans had to adapt to life in a new world. And the process by which Africans adapted to their new environment has been one of critical study for scholars of slavery. Of particular interest to scholars of this adaptive process was the extent to which generations of African-descended people have retained cultural traditions and folkways that were indigenous to African societies. In effect, many scholars of African history are interested in the tenacity of African traditions across time and space when exposed to violent social disruptions. As such, the Middle Passage can be viewed as a central period in the transformation of a people from Africans to African Americans. Consequently, the study of African culture prior to and after the Middle Passage, and the subsequent slave trade, is crucial for a complete understanding of slavery in the Americas and elsewhere.


Gomez, Michael A. Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

                                  Carmen P. Thompson

Middle Passage

views updated May 29 2018


Middle Passage is a term from the colonial slave trade. It refers to the trans-Atlantic journey millions of black Africans were forced to make from Africa's west coast to the Caribbean, where they were sold to plantation owners. The trip was called the Middle Passage because it was the middle leg of the trade triangles that had developed early during the colonial period. These routes were established in the early 1500s by the Spanish and Portuguese, who imported slaves from Africa to work on sugar plantations in the New World. Early in the next century the English, French, and Dutch also began using slave labor in their American colonies.

The Middle Passage was a brutal trip which often lasted several months. Because the slaves were viewed as little more than a commodity, captains would often carry as many as their ships would hold. Conditions were deplorable: Slaves were transported in chains, cramped quarters, and filth. They were not provided with adequate food or exercise, and many died at sea. How many people endured the atrocities of the Middle Passage is unknown. Most estimates place the number at about 10 million. Of that total, an estimated six percent were shipped to the North American mainland.

In 1833 the great antislavery movement in Great Britain reached culmination in the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies. In the United States the slave trade was prohibited in 1808, but possessing slaves was still legaland profitable. Illegal trade in slaves continued until Britain stepped up the enforcement of its antislavery law. Britain conducted naval blockades and surprise raids off the African coast, and effectively closed the trade. Slavery officially came to an end after 1870, when it was outlawed throughout the Americas.

See also: Abolition, Slavery, Triangular Trade

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Middle Passage