The Middle Passage and Africa Overview

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The Middle Passage and Africa Overview

The year 1619 was a momentous one for the struggling young colony of Virginia, which was just beginning to achieve some viability. In the same year that the House of Burgess was established, the fledgling colony's future was assured by the arrival of its first boatload of women—or, as the colonists described them, "many virgins." Also in 1619, a Dutch privateer arrived in Jamestown transporting twenty "Negars," men who were taken from a slaver on the high seas by the Dutch and brought to Virginia to be sold to the colonial government, which in turn sold them to individual planters at a profit. Although these men were officially referred to as indentured servants, who would be freed after several years of service, this actually marked the beginning of the North American British colonies' participation in the worldwide slave trade.

Ulrich Phillips's American Negro Slavery (1918) remained the standard work on the subject of the slave trade until the 1950s. In that book and in his later work Life and Labor in the Old South (1929), Phillips's view of Africa was overwhelmingly negative. "No people is without its philosophy and religion," he admitted, but "of all regions of extensive habitation equatorial Africa is the worst" (1918, pp. 3 and 5). As for the Africans, "the climate in fact not only discourages but prohibits mental effort of severe or sustained character, and the negroes have submitted to that prohibition as to many others, through countless generations, with excellent grace" (p. 4). In his view, men and women of African descent were nothing more than naturally inferior "savages" who benefited from the "civilizing" influence of slavery. In starkly contrasting interpretation, Kenneth Stampp's 1956 synthesis The Peculiar Institution described the institution of slavery as an oppressive means of economic exploitation. Stampp depicted the slaves as captives violently uprooted from an organic position in a viable African society and placed between two cultures in a New World. Subsequent scholars have built on Stampp's work to provide a nuanced portrait of life in the sub-Saharan Africa, revealing a diverse society with sophisticated social, economic, and political structures.

These studies have also provided important insights into the way in which the slave trade operated on the African continent. Whereas some early writers had assumed that the trade was an almost exclusively European enterprise, David Eltis has shown in The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (2000) that Africans were in many ways fully complicit in the Atlantic slave trade. European buyers rarely ventured beyond the coastline themselves, so they depended almost exclusively on the extended networks and contacts of African merchants. As such, Africans exerted significant control over the dynamics of the slave market and conducted the trade on their own terms. For example, African sellers influenced who was sold into captivity—usually prisoners of war, those convicted of crimes, and those already in servitude rather than victims of kidnapping—and controlled the rate at which traders were able to fill their ships. Traders also were forced to deal with local tribal governments, which levied taxes that the Europeans had to pay and, in some areas, even insisted that slaves were purchased at a standard price that they set.

Although many people think of the slave trade as consisting solely of the so-called Middle Passage, in fact the voyage across the Atlantic was but one part of the ordeal faced by potential slaves, many of whom died long before they saw the interior of a ship. After being captured, slaves were forced to march for distances of up to 500 miles or more from the African interior to trading posts along the coast, where they were incarcerated in pens for up to a year before finally being boarded onto specially converted ships bound for the New World. Conditions aboard these slave ships were literally sickening. With profit the sole motive, humanitarian considerations were rarely, if ever, a consideration for the crew. Instead, the object of a voyage was to arrive in the Americas with as many live slaves as possible at a minimum cost. Slave ships were consequently loaded as efficiently as possible. Slaves were chained together, stripped naked, and crowded into spaces so small that they allowed no individual movement and often forced them to live and breathe in each other's waste and blood. Those who showed any sign of disease generally were thrown overboard for fear that they would infect the rest of the ship. And because suicides and uprisings were common among the cargo on these ships, punishments were harsh, and any sign of defiance was brutally put down to dissuade others from doing the same. Notwithstanding the fact that slave mortality rates onboard ship declined throughout the nineteenth century, death rates averaged as high as 20 percent.

Historians have long argued about exactly how many Africans were torn from their homeland and delivered under appalling conditions and with astounding loss of life into slavery in the New World. The most recent estimates, based on a thorough analysis of voyage-by-voyage shipping data, reveals that over the course of three centuries as many as 11 million men, women, and children were transported out of Africa as part of the transatlantic slave trade (Eltis 2001, p. 29).


Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Eltis, David. "The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment." William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2001): 17-46.

Klein, Herbert Sanford. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Régime. New York: D. Appleton, 1918.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. Life and Labor in the Old South. Boston: Little, Brown, 1929.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1956.

                                   Simon J. Appleford

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The Middle Passage and Africa Overview

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