Middle Passage

This article is about the slave trade route. For the novel by Charles R. Johnson, see Middle Passage (novel). For the travelogue by V. S. Naipaul, see The Middle Passage (book). For the 1999 film by Guy Deslauriers, see Passage du milieu.
Commercial goods from Europe were shipped to Africa for sale and traded for enslaved Africans. Africans were in turn brought to the regions depicted in blue, in what became known as the "Middle Passage". African slaves were then traded for raw materials, which were returned to Europe to complete the "Triangular Trade".

The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of Africans[1] were shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Ships departed Europe for African markets with manufactured goods, which were traded for purchased or kidnapped Africans, who were transported across the Atlantic as slaves; the slaves were then sold or traded for raw materials,[2] which would be transported back to Europe to complete the voyage. Voyages on the Middle Passage were large financial undertakings, generally organized by companies or groups of investors rather than individuals.[3]

The "Middle Passage" was considered a time of in-betweenness for those being traded from Africa to America. The close quarters and intentional division of pre-established African communities by the ship crew motivated captive Africans to forge bonds of kinship which then created forced transatlantic communities.[4]

Traders from the Americas and Caribbean received the enslaved Africans. European powers such as Portugal, England, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Brandenburg, as well as traders from Brazil and North America, took part in this trade. The enslaved Africans came mostly from eight regions: Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Windward Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, West Central Africa and Southeastern Africa.[5]

An estimated 15% of the Africans died at sea, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous people to the ships.[6] The total number of African deaths directly attributable to the Middle Passage voyage is estimated at up to two million; a broader look at African deaths directly attributable to the institution of slavery from 1500 to 1900 suggests up to four million African deaths.[7]

For two hundred years, 1440–1640, Portuguese slavers had a near monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. During the 18th century, when the slave trade transported about 6 million Africans, British slavers carried almost 2.5 million.[8]


Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade. (From an Abstract of Evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1790 and 1791.)

The duration of the transatlantic voyage varied widely,[2] from one to six months depending on weather conditions. The journey became more efficient over the centuries; while an average transatlantic journey of the early 16th century lasted several months, by the 19th century the crossing often required fewer than six weeks.[9]

It is believed that African kings, warlords and private kidnappers sold captives to Europeans who held several coastal forts. The captives were usually force-marched to these ports along the western coast of Africa, where they were held for sale to the European or American slave traders in the barracoons. Typical slave ships contained several hundred slaves with about 30 crew members.[10]

The male captives were normally chained together in pairs to save space; right leg to the next man's left leg — while the women and children may have had somewhat more room. The chains or hand and leg cuffs were known as bilboes, which were among the many tools of the slave trade, and which were always in short supply. Bilboes were mainly used on men, and they consisted of two iron shackles locked on a post and were usually fastened around the ankles of two men.[11] At best, captives were fed beans, corn, yams, rice, and palm oil. Slaves were fed one meal a day with water, if at all. When food was scarce, slaveholders would get priority over the slaves. Sometimes captives were allowed to move around during the day, but many ships kept the shackles on throughout the arduous journey. Aboard certain French ships, slaves were brought on deck to periodically receive fresh air. While female slaves were typically permitted to be on deck more frequently, male slaves would be watched closely to prevent revolt when above deck.[12]

Slaves below the decks lived for months in conditions of squalor and indescribable horror. Disease spread and ill health was one of the biggest killers. Mortality rates were high, and death made these conditions below the decks even worse. Even though the corpses were thrown overboard, many crew members avoided going to the hold. The slaves who had already been ill ridden were not always found immediately. Many of the living slaves could have been shackled to someone that was dead for hours and sometimes days.[11]

Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World.[13][14] Disease and starvation due to the length of the passage were the main contributors to the death toll with amoebic dysentery and scurvy causing the majority of deaths. Additionally, outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, measles, and other diseases spread rapidly in the close-quarter compartments.

The rate of death increased with the length of the voyage, since the incidence of dysentery and of scurvy increased with longer stints at sea as the quality and amount of food and water diminished. In addition to physical sickness, many slaves became too depressed to eat or function efficiently due to loss of freedom, family, security, and their own humanity.

Sailing technologies

The need for profits in the 18th century's Atlantic market economy drove changes in ship designs and in managing human cargo, which included enslaved Africans and the mostly white crew. Improvements in air flow on board the ships helped to decrease the infamous mortality rate that these ships had become known for throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The new designs that allowed ships to navigate faster and into rivers' mouths ensured access to many more enslaving posts along the West African coast.[15] The monetary value of enslaved Africans in any given American auction-block during the mid-18th century ranged between $800 and $1,200, which in modern times would be equivalent to $32,000–48,000 apiece ($100 then is now worth $4,000 due to inflation). Therefore, ship captains and investors sought technologies that would protect their human cargo.[16]

Throughout the height of the Atlantic slave trade (1570–1808), slave ships were normally smaller than traditional cargo ships, with most slave ships weighing between 150 and 250 tons. This equated to about 350 to 450 enslaved Africans on each slave ship, or 1.5 to 2.4 per ton. The English ships of the time normally fell on the larger side of this spectrum and the French on the smaller side. Ships purposely designed to be smaller and more maneuverable were meant to navigate the African coastal rivers into farther inland ports; these ships therefore increased the effects of the slave trade on Africa. Additionally, the ships' sizes increased slightly throughout the 1700s; however the number of enslaved Africans per ship remained the same. This reduction in the ratio of enslaved Africans to ship tonnage was designed to increase the amount of space per person and thus improve the survival chances of everyone on board. These ships also had temporary storage decks which were separated by an open latticework or grate bulkhead, Ship masters would presumably use these chambers to divide enslaved Africans and help prevent mutiny. Some ships developed by the turn of the 19th century even had ventilation ports built into the sides and between gun ports (with hatches to keep inclement weather out). These open deck designs increased airflow and thus helped improve survival rates, diminishing potential investment losses.[15]

Another major factor in “cargo protection” was the increase in knowledge of diseases and medicines (along with the inclusion of a variety of medicines on the ships). First the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century, followed by some other countries and companies in the late 18th early 19th centuries, realized that the inclusion of surgeons and other medical practitioners aboard their ships was an endeavor that proved too costly for the benefits. So instead of including medical personnel they just stocked the ships with a large variety of medicines; while this was better than no medicines, and given the fact that many crew members at least had some idea of how disease was spread, without the inclusion of medical personnel the mortality rate was still very high in the 18th century.[17]

Slave treatment and resistance

Slaves' treatment was horrific because the captured African men and women were considered less than human; they were "cargo", or "goods", and treated as such; they were transported for marketing. Women with children were not as desirable for they took up too much space and toddlers were not wanted because of everyday maintenance.[18] For example, the Zong, a British slaver, took too many slaves on a voyage to the New World in 1781. Overcrowding combined with malnutrition and disease killed several crew members and around 60 slaves. Bad weather made the Zong's voyage slow and lack of drinking water became a concern. The crew decided to drown some slaves at sea, to conserve water and allow the owners to collect insurance for lost cargo. About 130 slaves were killed and a number chose to kill themselves in defiance, by jumping into the water willingly. The Zong incident became fuel for the abolitionist movement and a major court case, as the insurance company refused to compensate for the loss.

While slaves were generally kept fed and supplied with drink as healthy slaves were more valuable, if resources ran low on the long, unpredictable voyages, the crew received preferential treatment. Slave punishment and torture was very common, as on the voyage the crew had to turn independent people into obedient slaves. Whipping and use of the cat o' nine tails were a common occurrence; sometimes slaves were beaten for "melancholy". Pregnant women on the ships who delivered their babies aboard risked the chance of their children being killed in order for the mothers to be sold.[18] The worst punishments were for rebelling; in one instance a captain punished a failed rebellion by killing one involved slave immediately, and forcing two other slaves to eat his heart and liver.[19]


Slaves resisted in a variety of ways. The two most common types of resistance were refusal to eat and suicide. Suicide was a frequent occurrence, often by refusal of food or medicine or jumping overboard, as well as by a variety of other opportunistic means.[20] Over the centuries, some African peoples, such as the Kru, came to be understood as holding substandard value as slaves, because they developed a reputation for being too proud for slavery, and for attempting suicide immediately upon losing their freedom.[21]

Both suicide and self-starving were prevented as much as possible by slaver crews; slaves were often force-fed or tortured until they ate, though some still managed to starve themselves to death; slaves were kept away from means of suicide, and the sides of the deck were often netted. Slaves were still successful, especially at jumping overboard. Often when an uprising failed, the mutineers would jump en masse into the sea. Slaves generally believed that if they jumped overboard, they would be returned to their family and friends in their village or to their ancestors, in the afterlife.[22]

Suicide by jumping overboard was such a problem that captains had to address it directly in many cases. They used the sharks that followed the ships as a terror weapon. One captain, who had a rash of suicides on his ship, took a woman and lowered her into the water on a rope, and pulled her out as fast as possible. When she came in view, the sharks had already killed her—and bitten off the lower half of her body.[23]

Identity & Communication

In order to interact with each other on the voyage, slaves created a communication system unbeknownst to Europeans: They would construct choruses on the passages using their voices, bodies, and ships themselves; the hollow design of the ships allowed slaves to use them as percussive instruments and to amplify their songs. This combination of “instruments” was both a way for slaves to communicate as well as create a new identity since Europeans attempted to strip them of that. Although most slaves were from various regions around Africa, their situation allowed them to come together and create a new culture and identity aboard the ships with a common language and method of communication:

[C]all and response soundings allowed men and women speaking different languages to communicate about the conditions of their captivity. In fact, on board the Hubridas, what began as murmurs and morphed into song erupted before long into the shouts and cries of coordinated revolt.[24]

This communication was a direct subversion of European authority and allowed slaves to have a form of power and identity otherwise prohibited. Furthermore, such organization and coming together enabled revolts and uprisings to actually be coordinated and successful at times.


Slave uprisings were fairly common but few were successful (notably that on the La Amistad, which had a key effect on abolitionism in the United States):

When we found ourselves at last taken away, death was more preferable than life, and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames.[25]

The number of participants varied widely, often the uprisings would end with the death of a few slaves and crew, and the surviving rebels were punished or executed to be made examples to the rest of the slaves on board.

African religion

Slaves also resisted through certain manifestations of their religions and mythology. They would appeal to their gods for protection and vengeance upon their captors, and would also try to curse and otherwise harm the crew using idols and fetishes. One crew found fetishes in their water supply, placed by slaves who believed they would kill all who drank from it.[22]

Sailors and crew

While the owners and captains of slave ships could expect vast profits, the sailors were often badly paid and subject to brutal discipline. A crew mortality rate of around 20% was expected during a voyage, with sailors dying as a result of disease, flogging or slave uprisings.[26]

The sailors were often employed through coercion as they generally knew about and hated the slave trade. In port towns, recruiters and tavern owners would induce sailors to become very drunk (and indebted) and then offer to relieve their debt if they signed contracts with slave ships. If they did not, they would be imprisoned. Sailors in prison had a hard time getting jobs outside of the slave ship industry since most other maritime industries would not hire "jail-birds", so they were forced to go to the slave ships anyway.[27]

See also


  1. McKissack, Patricia C.; McKissack, Frederick (1995). The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. p. 109. ISBN 0805042598.
  2. 1 2 Walker, Theodore (2004). Mothership Connections. p. 10.
  3. Thomas, Hugh (1999). The Slave Trade: the story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 293. ISBN 0684835657.
  4. Bell, Karen B. (2010). "Rice, Resistance, and Force Transatlantic Communities: (Re)Envisioning the African Diaspora in Low Country Georgia, 1750–1800". Journal of African American History. 95 (2): 157–182 [p. 158]. doi:10.5323/jafriamerhist.95.2.0157.
  5. Lovejoy, Paul E. (2000). Transformations in Slavery. Cambridge University Press.
  6. Mancke, Elizabeth and Shammas, Carole. The Creation of the British Atlantic World, 2005, pp. 30–31.
  7. Rosenbaum, Alan S., and Israel W. Charny, Is the Holocaust Unique?, 2001, pp. 98–99.
  8. About.com: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
  9. Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, 2000, pp. 156–157.
  10. Cottman, Michael H. (February 7, 1999). "THE GHOSTS OF THE HENRIETTA MARIE". Washington Post. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  11. 1 2 Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013), 32.
  12. Thornton, John (1998). Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. Cambridge University Press. p. 155.
  13. Eltis, David and Richardson, David. "The Numbers Game". In: Northrup, David: The Atlantic Slave Trade, second edition, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002.
  14. Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade (1961), p. 95.
  15. 1 2 Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge: The University of Cambridge, 1999), pp. 143–146.
  16. Ron Soodalter, "Hell on the water" (Civil War Times, 2011), p. 1.
  17. Haines, Robin; Shlomowitz, Ralph (2000). "Explaining the mortality decline in the eighteenth-century British slave trade". The Economic History Review. 53 (2): 262. doi:10.1111/1468-0289.00160.
  18. 1 2 Bush, Barbara (March–June 2010). "African Caribbean Slave Mothers And Children: Traumas Of Dislocation And Enslavement Across The Atlantic World". Caribbean Quarterly. 56 (1–2).
  19. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship, 2007, p. 16.
  20. Taylor, Eric Robert. If We Must Die, 2006, pp. 37–38.
  21. Johnston, Harry; Johnston, Harry Hamilton; Stapf, Otto (1906). Liberia. p. 110.
  22. 1 2 Bly, Antonio T. (1998). "Crossing the Lake of Fire: Slave Resistance during the Middle Passage, 1720–1842". Journal of Negro History. 83 (3): 178–186. doi:10.2307/2649014. JSTOR 2649014.
  23. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship, 2007, p. 40.
  24. Skeehan, Danielle (2013). Deadly Notes: Atlantic Soundscapes and the Writing of the Middle Passage.
  25. Taylor, Eric Robert. If We Must Die, 2006, p. 39.
  26. Bernard Edwards; Bernard Edwards (Captain.) (2007). Royal Navy Versus the Slave Traders: Enforcing Abolition at Sea 1808–1898. Pen & Sword Books. pp. 26–27. ISBN 978-1-84415-633-7.
  27. Marcus Rediker (4 October 2007). The Slave Ship: A Human History. Penguin Publishing Group. pp. 138–138. ISBN 978-1-4406-2084-3.

Further reading

External links

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