The Middle Passage
refers to the forcible passage
of African people
to the New World
part of the Atlantic slave
. Ships departed Europe
markets with commercial goods, which were in turn traded for
kidnapped Africans who were transported across the Atlantic as
slaves; the enslaved Africans were then sold or traded as
commodities for raw materials, which would be transported back to
Europe to complete the "triangular
". A single voyage on the Middle Passage was a large
financial undertaking, and they were generally organized by
companies or groups of investors rather than individuals. The term
"Middle Passage" refers to that middle leg of the transatlantic
trade triangle in which millions of Africans were imprisoned,
enslaved, and removed from their homelands.
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, all 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
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
peoples to the ships. 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.
For two hundred years, 1440–1640, Portugal had a quasi-monopoly on
the export of slaves from Africa. During the eighteenth century
however, when the slave trade accounted for the transport of about
6 million Africans, Britain was responsible for almost 2.5 million
In addition to markedly influencing the cultural and demographic
landscapes of both Africa and the Americas, the Middle Passage has
also been said to mark the origin of a distinct African, or
", social identity.
The duration of the transatlantic voyage varied widely, 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
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 barracoon
Typical slave ships contained several hundred slaves with about
thirty crew members. 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 captives were fed beans, corn, yams, rice, and palm oil. Slaves
were fed one meal a day with water, but if 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.
Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12
million Africans arrived in the New World. Disease and starvation
due to the length of the passage were the main contributors to the
death toll with amoebic dysentery
causing the majority of deaths.
Additionally, outbreaks of smallpox
and other diseases spread rapidly in the close-quarter
compartments. The number of dead 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 with every passing day. In addition to physical
sickness, many slaves became too depressed to eat or function
efficiently because of the loss of freedom, family, security, and
their own humanity.
Slave Treatment and Resistance
While treatment of slaves on the passage was varied, slave's
treatment was never good by most standards. The rationalization for
the poor treatment of slaves was that they were a cargo, goods,
somehow less human. The Zong Massacre
is an example of the lengths captains on the passage would go to.
The Zong was a British slaver that had taken too many slaves on its
voyage to the New World, overcrowding combined with malnutrition
and disease (from poor sanitation on the slave decks and living in
such close quarters) had killed several crew members and around 60
slaves. Bad weather made the Zong's voyage slow, so the captain
decided to drown his slaves at sea, so the owners could collect
insurance on the “cargo”. Over 100 slaves were killed, and several
rebellious slaves killed themselves. The incident became fuel for
the abolitionist movement and a major court case, as the insurance
company refused to compensate for the loss of the “cargo".
Slaves were ill treated in almost every imaginable manner. While
they 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 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
was a common
occurrence; sometimes slaves were beaten just for “melancholy.” The
worst punishments were for rebelling, and here the captains were
often horrifically creative; 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.
Slaves resisted their oppressors in a variety of ways. The two most
common types of resistance were refusing to eat and suicide.
Suicide was a frequent occurrence, often by refusal of food or
medicine or throwing oneself overboard, as well as by a variety of
other opportunistic means. Over the centuries, some particular
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. Both
suicide and self-starving were prevented as much as possible by
slaver crews; slaves were often force-fed or tortured until they
ate, yet some still managed to starve themselves to death; slaves
were kept away from anything that could help them commit suicide,
and the sides of the deck were often netted. Again, slaves were
still successful, especially at jumping overboard. Often when an
uprising failed, the mutineers would jump en masse into the sea. It
is important to note that 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.
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.
Slave uprisings were fairly common on the Passage, but few were
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.
Their size ran anywhere from a handful of slaves to a large portion
of the "cargo." Often the uprisings would end with the death of a
few slaves and crew, and the remainder were punished or executed at
the whim of the captain, to be made examples to the rest of the
slaves on board.
Slaves also resisted through certain manifestations of their
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
. One crew found fetishes in their
water supply, placed by slaves who thought it would kill all who
drank from it.
It was not just the slaves who suffered. The sailors themselves
rarely fared more than marginally better, caught in a cycle of wage
slavery and exploitation. Sailors knew and hated the slave trade,
so crews were often recruited through alternative means. At port
towns they were tricked by recruiters (and the tavern owners who
supported them) into positions where the slave ship was the only
way out. They would try to get sailors very drunk (and in debt),
and then make them sign contacts with slave ships to pay the debt.
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.
When on the voyage, sailors faced conditions nearly as harsh as the
slaves, and their mortality rates were roughly the same. Sailors
were also whipped and beaten as punishment, and in an extreme case,
a sailor was slowly starved to death chained to a ship's mast
because the captain thought he had aided a slave rebellion. At sea,
the sharks that followed the ships were used, if only passively, to
discourage sailors from abandoning the ship.
- Faragher, John Mack. Out of many. Pearson Prentice
Hall. 2006: New Jersey.
- Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. Penguin Books.
- Walker, Theodore. Mothership Connections. 2004, page
- Thomas, Hugh. "The Slave Trade: the story of the Atlantic Slave
Trade, 1440-1870". 1999, page 293
- McKissack, Patricia C. and McKissack, Frederick. The Royal
Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. 1995, page 109.
- This list was taken from Atlantic
slave trade#Slave Market Regions and Participation.
- Mancke, Elizabeth and Shammas, Carole. The Creation of the
British Atlantic World. 2005, page 30-1
- Rosenbaum, Alan S. and Charny, Israel W. Is the Holocaust
Unique? 2001, page 98-9
- About.com: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
- Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the
Americas. 2000, page 156-7
- Eltis, David and Richardson, David. The Numbers Game. In:
Northrup, David: The Atlantic Slave Trade, 2nd edition, Houghton
Mifflin Co., 2002.
- p. 95. Basil Davidson. The African Slave Trade.
- Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. 2007, page 16
- Taylor, Eric Robert. If We Must Die. 2006, page
- Johnston, Harry, and Johnston, Harry Hamilton and Stapf, Otto.
Liberia. 1906, page 110
- Bly, Antonio T. Crossing the Lake of Fire: Slave Resistance
during the Middle Passage, 1720-1842. The Journal of Negro
History, Vol. 83, No. 3 (Summer, 1998)
- Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. 2007, page 40
- Taylor, Eric Robert. If We Must Die. 2006, page
- Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. Penguin Books. 2007,