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The Middle Passage refers to the forcible passage of African people from Africa to the New World, as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Ships departed Europe for African 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 trade". 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.

Traders from the Americas and Caribbeanmarker received the enslaved Africans. European powers such as Portugalmarker, Englandmarker, Spainmarker, Francemarker, the Netherlandsmarker, Denmarkmarker, Swedenmarker, and Brandenburgmarker, as well as traders from Brazilmarker and North America, all took part in this trade. The enslaved Africans came mostly from eight regions: Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Windward Coastmarker, Gold Coast, Bight of Beninmarker, Bight of Biaframarker, West Central Africa and Southeastern Africa.

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 of them.

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 "black", 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 weeks.

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 and scurvy causing the majority of deaths. Additionally, outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, measles, 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 successful:

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 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 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.

See also


  • Faragher, John Mack. Out of many. Pearson Prentice Hall. 2006: New Jersey.
  • Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. Penguin Books. 2007


  1. Walker, Theodore. Mothership Connections. 2004, page 10.
  2. Thomas, Hugh. "The Slave Trade: the story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870". 1999, page 293
  3. McKissack, Patricia C. and McKissack, Frederick. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. 1995, page 109.
  4. This list was taken from Atlantic slave trade#Slave Market Regions and Participation.
  5. Mancke, Elizabeth and Shammas, Carole. The Creation of the British Atlantic World. 2005, page 30-1
  6. Rosenbaum, Alan S. and Charny, Israel W. Is the Holocaust Unique? 2001, page 98-9
  7. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
  8. Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. 2000, page 156-7
  9. Eltis, David and Richardson, David. The Numbers Game. In: Northrup, David: The Atlantic Slave Trade, 2nd edition, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002.
  10. p. 95. Basil Davidson. The African Slave Trade.
  11. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. 2007, page 16
  12. Taylor, Eric Robert. If We Must Die. 2006, page 37-8
  13. Johnston, Harry, and Johnston, Harry Hamilton and Stapf, Otto. Liberia. 1906, page 110
  14. 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)
  15. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. 2007, page 40
  16. Taylor, Eric Robert. If We Must Die. 2006, page 39
  17. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. Penguin Books. 2007, Page 138-139

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