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20 August 2014
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Abolition of the Slave Trade

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Second leg – the Middle Passage

Captives were thrown overboard if food and water supplies were running low.

Human cargo

During the voyages across the Atlantic the ships’ holds were packed with captives. Most captives lay in rows, chained head to foot, while others were packed on shelves that ran around the inside of the ships’ hulls. These shelves were less than one metre high and the captives could not sit up during the voyage that often took three or four months to complete. Ships’ captains mixed captives from different nations, creating a language barrier that prevented the captives from plotting to take over the ship. Captives usually outnumbered sailors by ten to one on these ships. Sailors suffered on the voyages almost as much as the captives and few skilled seamen would join a slave ship crew. Women and children were held in separate quarters and were often attacked and abused by the sailors during the voyage.

Death at sea

The European crews made sure that the captives were fed and exercised regularly. Slave ships carried various tools and instruments to force captives to eat including small hammers and chisels to remove teeth. Captives were exercised by being forced to dance and jump on the deck, and sailors would take this opportunity to wash their prisoners with cold sea water. However, when disease began to spread and kill captives the crews would throw dead and dying captives overboard to protect their valuable cargo. When ships took longer than expected to sail across the Atlantic and food and water supplies ran low, many captives were thrown overboard to ensure that there would be enough supplies for the European crew.

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