The Journey: The Middle Passage
HOW MANY WENT WHERE
At the height of the slave trade in the
18th century an estimated six million Africans were forced to make a journey
across the Atlantic often totalling over 4,000 miles. Over 54,000 voyages
were made in the course of three hundred years between the 16th and 19th
The large proportion of slaves ended up in the Caribbean, approximately
42%. Around 38% went to Brazil, and much fewer, about 5%, went to North
America. The journey from Africa to North America was the longest. The
journey could take as little as 35 days, just over a month (going from
Angola to Brazil). But normally British and French ships took two to three
INSIDE A SHIP
Ships carried anything from 250 to 600
slaves. They were generally very overcrowded. In many ships they were
packed like spoons, with no room even to turn, although in some ships
a slave could have a space about five feet three inches high and four
feet four inches wide. The slaves were kept between the hold and the deck
in appalling conditions.
Olaudah Equiano gave the first eyewitness account of life on a ship from
a slave's point of view.
"I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a
salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that,
with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so
sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to
I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my
grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and on my refusing to
eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across I think
the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.
I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and
this not only shewn towards us blacks, but also some of the white themselves.
One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged
so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence
a BBC dramatisation of Olaudah Equiano's account of his experiences
If sea was rough portholes had to be closed. This often left them gasping for
breath and prone to disease.
excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered their situation intolerable.
The deck, that is the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and
mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled
Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon aboard slave ships
and later the governor of a British colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone.
Women and men were kept separately. Men were chained together. In some ships
there was a place in the bilges for defecating and urinating over the edge of
the ship, in others there were brimming buckets.
was very difficult to get to the right place at the right time manacled to other
slaves, especially if a slave had diarrhea. After forty or fifty days at sea,
the slave ship would stink of urine, faeces, and vomit. As it came into port
people could smell it almost before they could see it.
Women were allowed more freedom than men, being
considered less of a threat, and often went out on deck and helped with the
cooking. But they paid a price for this in some ships by being the object of
constant sexual harassment and even rape, either at the hands of the crew or
Food was plentiful although not always of good
quality. Daily rations might include yam, biscuits, rice, beans, plantain, and
occasionally meat, but the way it was served - one bucket among ten men - induced
quarrels and infection. Water was part of daily rations but could be in short
supply and unpleasant to drink. The records of one Liverpool slave ship show
it carried rather generously a massive 34,000 gallons of water for crew and
Unless slaves proved rebellious the captain and
crew were at pains not to ill treat them. This was not out of kindness but for
commercial reasons. If a slave died, money was lost. However, some captains
were notoriously brutal to slaves and crew alike. A ship's surgeon was employed
to oversee eating and exercise. Male slaves might be allowed out twice a week
on deck and dancing and drumming was encouraged sometimes with words, sometimes
with a whip.
being deemed necessary for the preservation of their health they are sometimes
obliged to dance when the weather will permit their coming on deck. If they
go about it reluctantly or do not move with agility, they are flogged; a person
standing by them all the time with a cat- o'- nine- tails in his hands for the
from Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa.
There are accounts of rebellious slaves being tortured by having hands, arms
and legs cut off, on order of the captain as a lesson to the rest of the slaves,
and of women being attacked and disfigured.
CAUSES OF DEATH
The chief causes of death on ship were dysentery,
followed by small pox. A third cause was sheer misery; sometimes slaves willed
themselves to die out of sheer depression and hopelessness. They would refuse
to eat, and the crew would resort to force feeding, or they would jump over
the edge and drown in the sea.
were recorded but most of these documents have disappeared. It's estimated
that an average of twenty percent of slaves were lost in transit, and
as many as half the slaves have been known to die in one journey. The
worst moment for crew and slaves alike was leaving the African coast.
the moment that the slaves are embarked, one must put the sails up. The
reason is that these slaves have so great a love for their country that
they despair when they see that they are leaving it for ever; that makes
them die of grief, and I have heard merchants…say that they died more
often before leaving the port than during the voyage.
Some throw themselves into the sea, others hit their heads against the
ship, others hold their breath to try and smother themselves, others still
try to die of hunger from not eating."
Savary, businessman, writing at the end of the 18th century.