The Middle Passage


The voyage from Africa to the New World of the Americas was called the Middle Passage. Slave ships usually took between six and eleven weeks to complete the voyage.

Slave ships made large profits by carrying as many slaves as possible across the Atlantic to sell at auction. There were two methods of loading the ship:

Cross section of a slave ship showing how captives were packed into ships, and conditions endured during transportation
Cross section of a slave ship

Tight pack - this method involved packing as many slaves into the hold as possible.

It was expected that some would die but a large number would survive the voyage. A ship’s hold was cramped - only five feet high, with a shelf running round the edge to carry yet more slaves. The slaves were loaded in so close together that one captain described them as being 'like books on a shelf'.

Loose pack - fewer slaves were loaded, giving them more space to lie out.

More slaves survived the voyage, so less money was lost.


  • Slaves were chained and movement was restricted.
  • Slaves were unable to go to the toilet and had to lie in their own filth. Sickness quickly spread.
  • Slaves were all chained together. If a slave died, the body could remain in the hold for hours, still chained to other living slaves.
  • The state of the hold would quickly become unbearable – dark, stuffy and stinking. Aside from the heat and the foul air, there could be so little oxygen that a candle would not burn.


  • African slaves were often unable to digest the food carried by the European crew, making the sickness worse. Many weakened quickly and died.
  • Sick slaves were often denied food and left to die.

Mistreatment and humiliation

  • The crew often mistreated the slaves – women could be subject to rape.
  • Slaves were usually forced to dance on deck for an hour a day to keep them fit. Any resistance was dealt with harshly by floggings from the crew.
  • Some slaves became suicidal. There are accounts of slaves drowning by throwing themselves overboard rather than enduring any more.


Sickness on board a slave ship would often spread to the crew as well, killing many. The death rate among the slaves however, was horrific. It is estimated that 15–16 per cent of slaves died on the Middle Passage.

In 1788 British MP William Dolben put forward a bill to regulate conditions on board slave ships. He described horrors of slaves chained hand and foot, stowed like herrings in a barrel and stricken with putrid and fatal disorders. The Act was passed and controlled the number of captives a ship was permitted to carry, according to its weight.

Dolben’s Act also ordered all slave ships to carry a doctor who had to keep records about the enslaved Africans on board.

These doctors received bonuses according to the number of Africans who survived the journey. Conditions however remained appalling.