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The Journey: The Middle Passage

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 centuries.

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 months.

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.

Interior of Slave Ship

"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 taste anything.

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 of it."

Listen hereHear 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.

"...the 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 a slaughterhouse."
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.

It 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 the captain.

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 slaves.

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.

"Exercise 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 purpose."
Taken 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.

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.

Losses 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.

"From 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."
Jacques Savary, businessman, writing at the end of the 18th century.