The Middle Passage

The shipment of enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Americas was the largest forced migration in human history. Between 1500 and 1875 approximately 12.5 million African men, women and children were transported across the ocean to be worked as slaves. Roughly 65% were men, about 15% were women, and a shocking 20% were children.

The enslaved people’s journey across the Atlantic is known as the Middle Passage. In order to cut costs and maximise the profits they could make in selling slaves, ship owners crammed as many people as possible into specially designed spaces below deck. These were horribly cramped: people were chained together lying down, without enough space to sit or stand. The voyage could take as long as three months, and poor sanitation and insufficient food and water meant that many people fell ill or contracted diseases. Approximately 12% of the enslaved Africans loaded on to these ships died before they reached the Americas. The slave ship crews threw the bodies of dead slaves overboard, and many were immediately consumed by sharks which regularly followed the slave ships across the ocean.

The British ship Brooks was one such slave-trading ship. The Brooks was built in Liverpool in 1781, and between 1782 and 1804 this ship made ten voyages from Africa to the Caribbean carrying slaves. Usually a crew of between 40 and 50 stood guard over between 300 and 600 slaves. This extract from a diagram of the Brooks published in 1787 shows how enslaved people were crammed into very small spaces.

The Seraphic Marie of Nantes, Captain Gaugy, Musee d’Histoire de Nantes.

Olaudah Equiano was enslaved as a young by but eventually secured his freedom and became an abolitionist in Britain. He wrote and published an autobiography describing his and other Africans’ experiences of the Middle Passage.

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo… 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.’

‘The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time… The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died… The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) [click here for resource]

Description of a Slave Ship, 1787. [click here for resource]

Alexander Falconbridge was a Scottish doctor who was employed on slave ships to try and keep the valuable slaves alive. His experiences so horrified him that Falconbridge that he became an abolitionist and wrote a book attacking the slave trade.

In each of the apartments are placed three or four large buckets, of a conical form, nearly two feet in diameter at the bottom and only one foot at the top and in depth of about twenty-eight inches, to which, when necessary, the Negroes have recourse. It often happens that those who are placed at a distance from the buckets, in endeavouring to get to them, rumble over their companions, in consequence of their being shackled.

These accidents, although unavoidable, are productive of continual quarrels in which some of them are always bruised. In this distressed situation, unable to proceed and prevented from getting to the tubs, they desist from the attempt; and as the necessities of nature are not to be resisted, ease themselves as they lie. This becomes a fresh source of boils and disturbances and tends to render the condition of the poor captive wretches still more uncomfortable.

The nuisance arising from these circumstances is not infrequently increased by the tubs being much too small for the purpose intended and their being usually emptied but once every day. The rule for doing so, however, varies in different ships according to the attention paid to the health and convenience of the slaves by the captain…

Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade (1788) [click here for resource].


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