The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage
from Africa to America
by: Kristina Pettersen
                              For a brief outline of the Middle Passage please click on the picture. 

What was the Middle Passage?

During the 17th and 18th century the need for slaves, especially in America, was immense. European slave traders quickly supplied the labour needed. The prospect of earning a small fortune often made it easy for the traders to forget the fact that the Africans were human beings, with the same rights as themselves.


The Middle Passage was the route which the slave traders used to transport slaves from Africa during the days of the Transatlantic slave trade.

The slaves were brought in huge slave ships, where they were ill-treated and had to live under horrible conditions. After arriving in America the slaves were sold on slave markets in North America, South America and in the Caribbean, also called the West Indies. The period of time a slave ship would use on this voyage varied greatly, depending on where the ship had sailed from, and whether the wind and ocean currents were on their side. The voyage from  Africa to the Caribbean could take everything from a month to more than 150 days.

The passage was called the Middle Passage because it was a part of a triangular trade which began and ended in Europe. The ships left Europe and set sail for the markets in Africa, where European industrial products were sold or traded for slaves on the slave markets. The slaves were then shipped over the Atlantic Ocean - the Middle Passage - to the Caribbean, where they were sold or traded for colonial products which were then transported back to Europe.


Life aboard the slave ships


The life aboard the slave ships was generally hard and brutal. The slaves were stripped of every bit of dignity they had, and were subject to ill-treatment and punishment. The slaves were stowed below deck barely being able to move, and a lack of ventilation and sanitation facilities made the living conditions nearly unbearable.


Taken from their homeland


Slavery did exist long before the arrival of the Europeans, however the definition of slavery in Africa was very different from the European and American. In Africa slaves were generally a symbol of honour, and the slaves did have a lot of rights, among these were the right to marry and to own property, and they had normal legal rights.


In addition, many of the Africans who were taken from their homeland most likely had extensive skills which were suppressed when they were taken to America, and when they were forced to do one specific task, not being able to ever put their skills to use. The slaves were subject to brutal treatment with hard labour, lack of respect and beatings.


Read more about the African slave trade here.


The Middle Passage was the most recognized route in the Transatlantic trade. Even though the Middle Passage itself was horrible and the slaves lived under inhuman conditions throughout the entire journey, the biggest threat was  not always the journey itself, but the loading of the slaves in the African ports. As soon as the slaves were aboard the slave ships many would fully realize that they were going to be taken far away from their homeland, and violence would often break out even before the ships had left the port.
More than once slaves would experience having to wait for the ships to set out towards open sea. Often they had to wait aboard the
slavers for the traders to buy more slaves. Aboard the ships the slaves were forced to live in chains constantly, because of the fear that they would try to escape or urge rebellions if they were allowed to move around freely. Along the African coast African slave traders also built trading post and slave forts, where slaves were kept captive, often in dark and filthy dungeons, waiting for the African traders to sell them on to European and American slave traders.


Tight packers and loose packers


Aboard the slave ships the slaves were stowed below deck like pieces of goods. There were two different ways the captain aboard a slave ship could pack the slaves.  The slave ships could either be "tight packers" or "loose packers", depending upon how many slaves were crammed below deck.


Whether a slave ship was a "tight-packer" or a "loose packer" was generally a question of economy - what was most profitable? It was believed that by given the slaves better food, a certain amount of liberty and more space the death rate, which generally was very high, would go down, and the captain could in fact receive a better price for the slaves in the Caribbean, because the slaves were in a better condition.


However, the supporters of tight packing answered by saying that even though the death rate might be a bit lower and that the slaves generally might be at better health upon arriving in the Caribbean on "loose packers", tight packing would be more profitable and safer. Slaves showing signs of starvation and who needed to be fattened up, or with wounds which needed to be hidden, could be fixed in slaves yards before the slaves were offered for sale on slave markets. Tight packers believed that by tight packing they would be more certain of a good profit, because even though a lot of slaves might die, they still would have more than enough left.  


The disagreement about which of the two methods of packing slaves were the most profitable, continued as long as the trade itself. However, from the 17th century and onwards most slave ships were "tight packers". The profit on each slave, no matter the state the slave arrived in, was so high that most captains loaded his ship to its upmost capacity and became "tight packers".


General standard aboard the ships


Below deck the slaves were generally packed tightly together in small and dark spaces. Clearly life below deck was extremely uncomfortable. In addition to overcrowding, the slaves had no sanitation facilities and very little ventilation. One can only imagine  the stench that must have been below deck on the slave ships. Because of the lack of sanitation and ability to move around on the lower decks, the slaves would basically be lying around in their own and others` waste, blood and vomit. In addition, lice and contagious diseases were common and would spread quickly from person to person, because the slaves were packed so closely together.


In most slave ships the slaves were stowed on shelves which were usually less than half a metre high, and therefore the slaves could not sit up. In some cases they would be stored spoon-fashion on top of each other. The slaves were chained together which further limited their ability to move and any attempt to move would either hurt themselves or others. On some ships the women and children were allowed to move about the slave deck freely, however, the men were as good as always chained. Sometimes the captain could allow some men to be freed from the chains, if they did not seem to pose a threat to the crew. The slaves were sometimes left below deck for days at a time, denied food, drink or any exercise, because of bad weather.

The slaves were either chained together - the right foot of one shackled to the left foot of another - or chained to the deck by their neck and legs. They had less than no space to move, and were often so tightly packed that they could not move without touching another slave. When slaves died they were often left where they were, and therefore it was not uncommon to find slaves chained to a dead or dying slave.


The slaves mostly lived in ignorance throughout the entire journey. They did not understand why they had been taken from their homeland and they had no idea about where they were headed. In addition they did not understand the slave traders` language, and frustration would clearly run high, when their pleas for information from the slave traders probably would be met with laughter on their behalf.

The slaves did not know how long this voyage was going to last - if it would ever end - and had no idea about what were going to happen to them upon the arrival in their new country. More than a few thought that the Europeans were cannibals, because they had never see anyone ever return when taken away on a slave ship, and therefore this thought was as natural to many as anything else. Olaudah Equiano, an African captured as a boy who later wrote an autobiography, recalled: "When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. . . . I asked if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair?".


As mentioned before slavery did exist in Africa and the slaves taken aboard Transatlantic slave ships, might have had knowledge about slavery. However, the slaves could not possibly have had knowledge about or understood the treatment they were subject to on European and American slave ships. The lack of knowledge together with the cruel and inhuman living condition aboard many slave ships, must have been complete torture.


Daily routines aboard the slave ships


In periods with good weather, the slaves on most slave ships would be brought up on deck in the mornings. Normally the women and children would be allowed to move freely around the deck. The men would be chained together, because it was commonly believed that they would be the ones that would cause violence and resistance.

During the day the slaves received two meals - the first one was generally early in the mornings. The slaves were normally fed differently depending on where in Africa they had been taken aboard the slave ship. The slave traders believed that the slaves would stay healthier and that they would avoid rebellions if the slaves were given food they were familiar with. Some slaves would be fed boiled rice, millet or cornmeal, others stewed yams, while others again would be fed manic, cassava flour or banana-like fruits. On rare occasion a few pieces of meat would be thrown into the slaves` food, to keep them healthy.

In the afternoons the slaves would be given their second meal of the day. This meal normally differed from and was often worse than the first one. The meal usually consisted of horse bean, which are large beans which were used to feed horses. The beans were boiled and served with a mixture of flour, water and palm oil, and Cayenne pepper or other spices were added to conceal the taste of the horse beans.


To ensure a good price for the slaves upon arrival in the Caribbean the captain had to keep the slaves in relatively good physical condition, so to achieve this the slaves were "danced" every morning on deck. The slaves were forced to jump up and down and dance, something which were extremely painful for the men who were still chained together. The "dancing" was normally accompanied by poundings on an African drum or iron kettle, and sometimes by a fiddle or an African banjo.


On ships carrying a large number of slaves, however, it was unlikely that all the slaves would be taken up on deck at the same time, and the crew would probably select the ones who were in most need of exercise.


Slaves who refused to "dance" would be punished in different ways. The most common method of punishment aboard the slave ships was whipping. Though most whips were made only of simple rope, the crew sometimes used the cat-o-nine-tails which could slash the skin on a slave`s back to ribbons in only a few lashes. It consisted of nine ropes, each coated with tar and with a knot at the end. Whipping could in some cases,  when used in the most brutal manner be fatal. However, despite the risk of being punished, the slaves generally enjoyed the time they spent on deck, because this was the only time during the day they were allowed to move "freely" and breathe some fresh air. It was a more than welcomed break from the dark and filthy gloom below deck.    



Rebellions and other forms of protest did occur though they were rare, and were usually quickly and easily put down. The slaves, weakened by the lack of food and water and by the terrible condition in which they lived, stood very little chance against the crew which were stronger and had weapons such as rifles and pistols to use against the slaves.  A numerous amount of slaves were killed is such riots. The slaves, on the other hand, would make weapons out of their shackles and chains, and other objects they might get their hands on, and attempt to hurt or kill crew members. However, this was very rare and most slaves did not succeed and were killed.


Yet some slave revolts were successful, and the most famous one was the slave revolt on the slave ship Amistad. The slaves managed to take control over the ship, but were tricked by the remaining members of the crew and ended up in the United State instead of in Africa as was their intention. However, seeing that the Transatlantic slave trade at this time was  prohibited a legal battle arose to ensure the slaves` freedom.


It is possible to read more about the famous slave revolt on the Amistad here. The revolt has been dramatized in the Hollywood film Amistad, which gives a quite accurate description of the revolt and the Middle Passage.


However, not all slave resistance was as violent as the revolts. Some slaves used other methods to impede the voyage and the daily routines aboard the slave ships. Often slaves would harm or kill themselves, and thereby reducing the number of slaves the slave traders could sell or reducing their value. Many jumped overboard or tried to take their own lives in other ways, like for example cutting their throats or refusing to eat. Then again the crew had means to force feed the slaves, so hunger strikes were rarely successful. To force food down the slaves` throats the crew on some ships used a device called the speculum oris, which was a wooden instrument which forced the mouth of the slave to open  when the legs of the instrument were screwed open like a pair of pliers. Slaves would also be punished if they refused to eat, and some captains would pour melted lead on slaves who did this.

                                                                      Arriving in the Caribbean`s

Normally the captains aboard the slave ships would feed the slaves better in the days before the arrival in the Caribbean to strengthen them for sale. However, their suffering was far from over. Because of the stench and the fear of the spread of diseases many slave ships were refused entry to ports in the Caribbean, and had to anchor off coast and ship the slaves ashore in smaller boats.
To improve the slaves` appearance the slaves would be oiled to make their skin shiny and wounds from whipping would be filled with hot tar in order to improve the chances of getting the best price possible for each slave. The slaves would then be sold at auctions and would be forced to work long and hard hours on plantations, as house slaves or they were made to do different kinds of labour for the rest of their lives by their new owners.


Death aboard the slave ships


The length of the journey varied, and took everything from 40 days to 150 days, depending on the wind and ocean currents. However, one thing is clear, more slaves died the longer the trip was. Often the food storage would run low if the voyage lasted longer than the captain had estimated or if the food went bad. In times of food shortage slaves who were sick or not expected to survive the voyage, would not be given any food. In addition, the slaves could go days without food, if the weather was bad. Starvation was one of the most important reasons for slaves dying aboard the slave ships.


Diseases was another important reason for death among slaves. The overcrowded slave decks, lack of clean water and bad sanitation, caused diseases to spread like wildfire. Diseases such as dysentery and small pox were common, and the conditions the slaves lived under and the lack of medical help lead to the death of many slaves. Slaves showing any signs of disease were thrown overboard alive. The lack of exercise lead to other sufferings such as gangrene and sores, which, though not necessarily deadly, would be extremely painful.


Sometimes slaves were punished and beaten so violently that they would die. Brutal punishment, and even killing of slaves, were something the slave traders generally could get away with because the slaves were not thought of as human beings. Some slaves, maybe slaves who were sick or who the traders did not have enough food for, were thrown overboard.


Some slaves could not stand the horrible conditions, being separated from their families, seeing others suffer and die around them every day, and being tied in chains, and either went mad or took their own lives. Most suicides were done by jumping overboard and drowning.


Death among the crew members


On many of the slave ships the white crew members were not threaten much better than the slaves. During the 18th century the death rate among the white crew was actually higher than the death rate among the slaves.  The reason for this was that, even though the slave traders had learned how to reduce mortality among the slaves by avoiding overcrowding and improving sanitation, they did not have a cure for or the knowledge to avid spread of malaria and yellow fever among the sailors. Because many of the sailors had been forced into service on the slave ships they were in no position to complain about poor sanitation, bad food and ill-treatment, and the voyage on the slave ships often became their last.


Estimate death rate

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of slaves who lost their lives on the journey from Africa to America. This is because few  records were kept of those who died during the voyage and sometimes the captain could order that slaves should be thrown overboard, and these slaves would never be missed. The estimated death rate was about 32 per cent, however this rate did vary greatly, and some historians dear to say that nearly as many slaves died on the course of the Middle Passage as made it to the Caribbean's. Occasionally the entire cargo of slaves died of diseases or as a result of shortage of food and water, but this rarely happened.


Varying mortality rate

Generally there were two factors which affected the mortality rate; the length of the voyage and the food the slaves were given. Slaves from Senegambia and Angola were usually healthiest as they came by short routes on which the winds were fairly predictable. The voyage from Guniea Coast, however, was much longer and the winds were much more unpredictable. The slave ships always ran the risk of passing through the calms with very little wind, which could possibly delay the journey by many days, and which again would give shortage of food and water.


Also the slaves` diet had an effect on their mortality rate. In the 18th century it was commonly believed that the slaves who were fed on maize had a very low mortality rate and that slaves fed on rice were fairly health. However, slaves fed on yams, had a higher mortality rate than those fed on maize and rice.

List of sources


The abolition project - British involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade -

The wreck of the Henrietta Marie - The middle passage -

Recovered histories -  The middle passage -

Africans in America - The middle passage -

Barnard electonic archive - The middle Pasage -