The Middle Passage: Perspective and Reality

What was the Middle Passage?

Although most who study the history of world would know about this, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, let alone the Middle Passage, is not as widely known as slavery in the colonies. The Slave Trade was the process of bringing the slaves to these colonies, yet a major part of the slave trade, that was documented mainly by slaves on these ships, was the Middle Passage. Middle Passage was the name given to the journey transporting slaves across the Atlantic Ocean, more specifically the journey of ships taking slaves from Africa to the Americas; the Middle Passage was a concept in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The Middle Passage was an especially dangerous and miserable part of the slave trade because it caused many deaths from lack of concern for the health and safety of the slaves aboard the ship (there were also deaths among the ship’s crew but far fewer because of the different conditions they had compared to the slaves aboard). Cramped cargo holds (which can be seen from the depictions found under the section called The Ship) caused disease and death to spread quickly, as well as the malnourishment from either the lack of food or the terrible and insubstantial food given to the slaves. Along with disease, the treatment of slaves on these ships was appalling. After being forced to suffer through crowded conditions in the cargo hold, many slaves would be brought up to the main deck and beaten as well as sexually assaulted; further information can be found in the Treatment of Slaves section. Many countries participated in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, until the official abolishment of the slave trade (although some countries still illegally traded slaves and kept it hidden) and all those countries sending ships experienced the Middle Passage. 

the influx of slaves being brought to different countries over time based on different time periods. (data from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

The Ship

The ships responsible for transporting slaves were specifically built with small areas for holding the slaves. A lot of the spaces on the ship required slaves to either lie down shoulder-to-shoulder, or sit in a crouched position in a hold with ceiling no taller than four (4) feet, all while being shackeled together. The main goal of these cramped conditions was to not only transport as many slaves as possible for monetary gain, but also a way to keep the possiblity of revolt or freedom little to none because of the lack of space to move  and therefore hindering mobility.

Treatment of Slaves Onboard the Ships

The conditions onboard the slaves ships were seen as unbearable and inhumane. The slaves were disregarded and only given small portions of insubstantial food to ensure that they would make it to the their destination, but keeping the slaves alive long enough to be sold was the only worry; there was no worry about their suffering or treatment. In a letter to Captain Kempthorne (see Primary Sources page), he is told that he would not suffer great damages to his payment and would not receive personal consequences if any of the slaves died during the journey. Former slave, Olaudah Equiano notes that there were severe beatings of slaves, and a feelinga suffocation in the hold. There was no concern for slaves as human beings on the ship, only concern for them as a way to gain wealth.

Shackles used on slaves

Parliamentary Debates

The following two text mining graphs come from arguments presented to British Parliament during the debates on the abolition of the slave trade; the first graph is from the 1792 debate and the second one is from the single testimony of James Penny to Parliament in 1789 about the process of kidnapping and purchasing slaves on the coast of Africa. In the first graph, it is seen that the word abolition is connected to the word friends, which is slightly unusual, as it was not common to refer to people who were slaves as friends, yet connected to the word thefe (translated as “these”) is the word creatures. Although friends is used, slaves are also referred to as creatures, indicting that the idea of a slave being subhuman compared to the people that sell and purchase slaves is not yet eradicated. In James Penny’s testimony, one of the more important words are the numbers he mentions, 500 and 600. It’s clear that is the amount of of slaves on one ship, which only means the slave trade was increasing (if not at it’s peak) and was one of the reasons for abolishing it because more and more enslaved people were dying and suffering on these ships. (according to the ship size, 500 or 600 seems almost impossible).