primary sources and secondary sources for final project

The Middle Passage contains many accounts of what went on, not only on the ships, but also through the interworking of people involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The first primary source I found was Olaudah Equiano’s (a slave who was able to buy his freedom and write about his experience) description of the Middle Passage.[1] He writes about the excruciating conditions aboard the slave ships: how crowded and small they were and the feeling of suffocation brought on by the over-populated ships. He provides such detail that it is not hard to create a mental image of the scene he describes, along with being able to understand and feel the pain and suffering brought on by the inhumane treatment on board. Two more primary sources that I found also relate to the size of the ships created for transporting slaves. The first is an illustration of the slaves in the cargo hold.[2] It displays an image of the slaves aboard the ship sitting very close to each other and that have to sit because the hold they were placed in is smaller than the size of standing human being. The second source relating to the size of the ship is a letter written providing the building measurements for a ship.[3] In the letter, the ship as a whole was asked to be built to a very high quality, being 60 feet by 30 feet, but the cargo hold was asked to be made quite small in height so that there would be more room up top and in the cabins. Both of these primary sources give additional examples of the lack of care put into the holding of slaves on the ships, as well as the terrible conditions experienced. The last two primary sources I found are a diagram of the slave ship named Vigilante and instructions given to the Captain of one of the slave ships. In the diagram, it displays a large ship with spacious quarters for the captain and workers on the ship, but underneath it displays the holding quarters for the slaves.[4] There are some slaves laying down and some sitting in a crouched position; the image also demonstrates the various shackles that the slaves might have been wearing during their voyage. Overall it demonstrates the unbearably cramped space provided. The final primary source, “Instructions to Captain Samuel Kempthorne”, frames the mindset of those responsible for transporting slaves.[5] The instructions ask Captain Kempthorne to keep a log of all the slaves that die during their time on the ship, but also ensure him that even if some slaves die, he will not lose any money and will not receive a large penalty. This shows that all the organizers of the slave trade did not care whether slaves died or not and did not fear the consequences, unless it would cause them to lose large amounts of money. All these primary sources emphasize the idea that the Middle Passage brought only terrible experiences and inhumane conditions. 


[1] Equiano, Olaudah. Olaudah Equiano Describes the Middle Passage, 1789. In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, written by Himself (London: 1790), 51-54. From Lumen Learning https://courses.lumenlearning.com/ushistory1os/chapter/primary-source-olaudah-equiano-describes-the-middle-passage-1789/  (accessed February 16, 2020).

[2] “View of chained African slaves in cargo hold of clave ship, measuring three feet and three inches high.” Illustration. From New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/cd25e5e0-2658-0132-a7fd-58d385a7b928 (accessed February 16, 2020).

[3] Manesty, Joseph. Letter to John Bannister, 1745. In Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade to America, edited by Elizabeth Donnan. Washington, D.C., 1930-1933. From The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition: Yale University. https://glc.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/mpi/smallwood.pdf (accessed February 16, 2020).

[4] “Interior of Slave Ship, Vigilante.” Illustration. From New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-4d67-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 (accessed February 16, 2020)

[5] Instructions to Captain Samuel Kempthorne, 1686. In Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade to America, edited by Elizabeth Donnan. Washington, D.C., 1930-1933. From Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition: Yale University https://glc.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/mpi/smallwood.pdf (accessed February 16, 2020).


The first secondary source I found was an excerpt in the African American Review journal. It gives an account of the slave trade from the view of someone in the Middle Passage. It portrays the message that these countries taking the people of Africa as slaves and transporting them, claimed to be a friend of the people of Africa before, but also commit these acts of horror towards them. It explains the confusion that these proclaimed Christian people are acting in an entirely different manner to what they preach and turning a blind eye to the injustice happening aboard their own property: their ships. It also tells the outcomes people taken as slaves were faced with. Seeing their options as either dying aboard the ship or looking at the Americas and seeing their life as one of grueling labor, that may lead to death as well. 

“The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage.” African American Review 28, no. 1 (spring 1994): 11-22.

The other secondary source I found was the book written by Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship. This book gives basic information of the Middle Passage, including the routes of the ships and the treatment endured on the ship. The Slave Ship also pulls together personal accounts of the time onboard the ships by people of different predicaments, as well as different backgrounds. The book illustrates the multitude of experiences, the majority of which did not have a positive attitude, in the lives of the slaves subjected to the slave trade. 

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. Penguin Books, 2007.

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