The Middle Passage
The middle passage was the second leg of the triangular slave trade route between 1450 and 1860. Although slave trade was banned by the British in 1807, in America by 1808, France and Netherlands in 1815, Portugal on 1817, and Spain in 1820 illegal trade continued for some years.
Journey length and Crews
Slaves were transported from Africa to North America, South America, and the Caribbean. The average length of the journey lasted six weeks. Weather, condition of the ship and the design of the ship played a role in the length of the time taken to cross the Atlantic. The ships were generally manned with a crew of thirty. The captains of these ships were known for their brutality and crews were often treated harshly. Crews in kind were often made up of men who had been in prison or were fugitives from justice.
Conditions on Board
The conditions on board ship were unsanitary and cramped. A normal between deck levels was approximately five feet. On a slave ship these levels were cut in half by installing another deck between the two making headroom of less then thirty inches. Some ships could carry approximately three hundred slaves in this way. Usually men and women were separated. The slaves were shackled ankle to ankle with leg irons. The slaves placed below decks could not sit up, stand, or roll when sleeping. They received no bedding and the boards they lay on were unsanded. Usually one rudimentary toilet was available so the weak and sick often lay in their own urine and excrement. Ventilation was minimally provided by portholes which were boarded over during bad weather. Dysentery was common among slaves on ship. Communal bowls were used to feed slaves; they ate from these bowls using their bare hands which helped spread disease. The food at first was European in origin but after time the crews found that an indigenous African diet seemed to keep the slaves healthier. The slaves were allowed on deck for exercise once a day to keep them healthy. Exercise often involved dancing for the entertainment of the crew. Women were often allowed more freedom but were prey to the sexual advances of the crew because of this.
Ten to twenty percent of the slaves died during the Middle Voyage. An average of thirteen percent succumbed to the hazardous voyage. The majority of deaths (malnutrition and disease) occurred during the first two to three weeks of the voyage due to the forced marches to the coast and prolonged interment at the forts and factories. The slaves were not the only casualties, about one in five of the crew usually died of disease during the journey. While all deaths were not due to disease on the ship ‘Zong’ in 1781 the ships captain threw 133 slaves overboard in an attempt to collect insurance money.
Rebellions on board ship consisted of staving oneself to death, in this event the slave was force feed or tortured using different means to make them eat. Another way to rebel was to commit suicide; some slaves would through themselves overboard. Violent rebellions were dealt with harshly by the captain and crew. On one ship the ‘Unity’ out of Liverpool slaves rebelled five times. In one instance forty men were put in leg irons side by side, in the next the leader was shoot dead, and two women were killed as the result of a revolt on this ship. Many rebellions may have gone undocumented since slaves did not write and the only records were those from surviving ships journals.
In 1788 Dolben’s law was enacted by the British, this law controlled the number of slaves a ship could carry. The law required a doctor be on board. The laws were not driven by humanitarian reasons but ones of profit. The doctors supervised the cleaning of the slave decks and kept the sick slaves separated from the healthy. Less crowding in the slaves ships reduced the number of slaves to sell but the death rate fell to approximately one in eighteen offsetting the reduced cargo.
Figures are estimated that 11,328,000 slaves were transported by the Europeans during this time period not including the years of illegal trafficking. The slaves were traded for sugar, tobacco, coffee, molasses, and rum which were then taken to Europe for sale. The Swahili term for this era of history is called ‘Maafa’ which means Holocaust or Great Disaster.