MIDDLE PASSAGE OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
The Middle Passage refers to one of the three routes of the Trade Triangle. Along this route, African slaves were transported to the New World as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. As such, the Middle Passage is notorious for the terrible conditions and treatment that the African slaves were subjected to as they were forced across the Atlantic Ocean by European slave traders. In all, slave ships made the journey across the Atlantic from the 16th until the 19th centuries.
ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
The Atlantic Slave Trade began in the 16th century, and reached its peak in the 18th century. It finally concluded near the end of the 19th century. During the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, approximately 12 million Africans were put on slave ships, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and sold into slavery. Of this 12 million, approximately 600,000 were transported to the United States, which means that about 5% of all African slaves from the Atlantic Slave Trade were brought to America. This process first began in the early colonies of America but continued well into the 19th century. In fact, African slavery in the United States became an important feature of early America. The early trade in slaves proved so profitable for slave owners in the New World that the practise expanded in 18th and 19th centuries.
As stated above, the Middle Passage was a major route of the Trade Triangle. The Trade Triangle is the term used by historians to refer to the form of trade that occurred across the Atlantic Ocean during much of the Age of Exploration and the years that followed. In general, it was a set of three routes that saw goods and people travel between Europe, Africa and the Americas. European traders exported manufactured goods (metal tools, textiles, tobacco, beads, etc.) to the societies of west coast Africa in exchange for African slaves. The European goods were manufactured in European factories and shops. Next, the African slaves were put aboard European slave ships and taken to the Americas to be sold for huge profits. Here the slaves would be put to work on plantations in order to harvest raw materials. The final stage of the Trade Triangle involved European traders taking the harvested raw materials from the plantations back to Europe where they were processed into goods in European factories. The most notable of these raw materials included: sugar, cotton, coffee, metals, and tobacco. In general, the Trade Triangle formed a cycle that saw raw materials, manufactured goods, and people transported all across the Atlantic Ocean. As stated previously, the route from Africa to the Americas was commonly known as the Middle Passage.
Most of the slaves from Africa were taken by the European slave ships along the west coast of Africa. However, it should be noted that the Africa played an active role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. For instance, African societies along the western coast often captured and enslaved other Africans from the interior of the continent. Then, the western societies would sell or trade the captured slaves to European traders along the coast.
CONDITIONS OF THE MIDDLE PASSAGE
While the Middle Passage was an important economic trade route, it is also known for the terrible conditions aboard the slave ships that shipped African slaves to the New World. One of the key features that made travelling the Middle Passage so difficult was the length of the route and the time it took for slave ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean. For example, in the 16th century it is estimated that the journey took up to six months. This was especially impacted by the weather in the Atlantic Ocean at the time. With that said, it should be noted that by the 19th century, most slave ships were able to make the journey in about six weeks. Regardless, the length of the Middle Passage was difficult for the slaves aboard the ships, since they generally lacked basic medical attention, nutritious meals and sanitary conditions. In fact, many of the slaves did not survive and voyage, and many others became sick along the way.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, there were many elements that made the Middle Passage so terrible for the African slaves. For instance, while on board the slave ships, the slaves were commonly chained together and held in very small spaces in the ship’s hull. In fact, on some slave ships, the slaves were given so little space that they could only lay down. For instance, the Brookes Print famously showed the cramped conditions faced by the slaves. In fact, some ships famously overcrowded the slaves on the ships. For example, the Brookes slave ship from Britain was legally allowed to hold 454 slaves, but there is evidence that it carried as many as 740 slaves on some trips. What made this situation event worse was the terrible smell of the slave quarters. For instance, the tropical heat and the smell of human waste and sweat, made the slave quarters nearly unbearable for the slaves. This is best evidenced by the Olaudah Equiano. Olaudah Equiano was enslaved as a child in western Africa and shipped to the Caribbean. He later gained his freedom and wrote and published an autobiography, titled ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’, which discussed his experiences aboard the slave ships on the Middle Passage. For instance, Equiano wrote the following about the terrible heat and smell aboard the slave ship:
“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, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely [deadly]. 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. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”
While the slaves were sometimes allowed to come on deck to get fresh air, they were mostly kept chained below. This was especially true when a slave attempted to escape by jumping overboard into the ocean. This meant death for the slaves, as they often could not swim or were weighted down by shackles on their ankles. The slave traders were looking to make as much profit as possible, thus losing slaves into the ocean was a loss of potential profits. Olaudah Equiano discussed witnessing this in his own life in ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’. For example, he stated the following:
“One day, when we had a smooth sea, and a moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen, who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings, and jumped into the sea: immediately another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was suffered to be out of irons, also followed their example; and I believe many more would soon have done the same, if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew, who were instantly alarmed.”
Beyond the cramped and hot conditions, the slaves also suffered due to a lack of quality food. For instance, the long journey of the Middle Passage meant there were very little food options that could be carried on the ships. As such, the voyage was difficult for even the slave traders. This meant that most of the food on the slave ships was saved for the crew of the ship and the slaves were provided with very little to eat. In fact, historians believe that the most common food items for slaves during the Middle Passage were beans, corn, rice and yams. Also, it is believed that slaves were only fed once every day or two. Again, Olaudah Equiano talked about the issue of food in his famous ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’. In it he stated:
“One day [the crew of the ship] had taken a number of fishes; and when they had killed and satisfied themselves with as many as they thought fit, to our astonishment who were on the deck, rather than give any of them to us to eat, as we expected, they tossed the remaining fish into the sea again, although we begged and prayed for some as well we cold, but in vain; and some of my countrymen, being pressed by hunger, took an opportunity, when they thought no one saw them, of trying to get a little privately; but they were discovered, and the attempt procured them some very severe floggings.”
The poor conditions that the slaves were forced to endure during the Middle Passage highlight why the trip was so terrible and deadly for the slaves. For instance, many slaves died along the route from the spread of deadly disease, including: dysentery, measles, scurvy, and smallpox. Disease spread easily throughout the slaves on the ships due to poor hygiene and close quarters of the slaves. As stated previously, the ships were overcrowded and the slaves were forced to endure very cramped conditions during the Middle Passage.
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