The Middle Passage marked the epic journey from the Slave Coast to the New World. While some Africans were sold in South America and the Caribbean, many more were taken to America. The middle passage was the epitome of slavery. It marked the struggles and challenges of the people as they entered slavery, the new beginning of a culture, and represents hardship that was yet to come. Many people survived the passage from the land they knew as home and a life of freedom; however, others were not so fortunate. Some died at will, from sadness, self-starvation, or suicide. Others died from disease and poor living conditions. As it was witnessed of the Africans and the Atlantic slave trade, the treatment of Africans during the middle passage symbolizes the dehumanization of Africans, the stealth of the slave trade, and the horrors of human suffering for the sake of profit.
“The captives were about to embark on the infamous Middle Passage, so called because it was the middle leg of the 3 part voyage- a voyage that began and ended in Europe”[i]. Trading ships would leave England for the Gold Coast, taking with them “iron, cloth, brandy, firearms, and gunpowder,”[ii] and then exchanged them for African slaves. Across the middle passage and into America, “the slaves were then exchanged for sugar, tobacco, or some other products.”[iii] The estimates for the time frame of the voyage ranged from 6 to 8 weeks or 6 to 8 months. No matter the length, this was a considerable amount of time spent in poor living conditions, shackled, and malicious treatment, all for the gain of goods and profit. The course that was sailed was considered a triangle, the route taken from Europe to Africa to America. This Middle Passage is crucial and important to African American history, for without the Middle Passage, Africans could not have been forced to migrate to foreign lands. The passage was known for its grievance to the African people, the toll it took on them, and the will and struggle to either survive or die. It also demonstrates how humans can dehumanize another including their culture for the sake of profit. This was further induced upon Africans once entering the New World.
The living conditions of Africans aboard a slave ship were known to be horrific. Ship captains of the Royal African Company had two methods of shipping their cargo, they were either loose packers and tight packers. “The tight packers were in the ascendant, so great was the profit on each slave handed alive that hardly a captain refrained from loading his vessel to its utmost capacity.”[iv] It was customary that each African was allowed a compartment the size of a coffin. It was in this compartment that the person was to urinate, defecate, eat, and sleep. “They crowded those poor wretches six hundred and fifty or seven hundred in a ship.”[v] Aboard ship, the Africans were chained two by two, a man’s wrist and ankle chained to the next man’s. They were also branded before being stowed. The area in which the slaves lived was divided up into compartments just big enough for a man to lie on his side. Children were stored in smaller coffin sized compartments for greater capacity as were women. Women were used sexually, often raped and obligated to dance or entertain shipmates.[vi] While the women were used for enterainmen, the storage space below deck where the African slaves were stowed festered with diseases. “They were served their two meals in the hold, where the air became too thick and poisonous to breathe.”[vii] Below the ship, where there was no fresh air, it was hot and humid. Living amid their own urine and feces and the bile of those around them, diseases aggravated and became prominent. The smells of the ship were known to be despicable. Africans were had to breathe the poisonous toxins in the air and wait, forced to endure this trauma day in and day out. “The floor of their rooms was so covered with the blood and mucus which has proceeded from them in consequence to the flux, that it resembled a slaughter house”[viii].
“Out of the roughly 20 million who were taken from their homes and sold into slavery, half didn’t complete the journey … most of those dying along the way”[ix]. No one knows the definite number of Africans who died along route during the Middle Passage. They died in various different ways. Some died from sadness and grief, others took their own lives by suicide, and some were simply murdered by the shipmates. The poor living conditions caused many to go insane, while some even gave birth in the slave gallows. Slave trade captain, John Newton commented that, “every morning perhaps, more instances than one are found of the living and the dead fastened together”[x]. When the slaves were brought above deck they had to be watched by the shipmates to keep them from jumping overboard to their death. During another incident reported by the Royal African Company, Africans who were considered sick and endangering the shipmates with illness were thrown overboard alive and fed to sharks. “Although it is difficult to determine how many Africans died en route to the new world, it is now believed that between ten to twenty percent”[xi] perished along the way.
“In humankinds shameful history of forced migrations the journey of the Africans from their bountiful homeland to the slave markets were the most tragic.”[xii] Thus, despite the enslavement of Africans, the treatment of Africans during slavery and the current climax of the African American community today, can be best understood by knowing and understanding the tragedy and turmoil of the middle passage. For weeks and months at a time, people lived chained in tight hot spaces, living in funk and disease, amongst the living and the dead. The middle passage marked the beginning of African Americans and Black culture. It also signified the dehumanization of Africans. The mistreatment and suffering that Blacks would go through and battle in the New World, and was a critical chapter in African enslavement. Over the span of more than 3 centuries, from 1619 when the first African was offered for trade in America until 1808 when the importation of slaves was abolished, millions of slaves were carried through the middle passage. Consequently, “through all this misery and suffering, new African identities were created, forming a basis for a new transformational culture.”[xiii]
Feelings, Tom. Juneteenth, “The Middle Passage.” Last modified June 21, 2012. Accessed June 23, 2012. http://www.juneteenth.com/about_us.htm.
Mannix, D. Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlanta Slave Trade 1518 to 1865. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1962. http://books.google.com/books?id=-KxIAAAAYAAJ&q=black cargoes the atlantic slave trade&dq=black cargoes the atlantic slave trade&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HI3mT6DpJ4qg8gTav4GxAQ&sqi=2&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA (accessed June 23, 2012).
Mannix, D, and M Cowley. The middle passage. Historical Viewpoints notable articles from American heritage. Edited by John Garraty. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1962. Public Broadcasting System, “The Terrible Transformation: The Middle Passage.” Last modified June 23 2012. Accessed June 23, 2012. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p277.html.
Rediscovering History, “The Middle Passage.” Accessed June 23, 2012. http://www.recoveredhistories.org/storiesmiddle.php.
[ii] (“Terrible Transformation: The Middle Passage” June 23 2012)
[iii] (“Terrible Transformation: The Middle Passage” June 23 2012)
[iv] D Mannix, and M Cowley, “The middle passage,” Historical Viewpoints notable articles from American heritage, ed. John Garraty (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1962)http://www.mrkinglphs.com/US History AP/APUSH Readings/D. Mannix & M. Cowley – The Middle Passage.pdf (accessed June 23, 2012), 101-117.
[v] (Mannix et al. 1962)
[vi] D Mannix, Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlanta Slave Trade 1518 to 1865, (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1962)http://books.google.com/books?id=-KxIAAAAYAAJ&q=black cargoes the atlantic slave trade&dq=black cargoes the atlantic slave trade&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HI3mT6DpJ4qg8gTav4GxAQ&sqi=2&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA (accessed June 23, 2012).
[vii] (Mannix et al. 1962)
[viii] D Mannix, and M Cowley, “The middle passage,” Historical Viewpoints notable articles from American heritage, ed. John Garraty (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1962)http://www.mrkinglphs.com/US History AP/APUSH Readings/D. Mannix & M. Cowley – The Middle Passage.pdf (accessed June 23, 2012), 101-117.
[xi] D Mannix, and M Cowley, “The middle passage,” Historical Viewpoints notable articles from American heritage, ed. John Garraty (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1962)http://www.mrkinglphs.com/US History AP/APUSH Readings/D. Mannix & M. Cowley – The Middle Passage.pdf (accessed June 23, 2012), 101-117.