The Middle Passage


TheMiddle Passage

TheMiddle Passage

Thehistory of the United States is, with no doubt, entrenched inslavery. Indeed, it is often difficult to talk about the history ofthe United States without mentioning the slaves and slavery that tookplace for a number of centuries before its abolition by AbrahamLincoln (Baptist,2006).It goes without saying that volumes of literary works have beenwritten in an effort to create a picture regarding the evils that theslaves had to endure under the yoke of slavery, as well as thehorrible manner in which they were treated by their masters. Moreoften than not, these literary works concentrate on the tribulationsof the slaves in their destinations particularly in the cotton fieldsand tobacco farms where they labored for their owners (Baptist,2006).However, quite a lot happened prior to their getting to Europe andthe Americas even before they were purchased by their subsequent.Indeed, their tribulations were even more concentrated during theirsea voyage from Africa, which was the main source of slaves, toEurope and the Americas. This voyage was primarily known as theMiddle Passage.

TheMiddle Passage referred to the crossing of ships containing slavesfrom Africa to the Americas. This term emanated from the fact thatthe voyage was the Middle Section for the route that was taken by alarge number of ships. It was the stage in the triangular tradereferred to as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where millions ofpeople would be shipped from Africa, particularly West Africa, intothe New World. Ships would depart from Europe heading to the Africanmarkets carrying manufactured goods that would be traded for thekidnapped or purchased Africans (Baptist,2006).The Africans would be transported across the Atlantic as slave, afterwhich they would be sold in the Americas or even traded for rawmaterials that would then be transported back to Europe so as tocomplete the voyage. Of particular note is the fact that the MiddlePassage voyages were essentially an enormous financial undertakingand basically were organized by groups of investors and companiesrather than singular individuals.

TheMiddle Passage never started with the transatlantic voyage rather itbegan with the capturing and selling of Africans, ending up with theforced adjustment to the life in the Americas where they wereessentially slaves. This is considered one of the most horrificchapters in the history of humanity, a depiction of the capacity ofhuman beings for both insensitivity and cruelty, as well as survivaland strength. Nevertheless, there exists no record regarding thenumber of people who actually made the voyage, although it isestimated that the numbers range from 5 million to around 30 million(Baptist,2006). usually took between 6 weeks and 6 months subjectto the weather conditions in the paths followed by the ships.Nevertheless, the journey increased its efficiency with time. Forinstance, while a Transatlantic journey, on average took a number ofmonths in the 16thcentury, the same journey took less than 6 weeks in the 19thcentury (Baptist,2006).

Asearlier noted, the African slave trade started with the kidnapping ofAfricans themselves. Indeed, slave trade among Africans preceded theAfrican slave trade as a result of wars whose spoils includedable-bodied individuals from enemy villages. These individuals wereoften taken and utilized as unpaid labor for the victors. Similarly,the lowest classes or castes of Africans would be treated assubhuman, where their labor, even in their villages would be unpaid(Heuman &amp Burnard, 2010). They would also be forced to work asmandated by local chiefs and practiced and endorsed by the wholevillage. In essence, scholars have underlined the fact that theopportunities to sell the slaves or even trade them for manufacturedgoods that could not be obtained in Africa, came as a naturalextension for the treatment that the people had meted on them bytheir own kinsmen. This means that there was a perfect opportunityfor the thorough flourishing of slave trade as there existed no orlittle opposition from the African people. It is worth noting thatother accounts pertaining to slave trade have resulted in the beliefthat the Africans were corrupted by Americans and Europeans, and thatthey were not used to selling their own people (Baptist,2006).However, as much as Africans were accustomed to this form of cruelty,there were wide-ranging doubts regarding the persistent willingnessfor Africans to sell their counterparts into slavery. Scholars notethat Africans in some parts had started regretting the selling oftheir compatriots partly because the Europeans benefited more fromthe trade and largely because they began having an inkling on thecruelty, abuse and intense alienation to which individuals weresubjected upon being sent to an entirely new country (Heuman &amp Burnard, 2010).

Thecruelty to which slaves were subjected in the course of the MiddlePassage comes out clearly right from the manner in which they werepacked in the ships. Researchers note that the male and female slaveswould be chained together by their legs in pairs so as to save space.A hole would be drilled through on the lower part of the leg using ahot piece of iron, with the right leg being chained to the otherperson’s left leg. Nevertheless, women and children had aconsiderably more room. In pairs, the men and women would be forceddown the deck right into the bowels of the slave ships (Heuman &amp Burnard, 2010). This packing had to be done in the most efficientmanner. Underlining the cruelty meted on the slaves in the course ofthe Middle Passage is the fact that they usually lay down on theunfinished planking that had virtually no room for breathing ormoving. Their wrists and elbows were scraped by the planking to thebone as a result of the motion pertaining to the rough seas, in whichcase a large number of them were already crippled and in bad healthby the time they reached the destinations. Scholars have also notedthat the loading of slave ships was dominated by two philosophiesincluding loose packing and tight packing (Baptist,2006).Loose packing involved having fewer slaves in a particular ship withthe main reasoning being that a considerably high proportion of theslaves would survive the journey. On the other, tight packing wasbased on the belief that the higher the number of slaves regardlessof the high number of casualties, the higher would be the yield fromthe greater profit in the trading block. However, the small cubes inwhich they were incarcerated were their eating area, sleeping area,defecating, urinated and even died. The individuals were packed soclose to each other that they never even got to the toilet buckets,in which case they would sit and lay on their filth. Small holes weredrilled in the decks so as to create some breathing space for theslaves but would be closed during thunderstorms, which were quitecommon. Since the male slaves were considered highly dangerous sincethey were mostly strong and young, and had a high likely to turn onthe captors in case an opportunity came up. The horrible conditionsencouraged diseases, including gastroenteritis (which is a seriousbug of the stomach) also called bloody flux, as well as fever (Rawley&ampBehrendt, 2005).Other common ailments included smallpox, scurvy, dysentery andmeasles. These were worsened by the fact that the slaves weresuffering from malnutrition in instances where they were not starvedas they would be given one measly meal per day. However, as thedeaths took more lives after some weeks of voyage, the meals would beincreased to two per day (Baptist,2006).It is, therefore, not surprising that quite a number of slaves wouldperish in the high seas as a result of starvation and malnutrition,diseases, and even committing suicide. Historians document that aboutthree million people perished in the high seas, with the crew memberssometimes pushing the diseased slaves out of the decks and into thewater as they could not take care of their medical expenses. Slaveswould use two common forms of resistance to commit suicide or taketheir lives including refusing to each and even jumping into the sea.However, the slave crews did everything they could to preventself-starving and suicide including torturing them until they ate oreven force feeding them (Rawley&ampBehrendt, 2005).This, nevertheless, did not hinder a large number of them fromsuccessfully starving themselves to death. To prevent them fromjumping off, the slaver crews often netted the sides of the deckalthough some slaves succeeded in jumping overboard. There were alsonumerous instances where the slaves resisted enslavement and revolvedagainst the their potential masters. Indeed, research shows thatthere was a resistance or revolt in about 10 percent of the voyagesthat were crossing the Atlantic (Heuman &amp Burnard, 2010). Inspite of the relative commonness of the slave uprisings, few weresuccessful as the slaver crews were considerably ruthless. Ininstances where mutiny failed, the slaves who had taken part in themutiny often jumped into the sea en masse, where they would drown oreven be killed by sea creatures.

Oneof the most surprising things about the Middle Passage was the factthat the conditions under which the sailors and crew lived were notany better. Indeed, they lived in sub-par conditions even by thestandards of that time, which could be explained by the fact thatthey were often recruited and employed through coercion. In general,the sailors had perfect knowledge about slave trade and often hatedit. In essence, the tavern owners and recruiters in the port townswould often get the sailors to be extremely drunk on their bill,thereby becoming heavily indebted to them (Heuman &amp Burnard,2010). They would then make an offer to have their debts relieved ifthe sailors agreed to sign the contracts with the slave ships. Ininstances where the sailors refused the offer, they faced theprospects of being imprisoned. Of particular note is the fact thatsailors who had been to prison faced immense difficulty gettingemployment beyond the slave ship industry as a large number of othermaritime industries did not employ jail birds. In essence, thesailors had no option but to go with the ships in spite of theirdetesting of the actions of the same. Research also shows that thedeath toll even among the sailors was also quite high, with estimatesranging from 20 percent to 25 percent. Indeed, there were instanceswhere the crew members are treated in a harsh manner on purpose inthe course of Middle Passage since fewer hands were neededparticularly during the third leg, in which case wages could be savedfor future use in case the sailors and other crew members jumped shipin West Indies. Scholars also note that it was quite common to comeacross injured sailors and crew members leading tough lives in theNorth American ports and the Caribbean after being abandoned.

Onboard the slave ships right in the midst of oppression, Africanslaves who, more often than not, were as much strangers to each otheras they were to the European captors created or established theirfirst connection to the new American identities. Scholars have notedthat the relationships that were created in the course of the MiddlePassage usually caused or led to revolts, as well as other types ofresistance that bound the salves together in their new political andsocial alliances. Indeed, the special relations that were forged inthe course of the Middle Passage lasted an entire lifetime and couldbe seen or perceived as strongly as kinship by the deported Africansthat had been torn from their original land and loved ones. Scholarshave actually underlined the notion that instead of wiping out allthe indications or traces of their personal, social and culturalpasts, the Middle Passage experience gave the African slaves theopportunity to draw on the shared heritage so as to survive in thenew lands, as well as make themselves entirely new people. Once theyreached the West Indies, the African slaves would be cleaned and fedin the hope that they would fetch a high price in the trade. However,some of them could not be sold as they were too weak and unhealthy,in which would be left for the dead in the shores. Once they werechosen, the slaves were transported to the final destinations in thecotton and tobacco fields among other places. It was in this horrificmanner that more than 20 million Africans were inducted into the NewWorld.

Nevertheless,it was as a result of the high deaths in the Middle Passage that alaw called “The Dolben Act or the Slave Trade Act of 1788, whichoutlined the number of enslaved people that would be incorporated ina particular ship. This law was proposed by the popular abolitionistcalled Sir William Dolben in the English parliament (Rawley&ampBehrendt, 2005).The act mandated that the a ship’s cargo could not incorporate morethan two-fifths of children and also restricted the number ofAfrican men who could be in a ship to one male per a ship ton.However, this act actually had detrimental effects on children inspite of the fact that it was aimed at restricting slave trade.Indeed, since the restrictions threatened the supply of slaves, therewas a change in the planter demands in response to the restrictions.Of particular note is the fact that the law did not incorporate aclear definition of a child, in which case a higher number ofchildren aged between 12 years and 18 years got into the trade(Klein,1999).In addition, this act triggered a heated debate regarding thebenefits pertaining to breeding slaves in the New World instead ofpurchasing them from Africa. Indeed, slave owners opined that it wasmore efficient and cost effective to breed slaves than wait for themto be purchased from Africa only to come in unrefined and unhealthystate. In essence, scholars note that the act could be largely toblame for the increase in the number of children and girls who foundtheir way into slave trade. This should not undermine the fact thatthe act had some positive effects (Rawley&ampBehrendt, 2005).Indeed, the law enforced restrictions on the number of slaves thatthe ships could carry, which ensured that the slaves were not crammedin and had sufficient space on which they could lie down. Inaddition, the law required that every slave ship to carry or have adoctor who could keep records pertaining to all slaves in the ships,with the doctors getting a bonus for the slaves that survived theordeal (Klein,1999).This act also successfully lowered the rate of deaths in the slaveson the ships, with Dolben persisting in his protests against theslave trade, as well as chair the committee for Slave Bill thateventually petitioned the parliament to effect an abolishment ofslave trade (Rawley&ampBehrendt, 2005).This bill was successfully passed and led to the 1807 act thatresulted in the abolition of transatlantic slave trade.

Inconclusion, slave trade is undoubtedly one of the most horrific partsof history in the entire globe. More often than not, the slaves wereobtained from African countries, after which they were taken to thetobacco and cotton fields in the Americas and Europe. The MiddlePassage is a term coined to underline the second leg of thetransatlantic triangle, where the ships containing slaves from Africaheaded to the Americas (Rawley&ampBehrendt, 2005).This term emanated from the fact that the voyage was the MiddleSection for the route that was taken by a large number of ships. Itwas the stage in the triangular trade referred to as theTransatlantic Slave Trade, where millions of people would be shippedfrom Africa, particularly West Africa, into the New World. The MiddlePassage was characterized by horrific conditions in which slaves,sailors and even slaver crew lived in the four weeks to even sixmonths that they were in the high seas. Of particular note is thefact that numerous slaves died in the high seas, with estimates beingaround 10-20% of the slaves. Nevertheless, this may have triggeredthe making of the Doblen Act, which caused a decrease in the slavetrade, as well as the eventual abolition of the same.


Baptist,E. E. (2006).&nbspNewstudies in the history of American slavery.Athens [u.a.: Univ. of Georgia Press.

Heuman,&nbspG&amp Burnard, T (2010). TheRoutledge history of slavery.(2010). New York: Routledge.

Klein,H. S. (1999).&nbspTheAtlantic slave trade.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rawley,J. A., &amp Behrendt, S. D. (2005).&nbspThetransatlantic slave trade: A history.Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.