MIDDLE PASSAGE. Even before African slaves arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619, the slave trade figured significantly in the economy of the Atlantic nations.
Established primarily by sea captains from England and New England, a system of trading routes developed among Europe, Africa, and North America and became known collectively as the triangular trade. Ships in these triangular lanes carried goods among the three continents, taking advantage of the fact that none of these regions was economically self-sufficient; each depended on the other two for goods they could not provide themselves. The so-called Middle Passage consisted of the leg across the Atlantic that connected Africa to the Americas.
The economics of such trafficking went something like this: England produced textiles and other manufactured goods like firearms and gunpowder, unavailable in either North America or Africa. This cargo made the voyage from England to the African "Slave Coast" to be traded for slaves and other riches such as gold and silver. The next leg sent these slaves and domestic goods to the West Indies and North American coast, where shippers traded their cargo for tobacco, fish, lumber, flour, foodstuffs, and rum distilled in New England before returning with these goods to England.
The inhabitants along the west coast of Africa had long recognized the practice of slavery; however, trafficking existed mainly to supply domestic slaves. Local kings would often sell surplus slaves, in addition to criminals, debtors, and prisoners of war, to European traders. However, the exportation of African slaves had its real origins in 1419, when Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal began to send expeditions to explore the West African coast. By 1444, Europe began to buy African slaves, and the first leg of the slave trade triangle became established. Demand for slaves proved to be greater than the usual practices could provide, and coastal tribes resorted to slave-catching raids to supply Europeans' demands, using firearms supplied by slavers.
Renaissance Europeans discovered the existence of the Americas in 1492 when Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the New World during an attempt to find a sea-trading route to the Far East. The subsequent conquest of the New World encouraged transatlantic slave trading as early as 1502 in support of plantations instituted in the Americas. Bartolomé de Las Casas, later the bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, proposed in 1517 the large-scale importation of African slaves to replace the local Indian slaves, whom he deemed unsuitable. The following year, the Spanish Crown authorized the first direct shipment of slaves from Africa to the Americas and, by 1595, began to grant the asiento, permits providing for slave-trading monopolies to Spanish dominions. The year 1619 saw the first African slaves in North American colonies.
Initially, Portuguese and Spanish colonies in South America and Central America bought slaves to work on sugar cane plantations, facilities known as the "seasoning stations" by the northern plantations because of the brutal conditioning that took place there. Although Portugal retained control of the southern transatlantic slave trade, several nations, especially England, challenged the Spanish for the northern Atlantic. In 1562, Sir John Hawkins became the first Englishman to carry a cargo of African slaves to the New World. His voyage netted such gains that Queen Elizabeth, who had publicly denounced slave-trading voyages, secretly invested heavily in Hawkins's subsequent slaving expeditions. Sir Francis Drake, Hawkins's cousin, commanded one of these ships.
In the late 1560s, Hawkins sailed his ships into the port of Veracruz on the Mexican coast, where he encountered a large and heavily armed Spanish fleet, which attacked and defeated the English vessels as part of their attempt to retain the monopoly over the northern transatlantic slave trade. British interest in the slave trade did not resume for a century, until after the English Civil War, when in 1672 Charles II chartered the Royal African Company, which quickly established England as the world's greatest slave trader. By the 1700s, due to increasing demand for African slaves, slave traders began to ship their cargo of Africans directly from Africa to North America.
The Middle Passage may have served to enrich many Europeans and Americans, but the enslaved Africans suffered extraordinary atrocities and inhuman conditions during these voyages. Estimates for the total number of Africans imported to the New World by the slave trade range from 25 million to 50 million; of these, perhaps as many as half died at sea during the Middle Passage experience. The journey from Africa to North America could take between thirty and ninety days. The vessels were called "loose packers" or "tight packers," where captives were laid side by side, coffin like, beneath the deck. The ships carried the stench of diseased and decaying
bodies, and slavers often threw unruly Africans overboard, which lured sharks along these shipping lanes.
Olaudah Equiano, of the Ibo tribe in what is now modern Nigeria, wrote an account of the horrors of the Middle Passage. Kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of eleven, Equiano recounted the shock of seeing white people purchase slaves in Africa and the fear aroused by the claim that whites ate Africans or drank their blood. The few first-hand accounts that exist consistently report that the unsanitary conditions aboard ship on the longer journeys created high mortality rates, encouraged by the incidence of smallpox, eye infections, gastrointestinal disorders, and body sores. "Fever" and "flux" were the terms used to describe common causes of death during the ocean crossing, and some slaves committed suicide by refusing to eat or throwing themselves overboard. Ships sometimes reported slave rebellions, and the result became a maritime standard of even harsher and more brutal handling.
Slave-ship captains were given incentives for delivering only healthy, salable men and women to American slave markets. As a result, certain circumstances could lead to the mass murder of their African cargo at sea. When captives seemed too sick to survive the journey, slavers were known to hurl the weak and infirm into the sea. At other times, storms at sea or shortages of drinking water might lead to the mass execution of captives as well. In fact, records show that captains who ordered Africans overboard at sea often sought reimbursement from insurance companies for their losses.
In 1807, England became the first nation to abolish the African slave trade, but not even the mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad in 1839 could put an end to the Middle Passage until the American Civil War came to a close in 1865. Only then did the United States outlaw slavery and end 300 years of Middle Passage horror and inhumanity.
Alderman, Clifford L. Rum, Slaves, and Molasses: The Story of New England's Triangular Trade. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1972.
Dow, George Francis. Slave Ships and Slaving. New York: Dover, 1970.
Equiano, Olaudah. Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Howard, Thomas, ed. Black Voyage: Eyewitness Accounts of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
Klein, Herbert S. The Middle Passage: Comparative Studies in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.
Plimmer, Charlotte, and Denis Plimmer. Slavery: The Anglo-American Involvement. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. New York: Norton, 1981.
Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440–1870. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.