The Middle Passage was the trans-Atlantic journey that millions of black Africans were forced to make from Africa's west coast to the New World (Western Hemisphere), where they were sold to plantation owners to work as slaves. Most historians estimate that about 10 million slaves were transported via the Middle Passage. Of that total, an estimated 6 percent were shipped to the North American mainland.
The trip was called the Middle Passage because it was the middle leg of the trade triangles that were established in the early 1500s by the Spanish and Portuguese. They imported slaves from Africa to work on sugar plantations in the New World. The English, French, and Dutch began using slave labor in their New World colonies in the early 1600s. The three-part journey began and ended in Europe. First, ships sailed from Europe to the west coast of Africa, where traders exchanged goods such as firearms, gunpowder, iron, textiles, and brandy for slaves. From there the ships sailed to New World ports where the human cargo was sold or traded for tobacco, sugar, or some other commodity. The ships then returned loaded with these commodities to their domestic ports in Europe.
The Middle Passage was a brutal journey that often lasted several months. The holds of most slave ships had two levels, with ceilings as low as 2 feet (61 cm) in height. Many ships carried between 300 and 400 slaves. Crowded into these quarters, which were dark, unclean, and poorly ventilated, slaves made the trip hunched over and chained together, with little room to move. They received minimal food and exercise. These conditions created a breeding ground for disease, and many died before the ship reached its destination.
Slave traders had a financial interest in keeping their human cargo alive and looking strong enough to work when they were presented at slave auction. The challenge for ship captains was to maximize the number of slaves transported per voyage, while minimizing losses from death and disease. Some traders opted to ship as many as slaves possible despite the risk of losing a large percentage of them to death and being forced to accept lower prices for those who survived because of their poor health. Other traders found it more profitable to compromise the sheer number of bodies they shipped in order to sell healthier slaves at higher prices.
Historians estimate that between 10 to 15 percent of slaves died on the Middle Passage. Most died of suffocation as the air in the quarters became unbreathable because of the smell of perspiration, excrement, and urine. Many also died of despair, or what traders called “fixed melancholy.” Numerous slaves tried to commit suicide, but ship captains took measures to prevent it. In the early days of the slave trade, many slaves jumped overboard, but ship captains began keeping slaves shackled for longer periods of time. Slaves who stopped eating were whipped and force fed. In 1808 the United States prohibited the importing of slaves from abroad, but possessing slaves and selling Page 799 | Top of Articlethem domestically remained legal. In 1833 the antislavery movement in Great Britain culminated in the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies. Illegal trade in slaves continued in many areas until Britain stepped up the enforcement of its antislavery law. Britain conducted naval blockades and surprise raids off the African coast and eventually reduced the trade. Chattel slavery was outlawed throughout the Americas after 1888, but forms of forced labor nearly as oppressive continue to this day. Although the international shipment of coerced laborers also exists, conditions are not usually as bad as the Middle Passage.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. New York: Simon, 2013. Print.
Inikori, Joseph E., and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Durham: Duke UP, 1992. Print.
Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.
Naipaul, V. S. The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies, British, French, and Dutch, in the West Indies and South America. London: André Deutsch, 1962. Print.
Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.
Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440–1870. New York: Simon, 1999. Print.
Unsworth, Barry. Sacred Hunger. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992. Print.
Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1944. Print.