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The Middle Passage Previous Next
Digital History ID 3034


Between 10 and 16 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic between 1500 and 1900. But this figure grossly understates the actual number of Africans enslaved, killed, or displaced as a result of the slave trade. At least 2 million Africans--10 to 15 percent--died during the infamous "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic. Another 15 to 30 percent died during the march to or confinement along the coast. Altogether then, for every 100 slaves who reached the New World, 40 died in Africa or during the Middle Passage.

On shipboard, slaves were chained together and crammed into spaces sometimes less than five feet high. Conditions within the slave ships were unspeakably awful. Inside the hold, slaves had only half the space provided for indentured servants or convicts. Urine, vomit, mucous, and horrific odors filled the hold.

The Middle Passage usually took more than seven weeks. Men and women were separated, with men usually placed toward the bow and women toward the stern. The men were chained together and forced to lie shoulder to shoulder. During the voyage, the enslaved Africans were usually fed only once or twice a day and brought on deck for limited times.

The death rate on these slave ships was very high, reaching 25 percent in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It remained around ten percent in the 19th century as a result of malnutrition and such diseases as dysentery, measles, scurvy, and smallpox. The most serious danger was dehydration due to inadequate water rations. Diarrhea was widespread and many Africans arrived in the New World covered with sores or suffering fevers.

Many Africans resisted enslavement. On shipboard, many slaves mutinied, attempted suicide, jumped overboard, or refused to eat. Our best estimate is that there was a revolt on one in every ten voyages across the Atlantic.

The level of slave exports grew from about 36,000 a year in the early 18th century to almost 80,000 a year during the 1780s. By 1750, slavers usually contained at least 400 slaves, with some carrying more than 700. During the peak years of the slave trade, between 1740 and 1810, Africa supplied 60,000 captives a year--outnumbering Europeans migrating to the New World.

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