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The Middle Passage Previous Next
Digital History ID 446


The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest movement of people in history. Between 10 and 15 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, for every 100 slaves who reached the New World, another 40 had died in Africa or during the Middle Passage.

The Atlantic slave trade, however, was not the only slave trade within Africa. Nearly as many Africans were exported across the Sahara Desert, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean from 650 a.d. to 1900 as were shipped across the Atlantic. Islamic traders probably exported 10 million slaves into north Africa, Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and India. In addition, it now seems clear that during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, many and perhaps most of the enslaved were kept in Africa. It is imaginable that as many as 60 million Africans died or were enslaved as a result of these various slave trades.

The level of slave exports to the New World grew from about 36,000 a year in the early eighteenth 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.

Once on shipboard, slaves were chained together and crammed into spaces sometimes less than five feet high. One observer said that slaves were packed together "like books upon a close that the shelf would not easily contain one more." 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 vessel's bow and women toward the stern. The men were chained together and forced to lie shoulder to shoulder, while women were usually left unchained. During the voyage, the enslaved Africans were typically 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 seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and remaining around ten percent in the nineteenth century - as a result of malnutrition and such diseases as dysentery, measles, scurvy, and smallpox. This was a much higher death rate than that found among white immigrants, and it appears to have been due largely to dehydration, resulting from 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. The most recent estimate suggests that there was a revolt on one in every ten voyages across the Atlantic. To prevent their captives from starving themselves, slavers sometimes smashed out their teeth and fed them by force. Some captains actually cut off the arms and legs of a few kidnapped Africans.

Upon arrival in the New World, enslaved Africans underwent the final stage in the process of enslavement, a rigorous process known as "seasoning." Many slaves died of disease or suicide, but many other African captives conspired to escape slavery by running away and forming "maroon" colonies in remote parts of South Carolina, Florida, Brazil, Guiana, and Jamaica, and Surinam

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