Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Slaving ships - the 'middle passage'

by Dr Alan Rice

'The Atlantic crossings constituted the largest enforced movement of peoples known to the pre-twentieth century world.' James Walvin 

Crossing the Atlantic

Probably the most notorious aspect of transatlantic slavery was the journey of enslaved Africans from their homeland to the Americas. This journey became known from the European perspective as 'the middle passage'. It would generally take between 50 and 80 days.

There are around 27,000 documented transatlantic slaving voyages and it is estimated that there were many thousands of undocumented journeys during the early period of the slave trade.

Confined in chains

In order to make as much money as possible, the European merchants would pack their human 'cargo' in confined spaces. Each person had around two square metres of space and so little headroom that full grown men and women had to crouch throughout the journey.

The space Africans were assigned in these internally redesigned freight vessels was significantly less than the space that migrants and soldiers were given when they were transported to the Americas. Enslaved Africans had less than a sixth of the space of European migrants to the West Indies in the same period.

Shackled to their neighbours, enslaved Africans, often as many as 300-400 per voyage, could barely move except when allowed their daily exercise on deck. Many would never have seen the sea before, let alone been on a voyage across an ocean. As a result, sea sickness and a profound disorientation affected almost all of them. The sickness was made worse by the narrow spaces in which they were kept.

Death and disease

Chained enslaved Africans were often unable to reach toilet buckets. This meant the rapid spread of diseases such as diarrhoea and the 'bloody flux' (dysentry) that killed many of the weakened captured Africans. They were also vulnerable to other diseases such as malaria, pleurisy, yellow fever, smallpox and scurvy.

The disorientation of Africans mystified their captors who described a 'fixed melancholy'. Some captives refused to move about, refused food and eventually died. Others took more immediate steps to remove their and their relatives bodies from capture. They threw themselves and their children overboard in acts of suicide and infanticide that many of them believed would quicken their return to Africa. This happened so often that slaving ships were fitted with nets to try and prevent it.

Death rates on the ships varied, although generally in the early trade 20% and above of enslaved Africans died on board the ships. This rate fell to 10% in the late eighteenth century, only to rise again during the illegal transatlantic slave trade after 1807.

Sexual violence

In the ships, men were usually separated from the women and children who were allowed greater freedom of movement and kept closer to the deck. This was, however, not such an advantage, especially for the women and girls. Their closeness to the ship's deck left them prey to captains and crew members who would often rape them.

Such sexual violence was accompanied by violent punishments to keep order. Public whippings and other everyday beatings took place often on most ships. Ships redesigned specially to carry slaves had a barricade built onto them, complete with a small cannon as a way of stopping possible slave rebellions. It is proof of the African captives' bravery that there were around 500 documented slave revolts during the trade, despite the pistols and cannons of their captors and the extremely harsh punishments used to prevent such rebellion.