Middle Passage / Black Gold

The Middle Passage was the most infamous route of this triangular trade. Although danger lurked constantly throughout the voyage across the Atlantic, the greatest danger to the slave ships always came when they were loading on the African coast. Once aboard the ships, the negroes realized that they were being sent far away from home, and often there was violence even before the ship set sail. However, most of these uprisings were easily put down. Others jumped overboard and plunged from the ship into the sea, choosing to either drown or be devoured by blood-thirsty sharks rather than be taken from their homeland.

By the middle of the 16th century more than 10,000 Africans a year were being sold to the European colonists in the West Indies.  Portuguese ships were the first to engage in the slave traffic, but it was not long before Spanish, French, Dutch, and English slavers took it up.

Once aboard the ships the blacks would be packed below deck. Captains of slave ships were known as either "loose packers" or "tight packers", depending upon how many slaves they crammed into the space they had. Most ships, especially those of the later 18th century, were "tight packers", carrying a huge quantity of slaves who were often forced to lie in spaces smaller than that of a grave, or in some cases stacked spoon-fashion on top of one another. Regardless, life for a slave in the "tween decks", as they were called, was extremely uncomfortable. In addition to extreme overcrowding, there was also inadequate ventilation, not to mention little or no sanitation. Although some captains would have their crew periodically clean the "tween decks" with hot vinegar, most chose rather to leave them alone, resulting in their atrociously unclean condition. In addition to disease and suffocation below deck, it would not be uncommon to find the body of a slave completely covered by lice.Eventually, after the arduous 3,700 mile voyage, the slave ship would reach North America. In order to strengthen them before sale, the slaves were normally fed better in the days directly before their arrival in the new world, however their suffering was far from over. Before they could be sold, the slaves would be oiled to make their skin shiny and any imperfections, such as scars from whippings, would be filled in with hot tar in order to improve their appearance and get the best market price. Most slave ships would not be allowed to dock in the ports which they came to due to their horrible stench and the fear of the spread of any diseases which had been spread throughout the ship. Therefore, the slavers would drop anchor a few miles off shore and carry the slaves to land in smaller boats which had been stored aboard the ship. The slaves would then be sold at auction and would live through the rest of their lives in wicked involuntary servitude.

The English colonists in the New World inported white indentured workers at first, but found there weren't enough of them.  the Indians in the Americas refused to work, or in the main, proved to be poorly fitted for long hours of hard labor.  In the long run, the Europeans found it easier and cheaper to import Africans as slaves.  The slave dealers made so much money from their human cargoes that soon Africans came to be known as "black gold."

Brutal Voyage:

The Daily Routine on the Slave Ships

During periods of good weather, the slaves would be brought up on deck in the morning. At this time the men would be shackled together with iron chains, while the women and children would be allowed to roam about on deck. At about nine o' clock in the morning they were given their first meal of the day. Interestingly, slaves from different sections along the west African coast would often be fed different meals. Those from the Northern part of the Guinea Coast would be fed boiled rice, millet, or cornmeal. Slaves from the Bight of Biafra had stewed yams, and those from still farther south in the Congo River region would be fed starchy manioc, cassava flour, or banana-like fruits. Sometimes a few lumps of raw meat would be thrown in with their food to keep them healthy. It was also at this time in the morning that the slaves were given their daily ration of a half-pint of water in a small pan, called a pannikin.

In the late afternoon came the slaves' second and only other meal of the day. Sometimes it was the same as their first, but most captains were not that humane. The afternoon meal usually consisted only of horse beans, very large beans which are used to feed horses. They were the cheapest form of food available. The beans were boiled until they were pulpy and then covered with a mixture of palm oil, flour, and water. To cover up the horrible taste, large amounts of red pepper, called "slabber sauce", were added. The captains needed to keep the slaves in acceptable physical condition if they were to be sold at high prices, so each morning after breakfast the slaves were "danced" on deck, in order to give them exercise. Still shackled together, the men were forced to jump up and down until often the flesh of their ankles was raw and bleeding from the iron chains which bound them together. The women and children, who were free of such bonds were better able to dance to the rhythm that was pounded out on an African drum or iron kettle, sometimes with the accompaniment of a fiddle or African banjo played by a crew member. The slaves, otherwise kept miserably in the "tween decks", enjoyed this dancing, as it was their only form of physical recreation during the entire day. Each day at sunset the slaves would be placed back below deck to rest in the misery and filth that was the "tween decks". During the morning exercises members of the crew roved about the deck carrying whips and would beat those slaves who refused to "dance". Although most whips were made only of simple rope, the wicked cat-o'-nine-tails was also used aboard many slavers. Consisting of nine cords coated with tar, each with a knot at the end, the cat-o'-nine-tails could slash the skin of a slave's back to ribbons in only a few lashes.Yet the worst time of the Middle Passage came for the slaves when the ship was met with periods of bad weather. During storms the blacks were forced to remain below deck all day and night. The holds were dark, filthy, slimy, and they stank of death. The "tween decks" were often full not only with slaves, both living and dead, but also with blood, vomit, urine, and human waste. Also during periods of inclement weather the slaves were not fed as usual. They were often forced to scrounge for small crumbs and pieces of spoiled food and drink from stagnant puddles of extremely impure water. Another inhuman practice of the crews of the slave ships was that of "bedwarming". In this custom a member of the crew, or sometimes even the captain, would take a slave women out from the 'tween decks during the night. The woman would be taken back to either the captain's chamber or the crew's living quarters and be beaten and physically forced to have sexual relations with the crew member. This practice demonstrated the complete rape of the African-American culture by the slave traders of the Middle Passage, both figuratively and literally.

With the food often spoiled, water stagnant, their quarters filthy, only 3 out of 5 made to to the West Indies.  Some slaves committed suicide by jumping into the water, or even by swallowing their own tongues. 

Although most of the victims of the Middle Passage found themselves helpless to resist their captors, there were occasional uprisings on the slave ships.

Many of the Africans taken aboard the slave ships and transported along the Middle Passage did not live to see the shores of North America. A great many expired during the voyage as a result of the extreme overcrowding and deplorable conditions present aboard the vessel. Many suffocated or succumbed to dysentery while in the hold. Many died along the voyage due to epidemics of disease, which spread like wildfire in the tightly packed 'tween decks. On board the slavers there were numerous outbreaks of the dreaded smallpox, as well as ophthalmia, a highly contagious disease which quickly resulted in complete blindness. These terrible ailments could rapidly afflict an entire cargo of slaves, as well as the crew, and wipe out entire ships in a matter of days.A few of the Africans were driven insane by the claustrophobic misery they experienced while on the ships. Those who had gone mad were often brought up on deck, at which time they were either flogged or clubbed to death and then thrown overboard. Those suffering from smallpox or ophthalmia were not quite so fortunate. Anyone showing even the slightest sign of either of these diseases was thrown overboard alive. This was done by the captain to prevent at all costs an epidemic aboard the ship.

It is difficult for scholars to even estimate the number of Africans that died during the Middle Passage. Very few exact records were kept of those who expired during the voyage, but most historians feel reasonably confident in saying that nearly as many Africans died en route as made it to the Americas. From the records that do exist, it is telling that a voyage in which only one-quarter of the African captives died during the trip was considered a success. Although we will never know for sure how many unfortunate Africans met their deaths along the Middle Passage, it is certain that the death toll was staggering and that many of those taken from their homeland never even made it across the Atlantic. The millions of blacks that perished in the Middle Passage show the extreme callousness of those involved in the slave trade and the gross inhumanity with which the Africans were treated.

By the 17th century slaves could be secured in Africa for about 25$ a head, and sold in the Americas for about 150$.  But later, when the slave trade was declared illegal, Africans brought much higher prices.  Many slave-ship captians could not resist cramming their black cargo into every foot of space even though they might lose from 15 to 20 % of the lot on the way across the ocean. 



Photo Credits: 

Ship/ Hull: http://beatl.barnard.columbia.edu/students/his3487/lembrich/seminar53.html

Lesson Objectives

Students will learn

OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to:

1. list

2. explain the difference between

3. describe the

4. chart on a map the

5. define the terms

6. Explain the significance of

Knowledge: Recall of data.

Comprehension: Understand the meaning, translation, interpolation, and interpretation of instructions and problems. State a problem in one's own words.

Use a concept in a new situation or unprompted use of an abstraction. Applies what was learned in the classroom into novel situations in the workplace.

Separates material or concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood. Distinguishes between facts and inferences. 

Builds a structure or pattern from diverse elements. Put parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure.

Make judgments about the value of ideas or materials.

Remember : Recognizing, Recalling
Understand : Interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, explaining
Apply : Executing, implementing
Analyze : Differentiating, organizing, attributing
Evaluate : checking, critiquing
Create: generating, planning, producing