The Atlantic Ocean’s Infamous “Middle Passage”–defined and then described in harrowing detail

The Middle Passage Defined and Described



Middle Passage Defined

The Middle Passage—the second leg of the infamous Triangular Trade Route—is that potion of the Atlantic Ocean upon which European ships, between the 15th and 19th centuries, transported African people from the west coast of Africa to a life of chattel slavery in the New World.

Middle Passage


Middle Passage Described

Preparation for Departure

Several days before departing the west coast of Africa on board slaving vessels, the heads of all slaves—males and females—would be shaved clean so as to facilitate cleansing and minimize the spread of hair-borne pests. When the cargo of slaves belonged to multiple owners, the slaves had to be branded, typically with silver wire or iron shaped in the letters of the initials of the respective owners. It was the custom of the Portuguese to baptize their slaves prior to departure for Brazil since not to do so was punishable by excommunication.


Slave-holding pen


Many of the slaves transported to the New World had been held in holding-facilities—slave castles, barracoons, slave pens, on-deck houses, etc.—for several days to several months prior to departure. On the day of departure, slaves so held were provided an abundant meal which signified their final day on African soil.


After being fed, the enslaved were chained at the ankles in pairs and taken to the slaving vessels, whereupon the enslaved were stripped naked so as to facilitate cleanliness, but also to prevent them from using their garments to create nooses with which to hang or otherwise destroy themselves or others. Once naked, males and females were placed into separate holds.  Women and children were sometimes not kept in holds during the daytime, but were instead kept on deck, their only protection from the elements being the vessels’ sails and tarpaulin. On-deck, daytime accommodations also exposed the women and children to sexual abuse from crew. At night, all slaves—men, women, and children—were retired to the holds.


An eyewitness account of a first encounter with a slaving vessel has been preserved for history in the 1789 autobiography of former slave, seaman, writer, and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (a.k.a. Gustavus Vassa) (ca. 1745-1797) of the Igbo (Eboe) region of what is today southeastern Nigeria. Enslaved as a child, Equiano describes the experience thus:



The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo.  These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board.  I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew, and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me.  Their complexion too differing so much from ours, their hair and language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief.  Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.  When I looked around the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. 


Slaving Vessel


Thus, the enslaved were sailed off towards the horizon utterly unaware of what would befall them, whether the vessel bearing them would fall off Earth’s edge once beyond the horizon, or if they would be devoured by cannibals, or be mercilessly skinned and tanned for the production of shoes.


The holds of slave ships, quite predictably, were notoriously squalid. And accommodations were most uncomfortable:  The height of the decks within the holds averaged between four and five feet. Because it was a known fact that slaves bound by leg irons deteriorated more rapidly, some slavers, when shipping so-called “mild” blacks from Benin and Angola, dispensed with leg irons; but doing so was the exception, not the rule. Bound in pairs, and given the horrendous conditions upon slaving vessels, it was not uncommon, upon arriving at daybreak, for one slave to find himself tethered to a dead one.





British surgeon Alexander Falconbridge (ca. 1760-1792), who participated in four slave trade voyages between 1780 and 1787, thereafter becoming an abolitionist then in 1788 publishing An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, observed:


When the sea was rough and the rain heavy, it became necessary to close the air vents.  Fresh air being thus excluded, the Negroes’ storage area grew intolerably hot.  The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies and by being repeatedly breathed, soon produced fevers and fluxes which generally carried off great numbers of them.


Frequently, I went down among them till the hold became so unbearably hot that I could not stay.  Excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered the situation intolerable.  The floor of the hold was so covered with blood and mucus which proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughterhouse.


It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture a situation more dreadful or disgusting.  Numbers of the slaves having fainted, they were carried on deck where several of them died and the rest, with great difficulty, were restored….


Upon going down in the mornings to examine the condition of the slaves, I frequently found several dead, and among the men, sometimes a dead and living Negro fastened by their leg irons together.  When this was the case, they were brought upon the deck and laid on the grating when the living Negro was disengaged and the dead one thrown overboard.


Then, of course, there is the harrowing 1819 account of the French slaver Le Rodeur, where nearly all on board—captain, surgeon, crew save one, and all 160 slaves—were blinded by ophthalmia while crossing the Atlantic.  When in the throes of their desperation, drifting at sea, they happened upon another vessel and cried out for help, all were horrified to learn that the encountered vessel, the Spanish Saint Leon, was suffering a similar fate:  all on board blind.

Deck of Slave Ship




Meals On Board Slaving Vessels

Slaves were brought up on deck at 8:00 in the morning, their leg irons fastened to a long chain that was connected to the deck. As such, sixty or more slaves could be secured, thereby avoiding rebellion. Once securely fastened, the slaves were provided with water with which to wash themselves, and the ship’s surgeon would inspect them for sores, cuts, or other ailments. Sick slaves were removed to a special section of the vessel, where treatment would be administered.


Meals were served twice daily:  breakfast was dispensed around 10:00 a.m., and another meal in the late afternoon, around 4:00.  In good weather, slaves ate in groups on deck; in inclement weather, meals were had in the slovenly holds of the ships.  Slave groups/gangs were typically required to say grace before eating and give thanks after meals.


In order to monitor food-intake (and prevent slaves from deliberately starving themselves), the process of eating was sometimes directed by signals from a monitor who indicated when slaves should in unison dip their fingers or wooden spoons into their bowls and when they should swallow.  It was the responsibility of the monitor to report slaves who were refusing to eat, the penalty for which was severe whipping and/or forced-feeding by use of a speculum orum, a mouth-opener, that was used to force food down a recalcitrant slave’s throat.


The typical slave ship diet included rice, farina, yams, and horse beans. Occasionally, bran was included. Some slavers offered their slaves the so-called “African meal” once per day, followed by a “European meal” in the evening, which consisted of horse beans boiled to a pulp.  Most Africans so detested the European meal that, given an opportunity, they would oftentimes surreptitiously throw it overboard rather than eat it.


Slaves from the various slave regions of West Africa had their food preferences:  Those from the Winward coast tended to prefer rice; while those from the Niger Delta and Angola preferred manioc (cassava), though it was bulky and had a lower shelf life (unless in dried, flour form) and was therefore less frequently offered. “Slabber sauce,” comprised of palm oil, water, and pepper, was sometimes added to the food—to the relative delight of the slaves since palm oil was a popular ingredient in West African cuisine.


For drink, slaves were provided half a pint of water twice per day. Occasionally, pipes were circulated, affording each slave a few puffs.


Log books were carefully kept of ships’ provisions so as to avoid shortages at sea. When inclement weather in the Middle Passage prolonged a ship’s journey across the Atlantic, food and water allowances were reduced.  In an infamous case in 1781, the slaving vessel Zong, headed to Jamaica, became short on food and water while also experiencing an outbreak of disease.  The captain decided to jettison 136 slaves whom he declared too sick or weak to recover, arguing that throwing those 136 slaves overboard spared them a lingering death.



Slave Activities Onboard Slaving Vessels

In good weather, the daily routine involved the slaves being brought on deck (men, typically in chains) to wash and anoint themselves with oil. In the afternoons, they were forced to amuse themselves with singing, dancing, and musicmaking (with the use of makeshift drums, etc.), which also served the dual purpose of providing some means of exercise to the slaves. Slaves who did not willingly participate in exercise were whipped into compliance. As a pastime, females and children were provided with colored beads and thread upon which to string them. At dusk, men were returned to the holds, women and children allowed to remain on deck until the fall of darkness in times of good weather.


At sundown, the second-mate and boatswain, armed with whips, would go down into the hold to arrange the slaves for sleep. Special attention was paid to the sizes of the slaves in determining where they would be placed for sleeping.  Shorter slaves were typically placed near the bow, with taller slaves in the area of greatest breadth of the vessel.  Slaves were positioned so as to lie on their right sides, which certain slavers believed was good for the heart. (The slaves situated on the right-hand side of the vessel faced forward and lay in each other’s lap; those on the left side faced the stern, in a similar formation).   Most slaves slept on the bare boards of the hold, but Portuguese slavers tended to provide coarse mats as bedding.


Generally, one of every 10 slaves was assigned to maintain order in the holds during the night.  To assist in his duties, he was provided with a whip.  As compensation for his services, he was provided with a pair of trousers.




Once per week, the ship’s barber shaved the heads of the slaves, males and females alike, and nails were pared to diminish injuries during the inevitable nightly battles over sleeping-spaces.  Buckets, to serve as makeshift latrines, were distributed in each sleeping-compartment, though, while chained, it is to be expected that arriving in a timely manner at the designated makeshift latrines would prove difficult, especially in the dark of night.





Ships’ holds, with poor ventilation, overcrowded conditions, and deplorable sanitation, were breeding-grounds for diseases.  Fever, dysentery, and smallpox were commonplace, smallpox being particularly disastrous as there was no cure.  [The first successful vaccination was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796, almost at the end of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.]


Captains aimed to maintain some standards of cleanliness, and ships, by the height of the trade, were required to employ a ship’s surgeon. Diseases wreaked havoc nonetheless.


In intervals, slaves had their mouths rinsed with vinegar or lime juice, and were administered a dram of lime juice as an antidote to scurvy.


Sick slaves were often placed under the half-deck, where they slept on planks. At dawn, the surgeon would oversee the casting of the dead into the ocean, man-eating sharks trailing slaving vessels so as to devour the dead, dying, and discarded.



Distraught slaves resorted to suicide, oftentimes by hanging themselves.  Other slaves jumped overboard to a watery death at the first opportunity.




The fear of mutiny was ever-present on slaving vessels, and troublemaking slaves were severely punished. Slaves from certain areas of West Africa earned a reputation for rebellion.  The “Coromantees” of the Gold Coast, for example, were infamous for their pride and mutinous desires and tendencies. To prevent rebellion and mutiny, slavers went to great lengths:  Holds were searched daily for weapons and anything that could be used as one; weapons and any other on-deck item was safeguarded.


Mortality Rates

All things considered (“tight pack” versus “loose pack”; outbreak of disease; onboard physicians; food and water shortages; suicide; jettisoning; etc.), the factors which most contributed to mortality on board slaving vessels were length of journey and outbreak of disease.  Most ships completed their journeys from West Africa to the New World in 60 to 90 days, around 70 days being typical. [For example, the journey from Gambia to the West Indies was 3,200 miles; from the Gold Coast and the Niger Delta, 5,500 miles; from Angola, over 6,000 miles.  Journeys to Barbados and Jamaica required an additional 1,000 miles. Storms prolonged the journey, and with the attendant reductions of food rations and water allowances, resistance levels of those on board declined, contributing to the spread of disease].  And the overall morality rate on board slaving vessels from the 15th to 19th centuries was around 20%.


George Francis Dow in his book Slave Ships and Slavery writes:  “The Cruelty and horror of the ‘Middle Passage’ can never be told in all its gruesome details. It is enough to recall that the ships were always trailed by man-eating sharks,” no doubt devouring the dead, dying, and discarded.


A 19th-century observer graphically described the Middle Passage thus:  “Were the Atlantic Ocean dried up today, one could trace the pathway between the slave coast of Africa and America by a scattered roadway of human bones.”


And as if the Middle Passage were not horror-filled enough, on occasion disaster would occur in otherwise safe havens.  Johan Nissen, in his 1793 diary, tells of two overcrowded slaving vessels finally reaching the harbor of St. Thomas only to be destroyed by a terrible hurricane that took the lives of all on board.


Sale of Slaves in the New World


Cropped Th. Jessen


When provisions allowed, slaves were fattened-up nearing journey’s end. Immediately upon arrival, before being offered for sale, the onboard physician would stuff with oakum the anuses of slaves suffering from the flux (amoebic dysentery), an ulcerative inflammation of the colon, one of the symptoms being oozing from the anus. Tar was smeared upon bruises to conceal them.  And slaves would be bathed and oiled prior to being presented for sale.


A central location within the Caribbean archipelago and a natural deep-water harbor made the Danish West Indies island of St. Thomas an excellent location for ships to make their first port of call after crossing the mighty Atlantic.  Once in St. Thomas, sick slaves were taken ashore for medical attention; food and water supplies were replenished; and slaves could be sold locally as well as put on board other vessels for sale up and down the Caribbean.


Slave Auction


There were three principal methods for selling slaves:  private treaty; scramble; and public auctions.  Under the private treaty method, slaves were sold directly to planters or specified wholesalers at previously established prices.  Scramble entailed slaves being assembled into an open area, with buyers handpicking their choices.  Public auction was the method typically used as a last-resort option for sickly slaves.  Unsold slaves were left in the harbor to die lingering deaths.  It was not uncommon for free and enslaved Africans to offer assistance, residence, and even kinship to slaves abandoned in the slave harbors.


Eyewitness Accounts of Slavery n the Danish West Indies by Isidor Paiewonsky

Stand the Storm–A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade by Edward Reynolds


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