On the first leg of their three-part journey, often called the
Triangular Trade, European ships brought manufactured goods
to Africa; on the second, they transported African men, women, and children to
the Americas; and on the third leg, they exported to Europe the sugar, rum,
cotton, and tobacco produced by the enslaved labor force. There was also a direct trade
between Brazil and Angola that did not include the European leg. Traders
referred to the Africa-Americas part of the voyage as the "
Middle Passage" and the term has survived to denote the
Well over 30,000 voyages from Africa to the Americas have been
documented. But numbers and statistics alone cannot convey the horror of the
experience. However, the records provide detailed information on some aspects
of this tragedy.
The dreadful Middle Passage could last from one to three months and
epitomized the role of violence in the trade. Based on
regulations, ships could transport only about 350 people, but some carried more
than 800 men, women, and children. Branded, stripped
naked for the duration of the voyage, lying down amidst filth, enduring almost
unbearable heat, compelled by the lash to dance on deck to straighten their
limbs, all captives went through a frightening, incredibly brutal and
Men were shackled under deck, and all Africans were subjected to abuse
Some people tried to starve themselves to death, but the crew forced
them to take food by whipping them, torturing them with hot coal, or forcing
their mouths open by using special instruments or by breaking their teeth.
The personal identity of the captives was denied. Women and boys were
often used for the pleasure of the crew. Ottobah Cugoano,
who endured the Middle Passage in the eighteenth century, recalled: "it was
common for the dirty filthy sailors to take the African women and lie upon
Mortality brought about by malnutrition,
smallpox, and other diseases was very high. Depending on the
times, upwards of 20 percent died from various epidemics or committed suicide.
Venture Smith, describing his ordeal, wrote: "After an
ordinary passage, except great mortality by the small pox, which broke out on
board, we arrived at the island of Barbadoes: but when we reached it, there
were found out of the two hundred and sixty that sailed from Africa, not more
than two hundred alive." It was not unusual for captains and crew to toss the
sick overboard; and some even disposed of an entire cargo for insurance
On board slave ships, in the midst of their
oppression, the Africans, who were often as much strangers to each other as to
their European captors, forged the first links with their new American
identities. Relationships established during the Middle Passage frequently
resulted in revolts and other forms of resistance that bound them in new social
and political alliances. Ottobah Cugoano described the attempted revolt
organized on the ship that took him from the Gold Coast to
Grenada: "when we found ourselves at last taken away, death
was more preferable than life; and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we
might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames . . .
. It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship, with the approbation
and groans of the rest; though that was prevented, the discovery was likewise a
cruel bloody scene."
The special relations created on the ship lasted a lifetime and were
regarded by the deported Africans, torn from their loved ones, as strongly as
kinship. They had special names for those who had shared their ordeal. They
were called bâtiments in
Creole (from the French for ship), sippi in
Surinam (from ship), and shipmate in Jamaica.
Far from wiping out all traces of their cultural, social, and personal
past, the Middle Passage experience provided Africans with opportunities to
draw on their collective heritage to make themselves a new people.