Background information

Across the Atlantic

Ships carried enslaved Africans from their homelands to the Caribbean islands or North and South America, on a journey which is historically known as the Middle Passage ? the second stage in the transatlantic slave trade. The journey could take more than two months. Conditions on the slave ships were completely dehumanizing and oppressive.

The journey from Africa to the New World

By the time Africans were on board ship they may have been marched for months from the interior, or ferried down rivers in canoes, held in slave forts or in the holds of ships which sailed along the African coast, often for months, filling up with captives. They were already physically weakened, dispirited and often separated from loved ones and people from their own communities. They had no possessions with them. The second part of the triangular journey could take over 8 weeks depending on the route:

?I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything.?

Olaudah Equiano

People treated like cargo

When Equiano was bundled on to a slave ship he saw ?a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenance expressing dejection and sorrow?. These African people, torn from their homeland were not given any indication of what was to happen to them. There was a strong belief that Europeans were cannibals and they were fearful of being eaten. From this point on these people were defined as slaves.

Account book for the snow, Molly, a slave ship
Account book for the snow, Molly, a slave ship
To the sailors and traders the slave trade was a business like any other. The enslaved were treated as cargo and recorded in detailed accounts rather than as human beings with personal rights of any sort. Slaves were often given numbers rather than names at this point. They were sometimes branded as they were forced onto the ships, to indicate their owner.

John Newton recorded how all the captives were branded JM with a red-hot iron to show that they belonged to Joseph Manesty, the ship?s owner. On board ship enslaved Africans were kept below decks; men, women and boys separated. Men were usually kept shackled, hand-cuffed in pairs by their wrists and with iron leg rings riveted to their ankles. Frequently they had so little space they could only lie on their sides and could not sit or stand up, the head clearance was only 2 feet 8 inches (68 cm) [1]. Thomas Buxton described the conditions on board ship in a speech in the House of Commons:

?The voyage, the horrors of which are beyond description. For example, the mode of packing. The hold of a slave vessel is from two to four feet high. It is filled with as many human beings as it will contain. They are made to sit down with their heads between their knees: first, a line is placed close to the side of the vessel; then another line, and then the packer, armed with a heavy club, strikes at the feet of this last line in order to make them press as closely as possible against those behind. Thus it is suffocating for want of air, starving for want of food, parched with thirst for want of water, ? creatures are compelled to perform a voyage of fourteen hundred miles?

Thomas Buxton

Parliament regularly debated the number of people who could be packed into a ship?s hold. What was the formula for maximizing profit? Pack in as many people as possible or leave some room, hopefully to reduce death rates? The largest ships leaving Liverpool at the peak of the trade could hold 1000 slaves. An Act of Parliament in 1788, the Dolben Act, restricted the number of slaves according to the tonnage of the ship. However, the slave ships were still grossly overcrowded by modern standards.

Read the full PDF version of the background information for this theme in the Learning resources.

[1] Note: 1 foot = @29cm. 1 inch = @2.5 cm

Find more resources for Middle Passage in our learning resources