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                      The Middle Passage



Pre 17th Century 

Why were slaves needed

Why African slaves

The Transatlantic Trade

The Outward Passage

The Middle Passage

The Slave Auctions

Plantation Life

The Return Passage

Bristol v Liverpool

Royal African Co.

Merchant Venturers

Edward Colston

John Pinney

The End of Slavery

Bristol Today



The Middle Passage

The voyage that carried Africans into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean was called the 'Middle Passage'. Having arrived at the African coast captains were anxious to make their stay as short as possible to avoid disease and mutiny. Slaves were taken from the holding forts,  shackled together in pairs with leg-irons and carried to the ships in dugout canoes. Once aboard they were branded with a red-hot iron, like cattle, to show who owned them and their clothes removed.

Slaves were housed in the ship's hold like any other cargo. The men were kept in chains while women and children were allowed to go free. Slaves lay on specially built shelves with about 0.5 metres of vertical space,  the men still fettered in pairs. As long as they were in the hold slaves had to remain lying flat on their backs. Once the available spaces were filled the captains would set sail.

Once at sea, the slaves were brought up out of their steamy dungeon each morning. The men's' leg-irons were linked to a chain running down the centre of the ship's deck to prevent them jumping overboard. On some ships they were made to dance for exercise. The slaves would receive their meal, usually a kind of porridge made from maize or millet. A second meal might be provided in the afternoon, usually the same as the first. While on deck a good captain had the slaves washed down with warm vinegar and scrubbed. Some did not bother and in rough weather the slaves would not be allowed out at all.

Shackled in darkness and filth, seasickness and disease were rife. The heat in the hold could be over 30c and the slaves would have no access to toilets or washing facilities. So foul was the smell of slave ships that other vessels took care to steer well away from them. In such conditions disease spread, and many slaves died.                                                              

It was not rare for hundreds to die in an epidemic; occasionally every African on board was dead by the time the ship entered Caribbean waters. Their bodies would be thrown overboard. Slaves were valuable cargo so a good captain would do his best to keep as many alive as possible. But many slave captains were notorious for their cruelty. The actual voyage could take from 6 weeks to three months. It has been estimated that between 9-11 million people were taken from Africa by European traders and landed alive on the other side of the Atlantic. But as the average loss was 1/8 of all slaves it can be estimated that a further 1 million Africans are buried in the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and the Americas.

At the end of the voyage came the 'sale' of  the cargo. Africans were inspected for physical faults and auctioned like meat in a meat-market. Families were split up forever and life as a plantation slave would begin.

Meanwhile, the captains totted up the profits and the crew began cleaning out the ship to take on a cargo of colonial produce, which had to be carried in better conditions than the slaves had endured. As soon as the ship was ready and loaded, the final part of the trade triangle, The Return Passage, could begin.


Olaudah Equiano describes his 1789 journey on the middle passage

A slave trader-James Bardot Jnr's account of a revolt of slaves 1770

Alexander Falconbridge, ships surgeon, describes life on the Middle Passage 1788

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