Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Middle passage from The Seafaring Dictionary: Terms, Idioms and Legends of the Past and Present

This was the longest, toughest, and most horrific segment of the triangular trade. Africans, purchased from local chiefs and warlords, were literally packed like sardines (see spooning) into the holds of specially-designed slave ships, chained together (usually in pairs), only occasionally (if ever) allowed a turn around the decks, and fed barely enough food to sustain life. The passage lasted between five weeks and five months, and every day the stench of fear, unwashed bodies, and human excrement got worse. Malnutrition, scurvy, dysentery, and infectious diseases, along with severe depression took a terrible toll. Nevertheless, there were enough survivors to make the slave trade immensely profitable.

Summary Article: MIDDLE PASSAGE
from Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

The term “middle passage” refers to the transatlantic voyage experienced by Africans who were being shipped from Africa to America as human cargo in the slave trade. It was given this name—middle passage—because the journey from Africa to America represented the middle leg of the three-step trading network set up by the Europeans. The trip started in Europe with the ships transporting a cargo of rum, brandy, weapons, metalware, and other goods to Africa. Once in Africa, the European goods were exchanged for slaves who would be then shipped to America. The increasingly agriculture-based American society was in need of cheap labor. The colonial populations were small and grew slowly, and there was, therefore, a shortage of field labor. In America, the enslaved Africans were exchanged for sugar, tobacco, and other products that would be taken on the return trip to Europe. Slaves thus played a central role in the European economy and to what was called the “triangular trade.”

Forms of slavery had been in existence for a long time, but the scale of the Atlantic slave trade from its inception in the seventeenth century was something new in the seventeenth century. It was also distinguished by its severity and the decimation of the African population, as well as by the great distances that separated slaves from their homes, which increased their cultural alienation and legal vulnerability. The first European power to organize the Atlantic slave trade was the Portuguese empire in the sixteenth century. However, the English replaced them as the most powerful slave trading nation in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is estimated that the British ships transported more people in their Atlantic voyages that any other European nation.

African society was disrupted by transatlantic slavery since it created a radical break within African society. While Africans could be enslaved in different ways by African societies, the European economy altered the established practices in the exchange of slaves. First, most slaves were sold by African chiefs themselves to European traders in exchange for European goods. These slaves were usually debtors, people in debt, criminals, or captured enemies. The African chiefs participated actively in selling other Africans to Europeans, rather than retaining them for their own society, because the trade goods they received in return enhanced their prestige and brought them more followers. The other source of slaves was direct capture by Europeans, as described by the former slave Olaudah Equiano’s account of his experience as a child: “One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both” (Andrews, ed., 2000, p. 211).

Once captured, traders chained the slaves together and forced them to march to seaports to wait for the ship that would carry them to America. Often for months at a time, the enslaved men and women were kept in dungeons—barracoons—distributed along the African coast. It is calculated that of the millions of African people sold into slavery, approximately half of them died before reaching the African coast. Traders branded slaves with hot irons as if they were cattle and restrained them with shackles. Some of these Africans had never seen white people, ships, or the ocean itself.

The middle passage was psychically traumatic and the conditions atrocious. Male slaves were usually chained in pairs by the ankle and placed in the space provided for them below decks. Female slaves and children, usually fewer in number than African males, were left untied on the upper dock. According to historian Hugh Thomas, this segregation was intended to keep the women from being seduced by the men or to prevent women from inciting male slaves to rebellion. The slave merchants involved in the Atlantic trade wanted to optimize their use of deck space. They added broad shelves between each deck on which the enslaved men lay, thus nearly doubling the number of slaves who could be transported in a single shipment. A well-known representation of this is the plan of the English slave ship Brookes, with the slaves packed against each other and distributed all over the different levels of the ship. The space in slave ships was so crowded that the Africans could hardly move and had to sleep on top of each other. Sometimes there was neither adequate ventilation nor enough space to put buckets for the slaves’ body wastes. The heat and the stink were insufferable, the air totally unbreathable. If the weather was good, slaves were forced to ascend to the upper deck and “dance” to exercise and prevent muscular atrophy.

The unhygienic conditions within the ships caused the spread of all types of illnesses, particularly smallpox, dysentery, the flux, scurvy, and dehydration. Most of these illnesses were caused by the lack of vitamins or adequate drinking water. In the late eighteenth century, English traders began to have their slaves inoculated against smallpox before carrying them on their ships. Besides illness, there were other factors that threatened the integrity of the ships’ human cargo. Suicide was common: some slaves preferred to die rather than cope with their present circumstances, endure what they were going through, or because they did not know what awaited them at the end of the journey. Many jumped overboard and drowned. Others refused to eat, but were force-fed with a speculum orum, an instrument designed to keep the slaves’ mouths open while food was forced down their throats. Many deaths were also caused by violence and rebellion. Slave uprisings took place from time to time and usually ended in bloodshed. The rebellions were brutally crushed and, once the crew regained control, the leaders immediately executed.

Scholars estimate that, in total, around 11 million Africans were shipped to the Americas between 1450 and 1900 to become slaves.

See also:

Amistad Case, The; Atlantic World; Diaspora; Slavery (History)

  • Andrews, William L., ed. Slave Narratives. New York: Library of America, 2000.
  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery. London: Verso, 1997.
  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  • Lovejoy, Paul. Transformations in Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
  • Laura Gimeno-Pahissa

    Copyright © 2008 by ABC-CLIO, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article MIDDLE PASSAGE
    Encyclopedia of Black Studies

    The Middle Passage was the dreadful passage across the Atlantic Ocean made by Africans—who were forced into tight quarters with inadequate food...

    Full text Article Middle Passage
    Encyclopedia of African American Society

    The series of forced voyages made by enslaved Africans from Africa to the Americas over an approximately 350-year period. The “Middle Passage”...

    Full text Article MIDDLE PASSAGE
    Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia

    The label Middle Passage has long been used to describe the voyage of slaving vessels from African to American ports. Beginning in the sixteenth...

    See more from Credo