Table of Contents
Overview of the Middle Passage of the Atlantic Slave Trade……………………………..2
Slave ships conditions during transportation……………………………………………………..3, 4
How slaves were treated during voyage……………………………………………………………4, 5
Revolt on the slave ships………………………………………………………………………………..6
Sailing technologies used for the ships…………………………………………………………….7
This paper examines the enforced migration of Africans in conditions of slavery that began in the middle of the sixteenth century. It shall discuss some of the treatments the enslaved Africans were subjected to and the inhumane conditions of the ships which resulted in high death rates, while causing the survivors to emerge physically weak as well as mentally tortured. It shall also focus on the resistance of these enslaved Africans how they were trying to free themselves through rebellion and others opting to kill themselves through jumping overboard or starving themselves. In order to prevent the enslaved Africans from forming rebellions or jumping overboard, this paper shall discuss the sailing technologies used to improve survival chances for everyone on board thus diminishing possible investment losses.
Overview of the Middle Passage of the Atlantic Slave Trade
The Middle Passage is a term that commonly refers to the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were transported from the West African coast, across the Atlantic sea to America. It is called the Middle Passage because it was a form of Triangular trade as stated earlier, where boats left Europe, went to Africa, then to America and then went back to Europe. It took place between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century, before the trade being legally abolished by Great Britain and the United States. The enslaved Africans mostly came from Benin, West Central Africa and South-eastern Africa. The duration of the voyage varied from one to six months depending on the weather. The journey became more efficient as years passed, and by the nineteenth century, a trip could take only six weeks. The slaves were usually sold for labour purposes or, in some cases, traded for goods such as molasses, which was used in the making of rum.
This voyage has come to be remembered for much more than transport and selling of the slaves; it represented the hardest, most dangerous and the most horrific part of the journey of the slave ships. About 15% of the Africans carried away died at sea, with death rates considerably higher in the process of capturing them and transporting them to the ships (Hooper 2). The slave traders were able to pack almost 300 slaves into most slave ships where men were typically chained together: right leg to the other man‘s left leg so as to save space. This overcrowding was the major factor contributing to the outrageously high death rates because in case of an outbreak, the disease could spread fast among them. Women somehow had more room and were not put in chains like men. They were put on a hold in separate places from men (Falconbridge 19-20). The slaves were allowed to move around during the day. The Middle Passage has come to represent the ultimate in human suffering and the conditions they faced on their voyage displays the great evil of slave trade.
Slave Ships Conditions during Transportation
The life aboard the slave ship was hard. Once aboard, they could realize they were being sent far away, resulting into violence even before the ship set sail. However, such uprisings were usually put down. There were two methods of packing the slaves. One system was loose packing under which the captains transported fewer slaves in order to minimise deaths and diseases among them. The other system was tight packing which involved carrying as many slaves as the ships could carry. The choice of method of packing the slaves depended on the captain of the ship in that loose packing could bring healthier slaves to the destination, while tight packing could bring more slaves.
Life below the deck was very uncomfortable because in most slave ships, the slaves were stored on shelves less than half a metre high thus limiting their ability to move (Hooper 6). The captains did not provide any kind of hygiene; a bucket was the only place for a slave to relieve himself. The buckets were not provided for each person and the only one near the bucket could use it. The outcome was that the slaves would be forced to relieve themselves where they lay (Falconbridge 20-21). The decks had a little ventilation and because of lack of sanitation, one can only imagine the stench and heat that must have been there. These could result into suffocation, and those who could not manage to live with the foul smell died. The slaves would be lying around their waste, blood and vomit due to contagious diseases due to tight packing. Although some captains would periodically appoint someone to clean the decks, most of them chose rather to leave them alone resulting in such unclean conditions. In addition, the most obvious problem was the diseases (Mc Donald 4). Slaves contacted many diseases such as chills, dysentery, smallpox, and pneumonia. Those suffering or who showed signs of smallpox or any other contagious disease were thrown overboard to prevent an epidemic abroad the ship.
Food was a major problem for all aboard the ship because the captains thought that the food was expensive and hence bought as little as they could so as to save costs. It usually consisted of boiled rice, yams, horse beans or cassava flour. On rare occasions, the slaves were given a few pieces of meat in order to keep them healthy. The feeding of the slaves was done on the deck where they were taken out carefully, with sailors to feed them. It was usually done under heavy security so as to prevent a slave rebellion. Water was another issue. The captains regulated the amount of water they took; therefore, in hot weather, dehydration was common. However, most of the time, they had enough water and they often drank more water than usual because of the heat below the decks
How Slaves Were Treated During Voyage
Unless slaves proved to be rebellious, the captain and the crew did not treat them ill; this act was only for commercial reasons because the death of a slave meant loss of money. Also, a healthier slave fetched more money. These instances were, however, very rare because majority of the captains and crew were notoriously brutal. Corporal punishment was common, and any form of resistance was punished through whipping, which, when done in a brutal way, resulted in fatalities. During periods of good weather, the slaves would be brought out to the deck in the mornings. Women and children were allowed to move freely around the deck, but men were always chained together because it was commonly believed that they would be the ones who could cause violence and resistance. The slaves usually received two meals a day: the first one being early in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The second meal was typically different and was often worse than the first one and spices like Cayenne pepper were added to conceal the bad taste (Falconbridge 22). There was a common belief among the slave-traders that if the slaves were given food that they were familiar with, they would stay healthier and avoid rebellions. This is the reason why some would be given millet and cornmeal, while others were given stewed yams, cassava flour, and banana-like fruits.
The captains also had to try to keep the slaves in good physical condition so as to ensure a good price. In order to achieve this, the slaves were made to ‘dance’ every morning on the deck. They were to jump up and down like people who were dancing, and this caused a lot of pain to the men who were still chained together. This activity would be accompanied by poundings on a drum or iron kettle. Those who refused to dance were in most cases whipped by rope or by use of cat-o-nine tails which could slash the skin on a slave’s back. It was made of nine ropes coated with tar and with a knot at the end. For those ships carrying a large number of slaves, it was impossible to bring all of them to the deck for exercise. The crew would thus choose from among them those who were in most need of doing exercise. The slaves generally enjoyed the time they spent on the deck because this was the only time they were at least able to move and breathe fresh air before being taken back to the dark and filthy gloom below deck.
The worst time of the Middle Passage for the slaves was during periods of bad weather such as storms. They were usually forced to stay below deck all day and night with all the foul smell, dead bodies and excrement. Also, during these periods, they were forced to skip meals and they often found themselves scrounging for small pieces of rotten food from stagnant puddles of dirty water. Another common practice was where a member of the crew or even the captain would take a slave woman out from the deck during the night. The helpless woman would then be taken to their living quarters and forced to have sexual relations with them. This showed complete inhumanity and disrespect for African culture by the slave traders. Despite majority of the slaves being helpless, therefore being unable to resist their captors, there were periodical uprisings on the slave ships. These were usually done by those who came together to fight against the crew in a bid to get their freedom back.
Revolt on the Slave Ships
Rebellions and other forms of resistance could occur although most of them were quickly and easily put down. The slaves were weakened by the terrible conditions they faced and had inferior weapons compared to the crew. Many slaves were killed during such incidences and others severely punished. However, some of them were successful. The most famous one was the uprising on the slave ship Amistad. In this celebrated incident, they were able to kill the captain and majority of the crew. They managed to take control of the ship and ordered the remaining crew to take them back home. Nevertheless, they were tricked and instead of going back, they found themselves in the United States and since the transatlantic slave trade was illegal at that time, they finally managed to get back their freedom.
Violence was not the only way used by Africans to impede the voyage and disrupt the normal routines on the slave ships. Some of them made attempts to harm or kill themselves, therefore, reducing the number of those who reached the destination. Many of them jumped overboard and also used other ways such as asking their partners to strangle them. Jumping to the sea was due to their belief that they would return to their villages in their afterlife. Those who were caught attempting to jump were often netted. Others opted for worse methods such as cutting their throats. There are some who also refused to eat so that they could starve to death. However, the crew had other ways of forcing them to eat. Some were tortured until they ate, while some were forced their mouths open using a wooden instrument called speculum oris, which screwed open just like a pair of pliers. Normally, things would get better when the journey was almost ending. This was to make them be in better shape and strengthen them for sale. They were given better food and they would also be oiled to cover wounds from whipping so as to improve their chances of getting the best price. They were then sold at auctions.
Sailing Technologies Used for the Ships
In the 18th century, there were changes in ship design and the management of the slaves on board due to higher profit motives. There were improvements in ventilation systems; this was inclusion of ventilation ports which were built into the sides of the ships so as to increase airflow. It was aimed at reducing the death rates because suffocation was a primary cause of high mortality rate among the slaves. These new ways of making slave ships made them to be more manoeuvrable and also allowed them to navigate further in the rivers so as to enable access to the villages of the Africans. This increased the effects of the slave trade in Africa. There was also the addition of another storage decks separate from the main ones. These were used by the slave traders to divide the slaves who were capable of causing trouble so as to prevent conspiracies or rebellions. Additionally, there was increase in the sizes of the slave ships so as to increase the amount of space per person. This was meant to improve the amount of space per person so as to increase the chances of survival for all the slaves so in a bid to increase the profitability for the traders.
Another change was more awareness towards medicine. Diseases such as dysentery and smallpox killed a lot of slaves during the voyage and this was usually a loss to the slave traders. The traders used to stock their ships with a large variety of medicine so as to cater for this. However, they did not include any medical personnel as one would suppose. This is due to the fact that many of the crew members knew about medicine hence no need of a professional consultant. It was aimed at cutting costs because the medical personnel would have to be paid a lot of money. This act was however not so effective because some medical cases would require surgery. This is the reason why the mortality rates remained high with diseases being the major cause of the deaths.
The purpose of this paper was to explore the experiences of the enslaved Africans during the voyage from their homeland to the other side of the Atlantic. Based on the research findings, it could be concluded that what these Africans went through will remain to be a paramount example of the extreme human suffering and mistreatment. The Africans were victimized by the greed of a more superior European class that took advantage of that so as to exploit them. It can, therefore, be suggested that these European superpowers who took part in the slave trade should make compensation efforts towards those who were affected. This can be done through having an international remembrance day for all those victims. These superpowers can also participate in the economic development of the affected countries through ways such as offering employment opportunities and infrastructural development. However, no significant efforts towards this have been done.
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