The Middle Passage refers to the part of the trade where Africans, densely packed onto ships, were transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies. The voyage took three to four months and, during this time, the enslaved people mostly lay chained in rows on the floor of the hold or on shelves that ran around the inside of the ships' hulls.
The shelves were under a metre high and often the enslaved Africans could not sit up. There could be up to more than six hundred enslaved people on each ship. Captives from different nations were mixed together, so it was more difficult for them to talk and plan rebellions. Women and children were held separately.
The following description is from 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano':
At last, when the ship we were in, had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. ...The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome....The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died -- thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers.
A large amount of evidence remains: letters, diaries, memoirs, captain's logbooks, shipping company records and testimony before British Parliamentary investigations, all give a picture of life on board. For example, when asked if the slaves had ‘room to turn themselves or lie easy', a Dr Thomas Trotter replied:
"By no means. The slaves that are out of irons are laid spoonways"... and closely locked to one another. It is the duty of the first mate to see them stowed in this manner every morning....and when the ship had much motion at sea.... they were often miserably bruised against the deck or against each other....I have seen the breasts heaving...with all those laborious and anxious efforts for life.....".
However, during a Parliamentary investigation, a witness for the slave trade, Robert Norris, described how ‘delightful' the slave ships were. The enslaved people, he suggested, had sufficient room, sufficient air, and sufficient provisions. When upon deck, they made merry and amused themselves with dancing... In short, the voyage from Africa to the West Indies was one of the happiest periods of their life!
In reality, it was a system that brutalized both the sailors and the enslaved people. The captain had total authority over those aboard the ship and was answerable to nobody. Captives usually outnumbered the crew by ten to one, so they were flogged or put in thumb screws if there was any sign of rebellion. Despite this, resistance was common.
The European crews made sure that the captives were fed and forced them to exercise. On all ships, the death toll was high. Between 1680 and 1688, 23 out of every 100 people taken aboard the ships of the Royal African Company died in transit. When disease began to spread, the dying were sometimes thrown overboard. In November 1781, around 470 slaves were crammed aboard the slave ship Zong. During the voyage to Jamaica, many got sick. Seven crew and sixty Africans died. Captain Luke Collingwood ordered the sick enslaved Africans, 133 in total, thrown overboard (one survived). When the Zong arrived back in England, its owners claimed for the value of the slaves from their insurers. They argued that they had little water and the sick Africans posed a threat to the remaining cargo and crew. In 1783, the owners won their case. This case did much to show the horrors of the trade and sway public opinion against it.
The death toll amongst sailors was also appallingly high (20%). Sometimes the crew would be harshly treated on purpose during the ‘middle passage'. Fewer hands were required on the third leg and wages could be saved if the sailors jumped ship in the West Indies. It was not uncommon to see injured sailors living rough in the Caribbean and North American ports.
A law (The Dolben Act) was passed in 1788, which fixed the number of enslaved people in proportion to the ship's size but conditions were still appalling. Research by Wadstrom (published in 1794) calculated that a man was given a space of 6 feet by 1 foot 4 inches; a woman 5 feet by 1 foot 4 inches and girls 4 feet 6 inches by 1 foot.
In his speech, made to the House of Commons in 1789, William Wilberforce quoted evidence showing that not less than 12½ percent of enslaved people perished in the passage and another 4½ percent died on shore, before the day of sale. He also described the conditions on the ships for the enslaved people.
Other extracts about the middle passage:
Dr Alexander Falconbridge describes and outbreak of fever
Dr Alexander Falconbridge describes conditions on board
R. Drake Slave Smuggler describes a how sickness spread on board