The Middle Passage


Imagine Yourself on the board of a slave ship.....


In order to understand the atrocities of the Middle Passage, you have to create a vivid picture in your mind. For the next few minutes I want you to imagine one of the most painful migrations in the history of mankind. You are an African who has just been captured by a group of men you have never seen before. You are snatched away from your native land and loved ones, and you have no idea of where you are going, or if you will ever return. You, along with hundreds of your fellow countrymen are bound together by chains, unable to scream because no one is listening to your cries. You are being forced to leave with people of white skin that you have never seen before. Once you are on this ship that is supposed to take you to your fate, you are being yelled at and beaten. You can't even yell back, because you don't speak the language; and you have no idea what these strange men are capable of doing to you. As you look around, you see men, women and children scared, alienated and sleeping on top of each other. You close your eyes to block out the pain, but you can't escape from the chilling sounds of crying and despair. When you open your eyes, you see people starving and dying. You hear women being raped and beaten; and babies being murdered. Months have gone by, and while you see your fellow brothers and sisters die, you are still there. One day you wake up and begin to cry. You cry so hard to the point that you are gasping for air. The stench on this ship is almost unbearable but you struggle to take each breath. You begin to pray. When you pray, you pray to die. Right now even death could be no worse than this hell on earth. As each day goes by, you want desperately to die. You even begin to starve yourself but that doesn't work. You do everything possible to die, until one day the ship voyage comes to an end. You think it is finally over, but you have no idea what kind of life is ahead for you. You have survived the passage, but your soul and spirit has been taken away from you. Still you pray.


The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage was seen as the most horrific account of the slave trade. It was the event during the slave trade that one can argue stripped African people of power and dignity. Not only was the African body taken and forced to endure this passage to eventually be sold, I believe the soul was taken as well.

The migration was a triangle that started in Africa and dispersed to the West Indies or America. If and only if the captured slave survived the trip, he or she may have been on the voyage for at least seven to eight months. Many of the Africans captured aboard slave ships were very prestigious and came from well-grounded families in their communities. The men were leaders and very proud. In one work, it says, "Many of the male slaves were proud and powerful warriors, the women comely, their children enchanting."(1) The Africans who traveled in the slave ship under the most inhumane conditions probably had more power and esteem than any member of any crew that deemed them non-human, and unworthy of respect. They came from being the most respected in their homeland, to the property of people who had no regard for human life. In my opinion their struggle, just on the slave ship should be seen as an act of bravery. Any African who survived, or died trying to survive is a representation of strength and dignity.

Throughout the Passage, many Africans, run down both physically and mentally, began to develop defense mechanisms for survival. One of the most common mechanisms was the act of starvation. Tattersfield states, "Believing that death would return them to their country, many stopped eating and starved themselves to death."(2) The defense mechanisms gave the Africans some form of power over their own bodies temporarily. Although many succeeded in starving themselves to death, it became so common that the captains developed many ways of ill treatment to force the Africans to eat.

One way the captains developed was with an instrument called the Speculum Oris. The Speculum Oris was an instrument that was shaped like a pair of scissors and when inserted in the closed mouth would force the jaws open. On the side of the instrument, there was a thumbscrew that one could turn to slowly force the jaws open. This way, the crew could force the Africans to eat so that they wouldn't die. One could say that this is one way that the crew was able to take away the little power and defense the Africans had over their minds and bodies.

The group that was most affected by the Middle Passage were the women. Unfortunately they were caught easily and could not defend themselves like the men. Not only were they treated just as bad as the men and children, some of the African women were even singled out to be ship whores. They were forced to submit to the crew, and were repeatedly raped. Once again, the African was relieved of their own power, even over their bodies.

In Tattersfield's work, The Forgotten Trade, he gives one reason why the captain and crew developed such immunity to ill treatment of slaves. He argues that while the inhumane treatment during the Middle Passage was mostly an act of racism against the African slaves, some of the behavior can be applied to the result of the class system in England. It says, " attitudes displayed toward slaves aboard ship and the conditions which they existed also grew out of a general attitude towards the poor and dispossessed that was prevalent in England, and throughout Europe at the close of the 17th century."(3) In other words, the crews aboard these ships were from the lower class of England and other parts of Europe. They were probably seen as the lowest of people and were only one step above the slaves they captured for the ships. They were basically powerless in their own homeland, so when they entered the slave trade they misused the power they had over the slaves by treating them poorly. This idea attempts to explain the minds of the crewmen. In my opinion, the crew may have seen themselves as above the Africans, and they deemed them non-human and commodities, but the African slave had more power and prestige than they ever did. These seamen came to Africa ignorant of the African culture. It was foreign to them, but that gave them no right to decide for the rest of the world that the African was not a human being. This behavior signifies an internal struggle within the slave trader, captain and crew, and to treat another human being the way they did at that time would make them inhumane, not the African slave.

The act of selfishness by the seamen dived to astronomical levels when it came to preserving the money market for the slave trade. They went to many measures to make sure they could claim their commodities. One example would be the mass murder of slaves by the seamen. Charles Macinnes explains this issue in his work, England and Slavery. It says, "If the ship proved unseaworthy or if food and water began to run short in consequence of an unduly prolonged voyage, resulting from calms, adverse winds, or any other difficulties, a simple remedy lay at hand. A sufficient number of slaves would be thrown overboard."(4) The captains of these slave ships decided to take the fate of these slaves into their own hands. This act could be seen as the epitome of selfishness. It became so common for slaves to be thrown over to be claimed under the insurance that it eventually became a problem. Zong Slave Ship




Anti-Slavery Movement

Purpose of Slavery

Various Links

The Mansfield Case


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