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Middle Passage

Olaudah Equiano, Enslaved African Man

1756

Historical Context

From the early days of the American colonies, forced labor and slavery grew to become a central part of colonial economic and labor systems. Hard labor made tobacco, rice, and sugar plantations profitable. Buying and enslaving the people who supplied this labor ultimately became a lucrative and tragic part of the commerce in the maritime web that connected Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

The Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration of people by sea in history. First-person accounts of the Middle Passage are very rare. Olaudah Equiano’s first-person account recalls his terrifying journey as an 11-year-old captive aboard a slave ship from Africa to Barbados in 1756.

Olaudah Equiano wrote an account of the Middle Passage in his 1789 autobiography. Recent scholarship has called into question Equiano’s place of birth and whether his narrative is, in fact, a firsthand account. Whether born in Africa or Carolina, many scholars agree that the basic content of Equiano’s narrative is a significant document that rings true.

Instructions

These questions are based on the accompanying primary sources. They are designed to help you practice working with historical documents. Some of these documents have been edited, but all are authentic. As you analyze the documents, take into account the source of each document and any point of view that may be presented in the document.

Download the student worksheet for Olaudah Equiano. (PDF)

Questions

  1. According to the words of Olaudah Equiano and referring to at least one supporting primary sources, state 3 conditions aboard the slave ship that would decrease his chances of surviving the journey.
  2. Based on Olaudah Equiano’s account and one supporting primary source, cite evidence that indicates there were likely people from many African countries on this particular journey. You may use the written transcript to guide you.

Supporting Primary Sources

Map of Africa, 1644

This map includes European names for parts of the West African coast where people were captured and held for the slave trade.

Map by Willem Janszoon Blaeu

Courtesy of the Historic Maps Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Shackles

These ankle shackles are of the type used to restrain enslaved people aboard ships in the Middle Passage.

Lent by the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The slave decks of the ship Brooks, 1788

This famous plan has appeared in almost every study of the Middle Passage published since 1788. Working from measurements of a Liverpool slave ship, a British parliamentary committee filled the drawing’s decks with figures representing men, women, and children. The drawing shows about 450 people; the Brooks carried 609 on a voyage in 1786.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Additional Primary & Secondary Sources

Transcript

Glossary

  • Middle passage—the voyage of enslaved people across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas; the middle leg of a three-part trade in slaves and goods between Europe, Africa, and the Americas
  • Necessary tub—a vessel for urination and defecation
  • Salutation—an expression of greeting, goodwill, or courtesy by word, gesture, or ceremony
  • Loathsomeness—a characteristic engendering extreme disgust
  • Windlass—any of various machines for hoisting or hauling; a horizontal barrel supported on vertical posts and turned by a crank so that the hoisting rope is wound around the barrel
  • Pestilential—1 a: causing or tending to cause pestilence (such as an infectious epidemic disease) : deadly; b: of or relating to pestilence; 2: morally harmful: pernicious; 3: giving rise to vexation or annoyance: irritating

Image of Olaudah Equiano, above right: Engraving by Daniel Orme, after W. Denton, 1789. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.78.82.

Oral History
  • Listen to Olaudah Equiano