The Middle Passage
Crossing the Atlantic in the hold of a slave ship, or slaver, was a horrific ordeal. Perhaps one third of the captives perished on this journey, known as the Middle Passage—the middle leg of a three-part trade in slaves and goods between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
Sailors packed people together below decks. Standing was impossible, and even rolling over was often difficult. Poor ventilation, dampness, heat, cold, seasickness, rats, poor food, and a lack of sanitation left the conditions squalid, suffocating, and deadly. Outbreaks of disease spread quickly among captives and crew.
This model shows a typical ship in the early 1700s on the Middle Passage. To preserve their profits, captains and sailors tried to limit the deaths of slaves from disease, suicide, and revolts. In the grisly arithmetic of the slave trade, captains usually chose between two options: pack in as many slaves as possible and hope that most survive, or put fewer aboard, improve the conditions between decks, and hope to lose fewer to disease.
The slave deck of the Albanez, 1845
Great Britain abolished its slave trade in 1807 and used its naval power to discourage other nations from the trade. In 1845 a British sailor painted this image of enslaved Africans below decks of the Brazilian slave ship Albanez (or Albaroz). The British sloop Albatross captured the slaver with 300 Africans aboard in March of that year.
Resistance and Revolt
Enslaved people on the Middle Passage were not simply passive captives. Some refused to eat and had to be fed against their will. Others threw themselves overboard rather than submit to slavery. This image shows a rare revolt aboard a slave ship. The ship’s officers are crowded behind the barricade while the captives fill the deck, some diving into the sea.
Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia