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.

From Thomas Astley, A New and General Collection of Voyages, 1746

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Slave factories on the Gulf of Guinea (modern Nigeria)

Captive Africans were marched great distances overland to Africa’s western coast. There they waited weeks or months in “slave factories” for the ships that would carry them to plantations in the New World.

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

“To be sold,” 1769

For almost four centuries, the demand for labor on the plantations of the New World fueled a vast transatlantic market for the enslavement of people from Africa. This broadside advertised the sale of people from Gambia at Charleston, South Carolina.

Map by Willem Janszoon Blaeu.

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

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.

Lent by the National Museum of Natural History

Manilla from Nigeria

Slaves were valuable, and African traders demanded foreign goods for the captives they sold. Europeans bartered for slaves with copper or bronze bracelets called manillas, like this one, which was cast in Birmingham, England. Manillas were used as currency in West Africa.

Lent by the National Museum of African American History and Culture


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

Slave Ship

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.

Reproduced from a watercolor by Lt. Francis Meynell

Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

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.

Plate, from Carl Bernhard Wadstrom’s An Essay on Colonization: Particularly Applied to the Western Coast of Africa, 1794–1795

Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia