The Middle Passage was the part of the Atlantic slave trade where African slaves were brought to the Americas on slave ships. Millions of African people were shipped to the Americas over the Middle Passage.
Slaves were treated so badly on the slave ships that about 15% of them died during the Middle Passage. Even more were killed before they left Africa, when slave traders were trying to kidnap them and force them onto the slave ships. Historians think that up to two million African people died during the Middle Passage. However, somewhere between 9.4 million and 12 million Africans survived the Middle Passage, and arrived in the Americas as slaves.
The triangular tradeEdit
The Atlantic slave trade had three different parts. Because of this, it was called "the triangular trade." The Middle Passage got its name because it was the middle part of the triangular trade. The three parts of the Atlantic slave trade were:
(1) Europe to Africa
- Ships brought weapons, gunpowder, cloth, rum, and manufactured goods from Europe to Africa. In Africa, these things were traded for African people who had been bought as slaves or kidnapped.
(2) Africa to the Americas (the Middle Passage)
- African slaves were brought to the Americas on slave ships. There they were sold as slaves, or traded for raw materials like sugar, tobacco, and cotton, which other slaves had made.
(3) The Americas to Europe
- These raw materials would be sent to Europe, where they were used to make things. Then the triangular trade would start all over again. For example, cotton would be used to make cloth. That cloth could then be sent to Africa to trade for more slaves.
The slaves' journeyEdit
After being kidnapped, African slaves were usually forced to walk to forts along the coast of western Africa. There they were sold to European and American slave traders. They might have to wait in these forts, which were like prisons, for months before slave ships arrived.
Slaves were then packed onto the slave ships. Often, they were packed together as closely as possible. (The famous drawing on the right shows how closely slaves were packed together on some slave ships.) Male slaves were often chained together at the ankles. Sometimes, slaves were allowed to move around during the day, but many ships kept the slaves chained up for the entire trip.
Sailing through the Middle Passage could take anywhere from one to six months, depending on the weather. Over time, slave ships got better at making the trip more quickly. In the early 16th century, the average trip took a few months. However, by the 19th century, many slave ships crossed the Middle Passage in fewer than six weeks.
Slaves were fed very little during the Middle Passage. The best slave ships fed the slaves beans, corn, yams, rice, and palm oil. However, the slaves were not always fed every day. If there was not enough food for the sailors and the slaves, the sailors would eat first, and the slaves might not get any food. On some slave ships, slaves that looked sick were not given any food. Many slaves died from starvation and dehydration (not having enough water) during the Middle Passage.
The slaves' living conditions on the slave ships were terrible. Diseases spread very quickly because the slaves were so crowded together, and because there was no sanitation. The most common diseases were dysentery, scurvy, smallpox, syphilis, and measles. Many slaves died from disease during the Middle Passage. On longer trips, even more people died, because there was less food and water (this made dysentery and scurvy more common). Also, many slaves became too depressed to eat.
Slaves were often punished if they did not follow the sailors' orders or if they seemed disobedient in any way. For example, slaves who were too depressed or sick to eat might be beaten or whipped. The worst punishments were for slaves who tried to rebel (fight back). For example, one slave ship captain punished a slave who tried to rebel by killing him; then he forced two other slaves to eat his heart and liver.
Many different people participated in the Middle Passage and the triangular trade.
Different countries were more powerful in the slave trade at different times. For example, for two hundred years, from 1440–1640, Portugal controlled most of the the slave trade. However, over time, the balance of power in Europe changed. By the 18th century, the British Empire was much more powerful. During the 18th century, when 6 million Africans were brought over the Middle Passage, British slavers carried almost 2.5 million of them.
Most of the African slaves came from eight different areas:
- Senegambia (now Senegal and Gambia);
- Upper Guinea;
- Windward Coast (now the Ivory Coast);
- Gold Coast (now Ghana);
- Bight of Benin;
- Bight of Biafra, off the western coast of Africa;
- West Central Africa and;
- Southeastern Africa
The slave trade was very profitable for slave traders. By the late 18th century, a strong male slave could be sold for about $600 to $1500 (which is about $9,000 to $15,000 in United States dollars today). Because of this, kidnapping people in Africa and selling them into slavery became more and more popular. Historians think that African warlords, kings, and private kidnappers - Europeans, Americans, and Africans alike - all participated in kidnapping people into slavery.
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