The Middle Passage
The History Cat Classroom
Captured in Africa
Slavery is as old as dirt. Almost every society has used free human labor at one point or another. In Africa, slaves were hot commodities. They were traded to Arab merchants who carried them across the Sahara Desert or on the Red Sea to be sold in slave markets in the Middle East and Europe.
Even within the borders of Africa, slaves were captured as prisoners of war and sold off to other tribes. So, when Europeans showed up with a boatload of trade goods, it was nothing out of the ordinary for Africans along the coast to offer their extra slaves as trade items. It just so happened that a new age was dawning when European demand for slave labor was about to become so great that entire communities in Africa would be left broken and devastated.
The slave trade couldn’t have happened without the help of Africans. The Europeans didn’t know the geography. When the Portuguese, Spanish and eventually the Dutch, Brits, and French, came sailing up the coast of West Africa in the 1400's, they set up trading forts that interacted with the local tribe who controlled that area. That tribe would be more than happy to trade their captive enemies for guns, rum, cotton cloth, metal pots, or other items that they couldn’t get anywhere else.
How It Worked
From the African side, the slave trade worked something like this: A raiding party, armed with European guns, would be sent into the territory of its enemy. Attacking by surprise, they would capture the young men and women of the village, leaving behind those who were too young, old or infirm.
The captives would have their hands and feet bound. The whole group would then be collared together by the neck using a goree–a wooden stick that looked like a two-sided “Y”. The gang would be marched through jungle, swamps, and up the rivers to the coastal forts where the Europeans waited to buy the cargo. Only the healthiest slaves who made it to the coast had any value to those who got sick or injured were left behind to die.
Once the prisoners arrived at the fort, they would be inspected by European slave buyers who would poke and prod their merchandise for signs of weakness. No part of their body was considered private. Those who were fit would be herded into a cell in the fort. Places like Eminia, Goree Island, and - the most ironic name of all – Fort Jesus, became places of misery. But the worst was yet to come. The slaves would be kept in their cells, sometimes for a month or more, awaiting the arrival of the slave ships that would take them on the infamous Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Slaves were purposefully mixed and jumbled so that different tribes, speaking different languages would all be lumped together. This left the slaves confused and unable to plan an escape.
The African slave trade worked well. Too well. It decimated entire villages and wiped out entire tribes. After a raid, the only people left were often the ones too old, too young, or too sick to keep the farming going. After many years of this, some tribes grew powerful while others died out. The powerful tribes took over the land of the weaker ones. That was the whole motivation for Africans to participate in this evil system. Some tribes tried to fight back and refused to participate. But by then it was too late. In the 1500s the Kongo tribe tried to refuse to capture any more slaves for the Portuguese. King Alfonso I wrote to the King of Portugal to stop the madness. These were his words.
"We cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the merchants daily seize our subjects, sons of the land and sons of our noblemen, vassals and relatives ... and cause them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is their corruption and licentiousness that our country is being utterly depopulated. "
—Afonso I, in a letter to King João of Portugal, 1526
King Joao wrote back something to the effect of it’s either them or you. The slave trade continued on...
Illustration of a
The Horrible Middle Passage
Once the slave ships arrived, the slaves would be packed below deck and transported on a 2-3 month long journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The conditions on these journeys were so terrible that nearly 1 out of 5 Africans died before making it to the Americas. Most died of diseases caused by unsanitary conditions in the holds of the ship. The hold is the bottom of the ship where all cargo is kept. Since Europeans saw slaves as property rather than human beings, the holds were seen as a natural place for keeping slaves. The conditions in the holds made it a terrifying place. Hundreds of people were kept chained together in a space little bigger than a modern classroom. Not only was there no room for slaves to walk around, the low ceilings made standing straight impossible.
Now that you have an idea of the space involved, let's imagine the conditions in which these people spent the next few months of their lives. Since the hold was for cargo, there was no need to for the shipbuilders to include windows or ports. The slaves were kept in near darkness for most of the journey. To make matters worse, the hold is usually the hottest part of the ship. With no fresh air and 300 bodies crammed into a small space, can you imagine the stench and heat that the slaves endured? Day after day, slaves were kept in these cramped quarters. Meals were usually gruel (a thick salty porridge, perhaps with a few spare vegetables mixed in). They were given very few bathroom breaks and, inevitably, accidents happened. The area where slaves lived, slept and ate became contaminated with their own waste and that became the perfect recipe for nasty diseases like cholera and typhoid.
The Triangular Trade
After Columbus accidentally bumped into the New World in 1492, a whole new global economy began to take shape. Europe, Africa, and the America’s became linked together in a vast network known as the Triangular trade. Slaves were the main commodity coming from Africa, meant to work on American plantations.
Fast forward to the 1600's to see a picture where the major European powers of the time (the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and the Portuguese) were all competing to carve up the New World and its plentiful natural resources amongst themselves. Colonists wasted no time in clearing the forests and mining the hills. Soon the New World colonies were sending back home lumber, indigo (blue dye), tobacco, coffee, furs, cocoa, iron, fish, hemp, cotton, and the most important crop of all sugar cane. This last cash crop was more than just a sweetener for breakfast cereal (which hadn’t been invented yet). Sugar Cane was used in making rum, which was much more inexpensive to make than other types of alcohol.
These and other natural resources would be sent back to Europe's workshops to be made into manufactured goods. Some of the goods included clothing, furniture, tools, rum, guns, and food. These manufactured goods would be sent back to the colonies to be sold at a fat profit. But we’re skipping the most important link in the triangular chain–African slaves.
The rich soil and warm weather of the Americas proved to be a great place to set up sugar and rice plantations. But a question arose. Who would do the dirty work of actually farming the plantation? The answer was simple, use the Native Americans as slave labor. There was one problem with that. The Native Americans did not make good slaves; they ran away or died of European diseases, such as smallpox. They died by the millions. Soon, there were hardly any Native Americans left and so the Europeans turned to Africa to solve its labor problems.
Africans were a perfect solution. They had a resistance to many of the same tropical diseases that had killed the Native Americans. The demand for cheap labor increased. So, by the early 1500's, Europeans had built dozens of slave forts to house the captured slaves along the coast of West Africa. Now the work of shipping human beings across 2,000 miles of ocean could begin.
Slave trading was risky business. Storms, pirate attacks, disease, or slave mutinies were always a risk for merchants who decided to deal in the sale of forced human labor. The risks were considered worth it because the profits were ridiculously attractive. In the 1750's, a slave could be bought in West Africa for £5 could be sold in the West Indies (aka the Caribbean) for £30! Slave ships with names such as Caroline, Ann, Jesus, or the Hope (ironic, right?) would ply the Atlantic exchanging rum, guns, sugar, and cloth for African slaves.