Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage was a route which slaves were transported through from West Africa to America. It was part of the Transatlantic Triangle. The triangle started in the West Indies and transported products such as sugar, tobacco and cotton to Europe. Then from Europe, textiles, rum and manufactured goods were transported to West Africa. In West Africa, slaves were gathered from the surrounding areas and loaded onto ships bound back for America and the West Indies.

The slaves were packed into the decks of the ship and subjected to appalling conditions. They were given barely enough room to breathe, let alone move. Diseases ran rife throughout the ships due to poor hygiene and cleanliness as cleaning of the decks was rarely done; the sheer number of slaves kept on the ships also added to the spread of diseases and ultimately ended up in the death of many. Although the slaves were fed twice a day, the food they were fed was not sufficient and therefore many died of starvation. The dead bodies of these unfortunate slaves were thrown overboard to maximise on space and attempt to stop the spread of disease. In addition, the slaves were also victims of violence as they would be whipped by the crew; this added to their pain and discomfort on this wholly unpleasant journey. Three weeks (or more if weather conditions were bad) in this situation would definitely be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the slaves.  Even if they did arrive alive in the West Indies, they would arrive damaged and in ill-health, onlyto be thrown into the tumultuous life of a slave. This meant that when the ship reached the West Indies they never have had as many slaves as they had originally packed in because so many of them had died through the poor conditions.

The Middle Passage Description_of_a_slave_slip_01_by_anonymous_wood_engraving_1789 (wikimedia commons)There were two ways in which the slaves were packed into the lower decks. The first, ‘loose packing’, meant that although there were fewer slaves arriving in the West Indies, they would all be in better health and more would survive. Because they had not been so tightly packed they had more space to move and breathe, plus disease would spread at a much lower rate. In contrast, the other method ‘tight packing’ was an initiative which some captains of the ships preferred. Although there would obviously be a higher fatality rate because of the slaves being so tightly packed, they would still gain more profit for the slaves when trading. As profit was the main aim for most captains, ‘tight packing’ would have most probably been used more than ‘loose packing’.

The Africans were important in the capture of people in West Africa to be used as slaves. Often tribes would sell their captives and prisoners of war to European buyers. Sometimes criminals were also sold into slavery as a form of punishment for their crime. This meant that most of the time it was notWest Africans picked up by the Europeans on the west coast, but neighbouring parts and other ethnic groups which were enemies to these particular Africans.  The Europeans played their part too by buying and collecting these prisoners and criminals from ports in West Africa.

These were however, not the first slaves that Europeans had collected. They had previously used Aboriginals as slaves and so they were familiar with the practice of capturing and keeping slaves. However, there weren’t enough Aboriginals and a lot of them were killed by disease and maltreatment so the Europeans needed to find more slaves; especially as there was a high demand for labour in the colonies but Europeans were not eager to emigrate over. There was a need for labour in the Americas, therefore West Africans were collected and sent over to fill the requirement. Some helped with mining, however the majority of slaves ended up working on the plantations where they harvested sugar and cotton which would be sent back to Europe, therefore completing the Transatlantic Triangle.

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