Middle Passage

Date: 1789
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images


This English broadside from 1789 illustrates how Africans were packed into ships as efficiently as possible, chained together in rows with no space between them. Although Iberians were the earliest Atlantic slave traders, British and American ships came to dominant the traffic of Africans in the eighteenth century, and they were responsible for transporting over 40% of all slaves during the eighteenth century, the vast majority of which were sent to sugar plantations.

The terrible conditions during the middle passage and the rest of the enslavement process led to an almost absurd mortality rate: out of the 12.4 million slaves loaded onto ships, 1.8 million died en route. This figure, however, does not bear witness to the total deaths resulting from the process of enslavement. Approximately 14 million Africans were sold into slavery, but the horrors of slave marches, the middle passage, and the first year of slavery killed close to 5 million of these people. They died from diseases that thrived in the ubiquitous filth of the slave holds, dehydration, starvation, abuse, and despair. Death rates during the enslavement process were higher than those of many of history's worst demographic disasters, including the European Black Death epidemic and the post-contact decimation of Native American peoples.

Take time to read the caption below this bleak diagram. The author was obviously opposed to the slave trade (a form of abolitionism that preceded the demand for full emancipation by several years) and some of the assertions may be exaggerated, but it is nevertheless a valuable and moving description of conditions during the middle passage, a voyage that could take over one hundred days to complete.

Although slavery was an attempt to dehumanize and comodify Africans, Europeans were never fully able to realize this malicious goal. Enslaved Africans brought knowledge, culture, and scientific practices that survived and blended with those of other Latin American and Caribbean peoples.

Reference: Klein, Herbert S., Stanley L. Engerman, Robin Haines, and Ralph Shlomowitz. "Transoceanic Mortality: The Slave trade in Comparative Perspective." In The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 58, No. 1, New Perspectives on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. (Jan., 2001), pp. 93-118.

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. London: Viking Press, 2007.

CITATION: Description of a slave ship. London: Printed by James Phillips, George-yard, Lombard-street, 1789. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: Folio BrSides By6 1789.