The Middle Passage

The antislavery tract written by the former slave Olaudah Equiano provides a chilling account of the "middle passage," the shipboard experience of transit from Africa to the Americas. Weeks of being chained below deck, trading along the coast, storms at sea, meager food and water, disease, beatings, rebellion, and, for many, death were part of the experience.

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The Portuguese were the first to explore and trade along the African coast beginning in the early 1500s. As he map at right shows, though, the Spanish were the first to force the migration of enslaved Africans into their colonies in the Americas. The map shows the number of slaves embarked from Africa and then the number disembarked from 1500 to 1550 - virtually all in the Spanish Caribbean colonies. Open the map and explore the change in the numbers of Africans forced to migrate to the New World and the spread of slavery throughout the Americas.

An important aspect of the way in which the slave trade grew in the hands of the Spanish and Portuguese initially and later the English and other northern European and American nations was the ocean itself. Turn on the Major Ocean Currents layer and examine the relation between the ocean currents and the pattern of colonialization along with the growth of the slave trade.

Virtually all of the accounts of the middle passage - even those from slave merchants and captains of slave vessels - speak in one form or another about the horror of the experience. Many of these experiences are captured in the documents and images below. Open and print a copy of the Middle Passage concept map. As you read and study the documents make brief notes related to each in the corresponding section of the the map.


To Start You Thinking

1) The survival rate of slaves making the middle passage reflected the conditions in which they traveled aboard ship. Turn on the Slave Destinations layer in the Slave Trade map. Notice that the pop up windows for the points of departure in Africa and the destinations in the Americas contain detailed information about numbers leaving and arriving as well as survival rates. Describe changes over time of the American destinations and the slave survival rates.

2) Turn on the Major Ocean Currents layer and describe the role the currents played in shaping the slave trade for ships originating from European ports - particularly from Spain and Portugal, the two most significant trading countries.

2) The Treaty of Tordesillas was ratified in 1494 dividing the new world between the Spanish and the Portuguese. Do some research into the provisions of the treaty. Turn on the Treaty of Tordesillas layer. Politically, how does the treaty help explain the shift in the center of Portuguese trade in slaves along the African coast from the Guinea coast south to modern day Congo and Angola? (Hint: Open the Africa - 1830 layer and examine the place names along the Slave coast and then further south along the coast of West Central Africa.) How do the geographic facts of the ocean currents explored above help explain this shift?

3) As the instructions from Humphry Morice suggest, repeated bartering for slaves in exchange for gold was common along the African coast. Examine the painting Scene on the Coast of Africa closely. The details reveal much of the slaves' experiences as they were traded one owner to another. Identify as many of these details as you can and explain the significance of each.

4) Compare the anti-slavery arguments of Alexander Falconbridge and William Wilberforce. What is the strongest argument against slavery presented by each man?

5) Stories about the experience of slaves coming out of Africa were largely passed on orally. Use the documents you have studied and prepare a short oral story of capture and transit across the Atlantic.


images from Bill Muir and Frank Besse, “Slave Ship Henrietta Marie, 1700,” in Madeline Burnside, editor, A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie (Key West, Florida: The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, 1995) and “French Slave Ship, Vigilante, 1823,” in Affaire de la Vigilante, batiment négrier de Nantes (Paris: 1823), and "Captive Africans Taken to Slave Ship, Nigeria, 1850s,” in The Church Missionary Intelligencer. A Monthly Journal of Missionary Information, Vol. 7,1856. Downloaded Dec 3, 2016 courtesy of University of Virginia The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

Leggatt, “Scene on the Coast of Africa' (The Slave Trade),” London: 1835. Downloaded Jan 8, 2016 courtesy of and © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Last modified in February, 2017 by Rick Thomas