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The Middle Passage


The journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas -- often called "The Middle Passage" -- was a horrendous experience. As they climbed aboard the ships, men, women and children were forced to shed their clothes. They were transported naked on rough planks and the men were systematically shackled. Men, women, and children were held in different parts of the ships' holds.

Mahommah Baquaqua, who was born in Benin and deported to Brazil, related his awful experience:
"We were thrust into the hold of the vessel in a state of nudity, the males being crammed on one side and the females on the other; the hold was so low that we could not stand up, but were obliged to crouch upon the floor or sit down; day and night were the same to us, sleep being denied as from the confined position of our bodies, and we became desperate through suffering and fatigue. Oh! the loathsomeness and filth of that horrible place will never be effaced from my memory."

The separation from family was agonizing. On the ship that took him to Cuba, a young man recalled, "All cried very much at going away from their home and friends, some of them saying they would kill themselves." Suffering from thirst and hunger, captives lived in appalling conditions. Scurvy, dysentery and smallpox were rampant, and the mortality rate was about 20 percent. People were routinely brutalized. "When any one of us became refractory," Baquaqua recalled, "his flesh was cut with a knife, and pepper or vinegar was rubbed in to make him peaceable." Despite the use of shackles, whips, cannons, firearms, and repression that often took sadistic forms, acts of resistance and attacks are estimated to have taken place aboard 10% of the ships - that is, on more than 3,500 ships. A ship captain revealed that when men had revolted on his ship, they asked him "what business [I] had to carry them from their country. They had wives and children, whom they wanted to be with." Revolts resulted in the estimated deaths of 100,000 Africans; 18% of the costs incurred on slave ships were due to 'security measures'.

The crossing lasted an average of seventy days. The Middle Passage was so brutal that upon arrival, Baquaqua stressed, " I felt thankful to Providence that I was once more permitted to breathe pure air, the thought of which almost absorbed every other. I cared but little then that I was a slave, having escaped the ship was all I thought about."

Africans in Hold of Slave Ship, mid-19th century