The Plight of Slaves And The Middle Passage

Slavery is still one of the most sensitive topics to discuss because, for the victims and for those whose descendants were subjected to it.

Many still have sore wounds that will take years and years to heal.

Slavery can be dated back even in the Biblical era. The Bible contains several references to slavery, in the Old Testament; the book of Exodus narrates how the pharaoh enslaved the Israelites who eventually escaped under the leadership of Moses.

In ancient empires slavery was a culture for thousands of years and was not seen to be an  infringement of human rights but a position of inferiority to other races.

People were enslaved for many reasons: petty theft, criminal activities, victims of war, those unable to pay their taxes, others for no reasons other than skin color, poverty and literacy levels.

Slavery was one of the biggest contributors to the escalation of racism.

Slaves were seen to be inferior people because they were said to lack culture, education and were not civilized. When Europeans began their visits and colonization of Africa in the early 15th Century, the white settlers adopted the idea that they were superior to the other races they encountered and it was their job to “civilize the savages.” That is why today racism is a euphemism for white supremacy.

The first slave voyage direct from Africa to America and Europe began sail from 1520s. Europeans would depart in their ships from Europe, North and South America with guns, brass pans, cotton and other goods so as to exchange them for Africans as slaves.

This was the beginning of an economic enterprise for both the traders of slaves in Africa (who were African chiefs in the communities), as they handed over their fellow tribesmen to the Europeans. The Europeans, subsequently built their financial power from the slave trade.

The transportation of enslaved Africans from Africa to America is presently known as “Middle Passage” as it was a sea journey undertaken by slave ships from West Africa to the West Indies.

Slave tags engraved with numbers which would be used as identification.

Illustration of physical branding of African slaves

Once the exchange was done they were branded and given tags with numbers and stuffed into the slave ships which had up to four decks.

In order to ensure maximum profitability the owners of the ships sub divided their hulls into small headroom’s so that they could transport as many slaves as possible.

One of the diary logs describe the rooms “to be smaller than that of a coffin space.”

The enslaved Africans experienced the worst hygienic conditions: floors covered with blood, feces and mucus, dehydration which triggered diseases like small pox, scurvy, dysentery, measles and this led to a high mortality rate.

Since diseases like small pox were highly contagious and also incurable in the 15th century they were tossed out into the ocean to avoid infecting others.

They were shackled together naked with several chains and hoarded on the floor beneath in the holds and spent a large portion of time pinned to floorboards which would wear off their skin on the elbows down to the bone.

Firsthand accounts from a former slave Olaudah Equiano, he describes the horrific conditions that enslaved people were forced to endure. “Some of the slaves died in shackles and the Europeans would take days to move the bodies so the rest stayed chained to dead bodies. The idea of the chains was to prevent mutinies, though there has been an account of one successful revolt in one of the ships which was called “La Amistad.””

Enslaved Africans carried to Brazil came overwhelmingly from Angola while the ones carried to North America, including the Caribbean, were mostly from West Africa.

Upon arrival, those who survived were taken to Charleston harbor then to slave markets, examined and vetted from head to toe. They were then waxed in oil and put in the auction box where the “white masters” would choose the youthful and built. They did all sorts of work from agricultural farming to cotton plantation in the fields.

Their services were more valuable than their humanity. Thus, if they tried to escape, the punishment would be whipping. If they ran away a second and third time they would be branded on both cheeks with a R (which meant run away).

If they ran away the fourth time (mainly a man), the punishment would be castration.

Sunday’s was their only day off so the white masters feared that if an apprising was to occur then it would happen on a Sunday. Fearful, they carried their guns to church.

Men, are the ones who would gather the courage to carry out uprisings or try to escape because most didn’t have anything to lose or leave behind.

As for women, it was not as easy because most had bore children of their masters or of their fellow enslaved men and knew that running meant leaving them behind.

Gruesome punishments that were familiar in England were exaggerated in slave society.

Deyle.S. (1860) stated that the value of slaves was roughly three times greater than the total amount invested in banks and it was equal to about seven times the total value of all currency in circulation in the country and three times the value of the entire livestock population. Cotton farming was extremely profitable and was the driving force to territorial expansion and fostered trade between Europe and the United States.

The rise of the Atlantic slave trade which gradually displaced an earlier trade in slaves from throughout the world created a further incentive to categorize human groups in order to justify the subordination of African slaves.

After a long struggle of freedom, slavery was finally declared illegal in the beginning of the 18th century.  However, declaration did not necessarily mean freedom as most of the now African Americans did not own any land and property and were thereby forced to keep working hard labor for little pay in the plantations and other types of work.

(The experience of the enslaved Africans varies in the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe and United States.)


Deyle Steven. (2005) Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life

Walvin, J. (1745-1797) An Africans Life: The life and Times of Olaudah Equiano. London

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