I. What is the Middle Passage?
Beginning in the late 1500s, the slave trade took on several triangular routes. The first route consisted of ships from Europe transporting manufactured goods to Africa. Once these ships arrived, the goods were traded for slaves. The next leg of the journey, known as the Middle Passage, carried slaves across the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies where they were sold for a large amount of profit. The traders then used much of their earnings to buy products such as sugar, coffee, and tobacco in the West Indies. These goods were then transported to Europe for the final part of the trip. Another triangular route began in New England and carried rum and other products to Africa. Once in Africa, slaves were exchanged for the cargo. The ships then transported the slaves to the West Indies for selling purposes, another Middle Passage journey. The slave traders used some of their profits to buy sugar and molasses, which they took back to New England and sold to rum producers. Distilleries in Rhode Island and Massachusetts were essential in the molasses trade. Most American traders did not travel to the African Coast due to an overwhelming amount of French and English competition; trading with Europe or the West Indies was much easier. Slavery was only considered an incidental part of the overall commerce between Europe and North America. The Middle Passage voyages across the Atlantic took several months. The Atlantic slave trade operated from the 1500s to the mid-1800s and an unknown amount of Africans were enslaved during this period. Estimates approximate around 10 million blacks, of which only six percent traveled to North America.
Englishmen began to enter the prosperous African slave trade during the early seventeenth century. In 1663 the English founded the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading to Africa. During the Dutch War the trading posts were lost, however the English soon replaced it with the Royal African Company. The company was dissolved several years later due to its monopolizing effect. Eric Williams, a Jamaican Marxist historian, stated that "the right of a free trade in slaves was recognized as a fundamental and natural right of Englishmen" after this occurred. Before the founding of the Royal African Company, slave trade to English North American colonies did not flourish. After the company was founded, the slave trade began to prosper. Aiding to the increase in the amount of slaves traded, the Treaty of Utrecht gave England the monopoly of the Spanish slave trade. Once slavery was established as an English stronghold, the amount of slaves traded over the Middle Passage increased.
II. Gathering of slaves and their journey through AfricaMost of the slaves were bought from native African slavers who lived near the West African Coast. Only a minimal amount of whites traveled inland in Africa to capture slaves. For the most part, European trading companies operated from forts along the coast, which were continually supplied with slaves from African societies. Before Europeans traveled to the Guinea Coast, Africa had its own system of slavery. They enslaved criminals and captives from the tribal wars. Once the Europeans began openly trading slaves, profit for African kings became even a greater issue. More and more wars were provoked and brutal punishments were inflicted. During times of famine, Africans would sell themselves and their families for food. Others were kidnapped by gangs in search of money. Several kings ran profitable slave businesses and were constantly searching for ways to earn more profit. Slave trading soon became a legal and highly regulated form of business in Africa. Although whites would have liked to control slavery in Africa, several obstacles allowed the tribal leaders to remain powerful. Africans had a great degree of knowledge about the use of firearms and therefore Europeans had a harder time capturing land and building forts. Another disadvantage to the Europeans was the abundance of diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue that penetrated the African coast. Only Africans had grown immune to such killers. Another reason Europeans did not create strong opposition to the Africans was the fact that they were concerned with labor and not territory. African kings would willfully sell or exchange their laborers as long as their territory was not lost.
Whites rarely ever saw the tribes from which the slaves were supplied. Several slave trading tribes were found deep in the African interior and the sole purpose of waging wars was for slave-raising expeditions. Groups of slaves were driven across Africa in chains to the coast, sometimes traveling very long distances. The travel across the continent was extremely rigorous. A main fear was that the slaves would eat each other and severe melancholy overcame them at every turn. During the journey everyone in the party suffered from fatigue, blistered feet, sun burning, and brown ants. Suicidal attempts were common. After around five to seven weeks, depending on their beginning location, the slaves were delivered to the trading posts, the next phase of their ordeal.
III. The Trading Posts
After the long arduous journey through Africa, the slaves arrived at the coastal forts. As they arrived they were thrown into booths, or prisons, designed especially to hold them. Many of the slaves came from deep inland Africa and had never seen the ocean before. The crashing waves, pale whit traders, and tall masts of the waiting ships filled them with shock and terror. Members of some tribes, who believed that white men were cannibals, were thrown into a state of terror. They desperately threw themselves on the white sands of the beach and crawled towards the beach in attempts of suicide. Many slaves clawed at their necks hoping to strangle themselves rather than face the life ahead of them. They were whipped, beaten, pushed, and dragged onto the boats that would eventually lead to the ships.
When the Europeans came to receive them, the slaves were released from the prisons and were brought out onto a large plain. Women and men stood in the sweltering heat, uncovered and stark naked, as physicians began to inspect them. The meticulous inspections of the slaves separated those who were accepted and those who were rejected. The Mackrons, or rejected slaves, were 35 years or older or were growing gray hair . Others were not taken because they had imperfections such as weak limbs, unhealthy eyesight, or venereal diseases. The ones who were accepted were marked on the breast with a red-hot iron that imprinted the sign of the French, English or Dutch companies. This branding was especially painful to women whose breasts were more tender and vulnerable to infection. The newly purchased slaves, after being properly branded and chained, were rowed out on canoes to the ships where they would soon be held captive. Many leaped out of their canoes and into the sea, purposely drowning themselves to avoid being captured by the boats pursuing them. Sharks were prevalent in these waters and ferociously devoured the lifeless, bleeding bodies of the slaves.
on the way
to the coast