The VoyageI. Loading the Slaves
The process of boarding the slave vessels differed depending on the region where the slaves were loaded. If the ships were trading in Lower Guinea, the area east and south of the Niger delta, the process could be completed in one to two months. If the trading was done in Upper Guinea, the area west and north of the delta, a longer period of time was needed. In extreme situations, such as in the region of the Gold Coast of Africa, trading lasted from six months to a year. This area supplied most of the slaves that were demanded by the English colonies. As the ships were loaded, captains continued to buy more laborers, on average one or two a day. The months that a slave ship rested along the African coastline were the most dangerous times of the entire voyage. Its crew was exposed to several different African fevers against which they could not combat. Also, revenge by the natives became a common threat because they tried to raid the ships whenever they got the chance. There was also a possibility that pirates would come and steal the entire vessel. Finally, slave mutiny was a common occurrence and it severely hurt the crew. After the loading of the slaves was completed, the captain could give off a sigh of relief for the most dangerous part of his journey was over. Now, only the ordinary hazards of the sea had to be faced.
II. Traveling Across the Atlantic
Once the slaves were secured in their holds aboard the ships, the journey across the Atlantic began. If the captain had bought his slaves towards the south at Bonny or Old Calabar, he usually summoned aid from the Portuguese islands in the form of nourishment. The captain could not leave without a minimum three-month supply. If the trading took place in the north, he immediately sailed for the West Indies. Usually, the distance to be traveled was from four to five thousand nautical miles and sometimes even more if the passage was from Angola to Virginia. The more days at sea, the more deaths among the cargo, and so the captain tried to cut the Middle Passage voyage as short as possible. If the conditions were good, the crossing of the Atlantic took, on Portuguese journeys in the seventeenth century, nearly thirty-five days from Angola to Pernambuca, forty to Bahia, and fifty to Rio. At the end of the eighteenth century, as the vessels increased in size, the same voyages were cut to an average of only thirty days. In the 1670s, British ships from Guinea would take nearly forty-four days. Dutch ships in the West India Company normally took eight days to reach Curacao, with the shortest journey ever being twenty-three days and the longest 284. Most French expeditions across the Atlantic, like those of the British, lasted two to three months, with seventy days being the normal time for ships from Honfleur. In all occasions, journeys lasting longer were frequent. In the eighteenth century, a record for a French slave voyage across the Atlantic was set in 1754 by the Saint-Phillipe of Nantes. The ship, owned by the Jogue brothers, weighed 340 tons and carried 462 Africans from Whydah to Saint-Domingue in only twenty-five days. The longest French journey in the eighteenth century was that traveled by the Sainte-Anne of Nantes, belonging to Louis Mornant. In 1727 it took nine months to travel from Whydah to Saint-Domingue and fifty-five slaves were lost during the trip.
All of the journeys were known for their ease because in normal circumstances, the captains simply sailed in large circles around the mid-Atlantic area of high pressure. When ships had to reload supplies on Portuguese islands, such as Sao Tome, the trip became a little more strenuous. The slaving captain would sail westward along the line of the equator for about one thousand miles. Then, he would shift the vessel in a northwesterly direction toward the Cape Verde Islands. This was a very tedious part of the Middle Passage. One author of Universal Geography in the nineteenth century wrote, " On leaving the Gulf of Guinea, that part of the ocean must be traversed, so fatal to navigators, where long calms detain the ships under a sky charged with electric clouds, pouring down by the torrents of rain and of fire. This sea of thunder, being a focus of mortal diseases, is avoided as much as possible, both in approaching the coasts of Africa and those of America." Once the latitude of Cape Verde was reached and the northeast trade winds were caught, the sailors could enjoy a smoother passage to the West Indies. Insurance was issued by some owners but it only covered fires, shipwrecks, pirates and other such disasters. One main risk not covered by the insurance was the cargo that was swept away by disease. If this type of insurance had been issued it would tempt captains to not take precautions or kill the slaves. They would therefore try to make a profit off the insurance instead of the slave trade. Once the latitude of Cape Verde was reached and the northeast trade winds were caught, the sailors could enjoy a smoother passage to the West Indies.
An example of a ship that was delayed for weeks due to unreachable trade winds was the Young Hero, led by Dr. Claxton. He stated, " we were so straightened for provisions that if we had been ten more days at sea, we must either have eaten the slaves that died, or have made the living slaves walk the plank." No accurate records of men as cannibals were founds concerning the Middle Passage but several accounts were found about slaves killed for various other reasons. In some cases, slaves were poisoned to death because they were unable to keep them on board.
Often a slave ship was hurt the most in the last few days of the long journey along the Middle Passage. Sometimes the ship would be taken by a French privateer out of Martinique, or by an unexpected hurricane. On a few ships, the slaves chose suicide as their last option before reaching shore. These horrors, although, were not frequent. Normally, the last few days were a happy time for the slaves and the crew. Sometimes, the slaves were released from the shackles and given bigger meals of provisions were left over. Fattening them for market would help the captain. In extreme occasions, if the ship was conducted by an easygoing captain, there was a costume party on deck with women slaves dancing in the sailors clothing. Afterwards the captain went ashore to arrange the selling of his cargo.
III. Slaves in the West Indies
Once the slaves reached the other side of the Atlantic they were dispersed in several ways. In Virginia, small vessels would sail to private wharves and exchange slaves for tobacco. Public auctions on newly imported slaves occurred at Hampton, Yorktown, and Bermuda Hundred. South Carolina was the main slave market on the North American continent. There, slaves were given away at auctions and then the ships were filled with rice or indigo for there voyages back to England. In smaller West Indian islands, the captains of the slave ships would sell their own slaves. When this happened, the captain brought his cargo directly on shore. The slaves were then forced to march through the streets of the town while a bagpipe was played to alert buyers. In larger islands, commission merchants were in charge of the slaves. In these situations, first the slaves that were contaminated with disease were removed from the group. They were taken to an auction house where they were sold for usually half the price of a healthy slave. Out of this group of diseased slaves, those that could not be sold were left to die on the wharf. The remaining healthy slaves of the group, were sold at standard prices. The prices were agreed upon with the purchasers, who then "scrambled" for their pick of slaves. This processed reoccurred for every ship that entered the Caribbean ports.