The Middle Passage was the dreadful passage across the Atlantic Ocean made by Africans—who were forced into tight quarters with inadequate food and water and the ill and dying among them—for several weeks or even months en route to being sold into slavery. The Middle Passage and the transatlantic slave trade are inextricably linked, with an examination of the Middle Passage serving to illuminate one aspect of the incalculable tragedy of Africans' enslavement. Geographical and temporal factors contribute to our understanding of the Middle Passage, but considering only these factors is a disservice to the scope and impact of abominable human suffering of the Middle Passage.
The tendency of 21st-century U.S. scholars has been to focus on geography and consider the impact of the Middle Passage on the North American boundaries of the American state. In many ways, this has precluded examination and analysis of the Middle Passage and its repercussions in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Scholars' temporal assumptions revolve around the year 1807, when the U.S. Constitution called for the legal termination of the transatlantic slave trade, and the year 1830, when both the United States and Great Britain took naval action to proscribe it.
The Middle Passage and the transatlantic slave trade are conventionally regarded as one event, an event that was ended by the mid-19th-century activities of the British and American governments. However, this view fails to acknowledge that the Middle Passage continued to be used by the slave trade after legislation prohibited it in 1807 and 1830. Slave traders continued throughout the 19th century to refine their methods for ever greater profits by sacrificing the health and lives of the millions of Africans who were brought to the Americas. The fact that enslaved Africans had an enormous impact on constructing the societies of the Americas until the close of the 19th century is obscured by the unanalyzed assumption that legislation ended the slave trade. This assumption also misses the effect on Africans of the ships themselves, which defined a group of people as African in the space between one shore and the next. The ships served as a crucible whose literal and figurative heat gave birth to a new African person. Thus what follows here is a challenge to the conventional temporal assumptions that (1) the use of the Middle Passage for the transatlantic slave trade ended with the legislation that prohibited it—it was not abolished, and (2) by the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, there was no Atlantic slave trade and therefore no Middle Passage. Both continued to the cusp of the 20th century with serious ramifications and consequences.
The horrors and the magnitude of the Middle Passage are irrefutable and inescapable. While there might be debate over the number of Africans, debate that sometimes reflects historiography and the role of history as rationale, it is clear that tens of millions were dragged from their homes in the largest known expatriation in history and that millions—possibly tens of millions—lost their lives in the process. It is, in fact, those conditions, the conditions of death, and as important, survival that characterize the Middle Passage and its implications.
The Slave Traders' Calculus
An important segment of the contemporary debate and discourse on the Middle Passage has been reduced to “science,” by which is meant the science of today's cliometric historians. They attempt to measure the impact of the Middle Passage in its most quantifiable terms. Interpreting the statistical data, the historians have come to various conclusions about the Middle Passage. Some historians assert that the sheer numbers underscore incalculable horrors, whereas others, while never calling the slave trade humanitarian, argue that as it was refined, conditions improved for those forced to endure the Middle Passage.
The numbers are these: From 10 to 20 million Africans were shipped during a period of some 4 centuries, over a distance of approximately 3,000 miles, on a journey lasting anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months. The loss of African lives during the Middle Passage ranged from 5% in the last quarter of the 18th century to staggering rates estimated as high as 70% for the entire process of the trade from capture through seasoning. In addition, this was over the course of the 19th century, during which mortality in general increased.
This “scientific,” almost clinical enumeration and the analytical discourse that accompanies it are consequences of the scientific age that also spawned the modern concept of inequalities between the races and thus enabled one race to enslave another. It was these “scientific” notions of race and racialized slavery that provided the rationales for the “slave traders' calculus” and the official policies that regulated the Africans' journey through the Middle Passage. Thus debates concerning the “tight packing” or “loose packing” of captive Africans bound for the Americas could be judged scientifically in regard to the number of humans who might be inhumanely crammed into vessels whose holds were filled with Africans nearly to the point of suffocating them. “Packing” was regulated by a “science” that matched ship tonnage with the possibilities of maximum profit. It was calculated that on average there should be “two and a half slaves per ton,” with ship tonnage calculated against the length of the voyage. There were instances, however, in which the number of captives on a single vessel exceeded this ratio by almost 50%.
The voyage was shorter and more bearable in direct trips from the African coast to the American port in question in either the Southern or Northern Hemisphere; in smaller slave ships, which were sometimes built for greater speed and maneuverability; and as a result of technological innovations to the ships, such as copper sheathing. These innovations were tied to an economic calculus of demographics. The early trade and the consequent passage consisted predominately of young African males. The population patterns on both sides of the Atlantic prompted notions and debates that concerned the infinite supply of such a labor force and its expendability. This callous disregard for Africans characterized discussions associated with the Middle Passage. Such discussions centered on a population that could always be replenished, no matter what the losses. Therefore, when the edicts and actions of 1807 and 1830 dictated that the journey across the Middle Passage enter a new phase, one in keeping with the goal of maximization of profits through stealth, speed, and tonnage, new demographics and new models of labor efficiency helped traders to maintain their profit margins and rationalize risk.
The legal prohibition of and illicit trade in enslaved Africans actually may have helped to increase tonnage and profitability in three ways. First, from 1810 on, and decidedly after 1850, children made up to 40% of cargoes and women a further 15%. The presence of such a high percentage of children created a higher person per ton ratio, and their being young may have been thought to add to their potential productivity. Second, the additional concentration of women must have added significantly to the reproduction of labor in this second phase of the Middle Passage's longevity. Third, the increase in both children and women in the vessels making the Middle Passage in this period meant that the ratio of crew to enslaved Africans might be drastically reduced during the voyage, a clear reduction in the economy of labor. However, while those in the slave trade continued to profit, captive Africans continued to experience trauma, suffering, illness, and death during all phases of the Middle Passage. In fact, as the illness and death of Africans increased during the 19th century— particularly among children—so too must the trauma of psychic and cultural dislocation have increased.
The Africans' Experience
Some of the most potent history of diasporic Africans is in their resistance. The “Ibo Landing” of Daughters of the Dust is simply one metaphor of that resistance; a metaphor that has been repeated time and time again as a paradigm of the ultimate act of resistance. Such resistance emphasized the distinct philosophical notions that undergirded the conceptualizations of liberty and freedom among Africans on the Middle Passage and the extremes to which they might go to secure it. In an age where property was deemed paramount, and where they themselves were defined as property, Africans who resisted denied those who sought to reduce them to mere things, to property, the power to do so. The first phase of the Middle Passage, as the slave vessel lay off coast partially filled, was suffused with the constant threat of a slave mutiny. Even within sight of Western shores, there was nothing to protect investors from an epidemic of African suicide at the last moment. As exceptional as accounts of mutiny and mass suicide may be, these and other accounts of resistance solidified a record of African rebellion in the Middle Passage. This record provided a preamble to the observation that the stretch of the transatlantic slave trade conscribed by the shores of Africa and the coasts of the Americas was the space where security was priority, a security that some thought might be inherent in the conception of modern, racialized slavery from its inception, because the process of restraining and constraining Africans started at the beginning of the capture.
There are conservative reports of 55 mutinies between 1699 and 1845 and of 250 documented cases of rebellion at sea. Clearly the insurance clauses that protected investors against such losses underscored their occurrence, as well as investors' need to be prescient in anticipation of African resistance even on the high seas. In many ways, insurance policies, policy debates, and laws like the 1799 Parliamentary Passenger Acts, told the resistors' tale, even if it did not fully convey the immediate rhythms of the events. It is clear that the resistors shaped history in ways we are only beginning to understand. Africans in shackles did this; Africans in the Middle Passage forced change.
The Africans' Choice to Survive
What could possibly be found in the history of the Middle Passage that is uplifting or inspirational? What could be the possible object lesson of its resistors and survivors to their descendants and to the modern world at large? In the holds of slave ships that made the Middle Passage are the legacies and resonances of those who remained enslaved, those who resisted, and those who survived. There were many Africans who found misery, suffering, and death on the Middle Passage, but there were also many Africans who showed incalculable strength and resilience as well as philosophical conviction. The story of the Middle Passage, from slave ships to mutinies to mass suicides to insurance policies, is not just a story of the enslavement of Africans but also a centuries-long story of African survival and resistance at sea.
The holds of these ships, which contained the energy of resistance and survival in the Middle Passage, became the crucible in which captive Africans constructed a material, intellectual, and philosophical culture, as well as what was to become African American consciousness. This consciousness began in the Middle Passage with resistances to enslavement at sea, in an incalculably cramped space, in a void that was thought to preclude any thought of or movement toward freedom, resistances that included onboard insurrections and mass suicides.
In viewing the slave ships on the Middle Passage as a crucible of the consciousness of Africans in the Americas, scholars have had the tendency to focus on the negative, viewing the “slave mentality” as a onesided, monolithic consciousness. The traumatic consciousness attributed to all captive Africans who traveled the Middle Passage provides a dubious construction of the consciousness of an entire race. Such a construction must be erroneous because it does not explore how the tenacity Africans showed in resistance and survival has shaped the consciousness of the diasporic African community.
That captive Africans resisted enslavement at sea and that so many Africans survived the Middle Passage is evidence of the resistance and survival incorporated into African bodies and minds and passed on through generations of Africans in the Americas. African sacrifice, resistance, and survival during the Middle Passage became part of African consciousness—a text of resistance and survival, and of freedom and liberty, that epitomizes the best modern philosophies of liberation.
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- Curtin, Philip. (1969). The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: Wisconsin University Press. This is one of the earliest quantitative studies of the slave trade, and its conservative estimates have been disputed.
- Eltis, David. (1987). Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slaving Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press. Eltis provides a useful analysis of the impact of the slave trade on Europeans and Africans.
- Mannix, Daniel. (1962). Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518–1865. New York: Viking Press. This is a vivid and often revolting account of the conditions that prevailed during the Middle Passage.
- Williams, Eric. (1944). Capitalism and Slavery. New York: Capricorn Books. This book views the Middle Passage within the broader context of the European-initiated triangular trade routes.