October is Black History Month in the UK. We’ll be exploring the history of slavery in Britain, from the country’s first steps into the Atlantic slave trade, through its height in the 17th and 18th centuries, to its abolition in the 19th. In this, our second blog we look at the journey made by the slaves and the slaving vessels, known as the “Middle Passage”.
The 'Triangular Trade' was the sailing route taken by British slave traders and got its name for being a journey of three stages. The first was from Britain to West Africa, the ships carrying goods such as guns, cloth and beet, which would be used in the exchange of captives.
Having acquired slaves, the ships would embark on the second leg of their journey – “Middle Passage”. It was on this leg that the Africans were packed together below deck and taken to the Americas to become slaves. The duration of the voyage varied widely, from one to six months depending on weather conditions. The journey became more efficient over the centuries; while an average transatlantic journey of the early 16th century lasted several months, by the 19th century the crossing often required fewer than six weeks.
Conditions were atrociously cramped, with a typical slave ships containing several hundred slaves with about 30 crew members. The male captives were normally chained together in pairs to save space; right leg to the next man's left leg — while the women and children may have had somewhat more room. The chains or hand and leg cuffs were known as bilboes, which were among the many tools of the slave trade, and which were always in short supply. Bilboes were mainly used on men, and they consisted of two iron shackles locked on a post and were usually fastened around the ankles of two men.
At best, captives were fed beans, corn, yams, rice, and palm oil. They were fed one meal a day with water, if at all. Sometimes captives were allowed to move around during the day, but many ships kept the shackles on throughout the arduous journey.
Slaves below the decks lived for months in conditions of squalor and indescribable horror. Disease spread and ill health was one of the biggest killers. Mortality rates were high, and death made these conditions below the decks even worse. Even though the corpses were thrown overboard, many crew members avoided going into the hold. The slaves who had already been ill ridden were not always found immediately. Many of the living slaves could have been shackled to someone that was dead for hours and sometimes days.
An estimated 15% of the Africans died at sea, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous people to the ships. The total number of African deaths directly attributable to the Middle Passage voyage is estimated at up to two million; a broader look at African deaths directly attributable to the institution of slavery from 1500 to 1900 suggests up to four million African deaths.
The treatment of the captives was horrific because the captured African men and women were considered less than human; they were "cargo", or "goods", and treated as such. Women with children were not as desirable for they took up too much space and toddlers were not wanted because of everyday maintenance.
Pregnant women on the ships who delivered their babies aboard risked the chance of their children being killed in order for the mothers to be sold. The worst punishments were for rebelling; in one instance a captain punished a failed rebellion by killing one involved slave immediately, and forcing two other slaves to eat his heart and liver.
As a way to counteract disease and suicide attempts, the crew would force the slaves onto the deck of the ship for exercise, usually resulting in beatings because the slaves would be unwilling to dance for them or interact. These beatings would often be severe and could result in the slave dying or becoming more susceptible to diseases.
Slaves resisted in many ways. The two most common types of resistance were refusal to eat and suicide. Suicide was a frequent occurrence, often by refusal of food or medicine or jumping overboard, as well as by a variety of other opportunistic means. Sometimes mutinies broke out, though the ships were designed and operated to prevent this. Resistance among the slaves usually ended in failure and participants in the rebellion were punished severely. About one out of ten ships experienced some sort of rebellion.
Estimates are that about 12 million to 12.8 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic over a span of 400 years.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models for Black History Month. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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