The Middle Passage



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U.S. History

Mr. Kevin W. Walsh

Overview of Slavery

"The Middle Passage"

Two by two the men and women were forced beneath deck into the bowels of the slave ship.

The "packing" was done as efficiently as possible. The captives lay down on unfinished planking with virtually no room to move or breathe. Elbows and wrists will be scraped to the bone by the motion of the rough seas.

Some will die of disease, some of starvation, and some simply of despair. This was the fate of millions of West Africans across three and a half centuries of the slave trade on the voyage known as the "middle passage."

Two philosophies dominated the loading of a slave ship. "LOOSE PACKING" provided for fewer slaves per ship in the hopes that a greater percentage of the cargo would arrive alive. "TIGHT PACKING" captains believed that more slaves, despite higher casualties, would yield a greater profit at the trading block.

Doctors would inspect the slaves before purchase from the African trader to determine which individuals would most likely survive the voyage. In return, the traders would receive guns, gunpowder, rum or other sprits, textiles or trinkets.

The "MIDDLE PASSAGE," which brought the slaves from West Africa to the West Indies, might take three weeks. Unfavorable weather conditions could make the trip much longer.

Slaves were fed twice daily and some captains made vain attempts to clean the hold at this time. Air holes were cut into the deck to allow the slaves breathing air, but these were closed in stormy conditions. The bodies of the dead were simply thrust overboard. And yes, there were uprisings.

Upon reaching the West Indies, the slaves were fed and cleaned in the hopes of bringing a high price on the block. Those that could not be sold were left for dead. The slaves were then transported to their final destination. It was in this unspeakable manner that between ten and twenty million Africans were introduced to the New World.



The Growth of Slavery

Africans were the immigrants to the British New World that had no choice in their destinations or destinies. The first African Americans that arrived in Jamestown in 1619 on a Dutch trading ship were not slaves, nor were they free. They served time as indentured servants until their obligations were complete. Although these lucky individuals lived out the remainder of their lives as free men, the passing decades would make this a rarity. Despite the complete lack of a slave tradition in mother England, slavery gradually replaced indentured servitude as the chief means for plantation labor in the Old South.

Virginia would become the first British colony to legally establish slavery in 1661. Maryland and the Carolinas were soon to follow. The only Southern colony to resist the onset of slavery was Georgia, created as an Enlightened experiment. Seventeen years after its formation, Georgia too succumbed to the pressures of its own citizens and repealed the ban on African slavery. Laws soon passed in these areas that condemned all children of African slaves to lifetimes in chains.

Pennsylvania, Africans lived in BONDAGE. Economics and geography did not promote the need for slave importation like the plantation South. Consequently, the slave population remained small compared to their southern neighbors. While laws throughout the region recognized the existence of slavery, it was far less systematized. Slaves were more frequently granted their freedom, and opposition to the institution was more common, especially in Pennsylvania.

As British colonists became convinced that Africans best served their demand for labor, importation increased. By the turn of the eighteenth century AFRICAN SLAVES numbered in the tens of thousands in the British colonies. Before the first shots are fired at Lexington and Concord, they totaled in the hundreds of thousands. The cries for liberty by the colonial leaders that were to follow turned out to be merely white cries.

Slave Life on the Farm and in the Town

What was it like to live in bondage? The experiences of slaves in captivity varied greatly. Indeed, Puritan merchants and Southern planters have as much in common as their slaves. The type of life slaves could expect to live depended first and foremost on whether they lived on farms or in towns.

The first image that comes to mind when considering CHATTEL SLAVERY is plantation life. Of course the CULTIVATION of the planter's crop was the priority. Beyond these duties, slaves might also be expected to clear land, build a fence, or perform other odd jobs as the circumstances might dictate. Larger plantations usually brought harsher working conditions.OVERSEERS might be assigned to monitor the work. As they had little connection to the slave, they tended to treat the slaves more brutally. Sometimes a slave, called a DRIVER, would be enticed into holding this position. Accordingly, drivers were hated in the slave community. Living quarters were small and spartan, and food usually consisted of a few morsels of meat and bread.

Large plantations might also have HOUSEHOLD SLAVES. These domestic servants would prepare the master's meals, tend the house, prepare for guests, and sometimes look after the master's children. Household slaves often were treated better than plantation slaves. They usually ate better and were in some cases considered part of the extended family.

Slaves that lived on smaller farms often enjoyed closer relations with their masters than plantation slaves. It stands to reason that a farmer working side by side with four slaves might develop closer bonds than a planter who owns four hundred. This sometimes, but not always, led to kinder treatment.

Some urban merchants and artisans employed slave labor in their shops. This enabled slaves to acquire marketable skills. In fact, white craftsmen often displayed strong resentment, believing the price of their labor would suffer. Generally, slaves that lived in towns had greater freedom than those that lived on the farm. They met more people and became more worldly. Daring individuals sometimes took the opportunity to escape.



"Slave Codes"

Slaves did not accept their fate without protest. Many instances of REBELLION were known to Americans, even in colonial times. These rebellions were not confined to the South. In fact, one of the earliest examples of a slave UPRISING was in 1712 in Manhattan. As African Americans in the colonies grew greater and greater in number, there was a justifiable paranoia on the part of the white settlers that a violent rebellion could occur in one's own neighborhood. It was this fear of rebellion that led each colony to pass a series of laws restricting slaves' behaviors. The laws were known as SLAVE CODES.

Although each colony had differing ideas about the rights of slaves, there were some common threads in slave codes across areas where slavery was common. Legally considered property, slaves were not allowed to own property of their own. They were not allowed to assemble without the presence of a white person. Slaves that lived off the plantation were subject to special curfews.

In the courts, a slave accused of any crime against a white person was doomed. No testimony could be made by a slave against a white person. Therefore, the slave's side of the story could never be told in a court of law. Of course, slaves were conspicuously absent from juries as well.



Slave codes had ruinous effects on African American society. It was illegal to teach a slave to read or write. Religious motives sometimes prevailed, however, as many devout white Christians educated slaves to enable the reading of the Bible. These same Christians did not recognize marriage between slaves in their laws. This made it easier to justify the breakup of families by selling one if its members to another owner.

As time passed and the numbers of African Americans in the New World increased, so did the fears of their white captors. With each new rebellion, the slave codes became ever more strict, further abridging the already limited rights and privileges this oppressed people might hope to enjoy.


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