Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Slaves captured or purchased in the African interior were often held in confinement for months before they finally arrived at the coast. Some of these people had been wounded in battles, and others like the European sailors, often caught these ailments. John Taylor, the captain of the Henrietta Marie's second voyage, was not spared the threat of disease and was ill or dying before the ship left Africa, re-exposed to smallpox, yellow fever, and other deadly diseases.The mortality rate during the Middle Passage was high for slaves and crew alike, averaging between thirteen and thirtythree percent. The likelihood of contagion, however was strongest for the Africans.

Common hazards of the voyage, stemming from no other source than poor diet and close confinement, included scurvy and gangrene. Dehydration, caused by lack of drinking water and high loss of bodily fluids from fevers or dysentery, was a primary killer aboard the slaving vessels. Symptoms included melancholy and a loss of appetite, but were not understood by early ship's physicians, and often went untreated until it was too late. In Addition, contaminated water supplies produced a variety of gastrointestinal disorders which increased fatalities.

History: During the Middle Passage.

By 1654, some 8,000 to10,000 Africans each year were undergoing the Middle Passage. During the next hundred years, this number grew steadily, reaching its peak sometime around 1750, when the annual number stabilized at 60,000 to70,000. Estimates on the total number of Africans who were forced to undergo the Middle Passage generally ranged from nine to fifteen million. Out of this number, some 3 to 5 million perished before they even reached the Americas.

By the end of January, 1700, the Henrietta Marie took some twelve hundred enslaved Africans aboard the Middle Passage to the New World. The men, women and children were shackled and confined to the stifling cargo holds below deck. After securing her cargo, the Henrietta Marie would have brought food and water aboard for the long voyage to the West Indies known as the Middle Passage.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Insurance on Slave Ships: The Zong Claim

Owners of slave ships took out insurance on the ships which covered the ship and the cargo on the ship which included the slaves. Before a slave ship set sail its owners would be sure to acquire insurance on it so that if something happened and the ship did not successfully return they would be able to receive the money they invested in the ship.

Under the Command of Luke Collingwood The Zong began its voyage to Jamaica on September 6, 1781. The conditions on this slave ship were much like the conditions on slave ships, forcing the slaves to be tightly packed together, and resulted in disease and malnutrition. By November 29th seven white men and 60 slaves had died. Collingwood began to worry about the future of their voyage and the affect that disease would have it. According to Law about insurance on slaves:

"The insurer takes upon him the risk of the loss, capture, and death of slaves, or any other unavoidable accident to them: but natural death is always understood to be excepted: by natural death is mean't, not only when it happens by disease or sickness, but also when the captive destroys himself through despair, which often happens: but when slaves are killed, or thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection on their part, then the insurers must answer."

Knowing this Collingwood decided it would be best to throw the slaves overboard and simply collect the insurance on them as opposed to having more of them die of natural reasons and having to accept a loss on them. His decision wasn't a wonderful one since the ship was not under any danger. According to the law the ship would only be covered by the insurance if the ships were thrown overboard in the face of danger to the ship. As a result when the owners of the ship went to claim their insurance of the slaves the insurers refused them. The owners made a claim that the slaves were thrown overboard due to depletion of water supplies, but the insurers found out this was not true, and refused the claim.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Eye Witness to History" Aboard a Slave Ship.

"The first object that struck us was an enormous gun, turning on a swivel, on deck, the constant appendage of a pirate; and the next were large kettles for cooking, on the bows, the usual apparatus of a slaver. Our boat was now hoisted out, and I went on board with the officers. When we mounted her decks we found her full of slaves. She was called the "Feloz", commanded by Captain Jose' Barbosa, bound to Bahia. She was a very broad-decked ship, with a mainmast, schooner rigged, and behind her foremast was that large, formidable gun, which turned on a broad circle of iron, on deck, and which enabled her to act as a pirate if her slaving speculation failed. She had taken in, on the coast of Africa, 336 males and 226 females, making in all 562, and had been out seventeen days, during which she had thrown overboard 55. The slaves were all inclosed under grated hatchways between decks. The space was so low that they sat between each other's legs and were stowed so close together that there was no possibility of their lying down or at all changing their position by night or day.

As they belonged to and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded like sheep with the owner's marks of different forms. These were impressed under their breasts or on their arms, and, as the mate informed me with perfect indifference 'burnt with the red-hot iron.' Over the hatchway stood a ferocious-looking fellow with a scourge of many twisted thongs in his hand, who was the slave driver of the ship, and whenever he heard the slightest noise below, he shook it over them and seemed eager to exercise it. I was quite pleased to take this hateful badge out of his hand, and I have kept it ever since as a horrid memorial of reality, should I ever be disposed to forget the scene I witnessed.

As soon as the poor creatures saw us looking down at them, their dark and melancholy visages brightened up. They perceived something of sympathy and kindness in our looks which they had not been accustomed to, and, feeling instinctively that we were friends, they immediately began to shout and clap their hands. One or two had picked up a few Portuguese words, and cried out, "Viva! Viva!" The women were particularly excited. They all held up their arms, and when we bent down and shook hands with them, they could not contain their delight; they endeavored to scramble up on their knees, stretching up to kiss our hands, and we understood that they knew we had come to liberate them. Some, however, hung down their heads in apparently hopeless dejection; some were greatly emaciated, and some, particularly children, seemed dying.

But the circumstance which struck us most forcibly was how it was possible for such a number of human beings to exist, packed up and wedged together as tight as they could cram, in low cells three feet high, the greater part of which, except that immediately under the grated hatchways, was shut out from light or air, and this when the thermometer, exposed to the open sky, was standing in the shade, on our deck, at 89'. The space between decks was divided into two compartments 3 feet 3 inches high; the size of one was 16 feet by 18 and of the other 40 by 21; into the first compartment were crammed the women and girls, into the second, the men and boys: 226 fellow creatures were thus thrust into one space 288 feet square and 336 into another space 800 feet square, giving to the whole an average of 23 inches and to each of the women not more than 13 inches. We also found manacles and fetters of different kinds, but it appears that they had all been taken off before we boarded.

The heat of these horrid places was so great and the odor so offensive that it was quite impossible to enter them, even had there been room. They were measured as above when the slaves had left them. The officers insisted that the poor suffering creatures should be admitted on deck to get air and water. This was opposed by the mate of the slaver, who, from a feeling that they deserved it, declared they would murder them all. The officers, however, persisted, and the poor beings were all turned up together. It is impossible to conceive the effect of this eruption - 517 fellow creatures of all ages and sexes, some children, some adults, some old men and women, all in a state of total nudity, scrambling out together to taste the luxury of a little fresh air and water. They came swarming up like bees from the aperture of a hive till the whole deck was crowded to suffocation front stem to stern, so that it was impossible to imagine where they could all have come from or how they could have been stowed away.

On looking into the places where they had been crammed, there we found some children next to the sides of the ship, in the places most remote from light and air; they were lying nearly in a torpid state after the rest had turned out. The little creatures seemed indifferent as to life or death, and when they were carried on deck, many of them could not stand. After enjoying for a short time the unusual luxury of air, some water was brought; it was then that the extent of their sufferings was exposed in a fearful manner. They all rushed like maniacs towards it. No entreaties or threats or blows could restrain them; they shrieked,struggled and fought with one another for a drop of this precious liquid, as if they grew rabid at the sight of it.

It was not surprising that they had endured much sickness and loss of life in their short passage. They had sailed from the coast of Africa on the 7th of May, and had been out for seventeen days, during this period of time, they had thrown overboard no less than fifty-five slaves, who had died of dysentery and other complaints in that space of time, though they had left the coast in good health. Indeed, many of the survivors were seen lying about the decks in the last stage of emaciation and in a state of filth and misery not to be looked at. Even-handed justice had visited the effects of this unholy traffic on the crew who were engaged in it. Eight or nine had died, and at that moment six were in hammocks on board, in different stages of fever. This mortality did not arise from want of medicine. There was a large stock ostentatiously displayed in the cabin, with a manuscript book containing directions as to the quantities; but the only medical man on board to prescribe it was a black, who was as ignorant as his patients.

While expressing my horror at what I saw and exclaiming against the state of this vessel for conveying human beings, I was informed by my friends, who had passed so long a time on the coast of Africa and visited so many ships, that this was one of the best they had seen. The height sometimes between decks was only eighteen inches, so that the unfortunate beings could not turn round or even on their sides, the elevation being less than the breadth of their shoulders; and here they are usually chained to the decks by the neck and legs. In such a place the sense of misery and suffocation is so great that the Negroes, like the English in the Black Hole at Calcutta, are driven to a frenzy.

They had on one occasion taken a slave vessel in the river Bonny; the slaves were stowed in the narrow space between decks and chained together. They heard a horrible din and tumult among them and could not imagine from what cause it proceeded. They opened the hatches and turned them up on deck. They were manacled together in twos and threes. Their horror may be well conceived when they found a number of them in different stages of suffocation; many of them were foaming at the mouth and in the last agonies-many were dead. A living man was sometimes dragged up, and his companion was a dead body; sometimes of the three attached to the same chain, one was dying and another dead. The tumult they had heard was the frenzy of those suffocating wretches in the last stage of fury and desperation, struggling to extricate themselves. When they were all dragged up, nineteen were irrecoverably dead. Many destroyed one another in the hopes of procuring room to breathe; men strangled those next them, and women drove nails into each other's brains. Many unfortunate creatures on other occasions took the first opportunity of leaping overboard and getting rid, in this way, of an intolerable life."

References: Walsh, Robert, Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829 (1831).
"Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829," EyeWitness to History,

Monday, April 7, 2008

Brutal Captains,Violent Crews" How the Slave Trade Worked".

"Slave ship crews were often the dregs of the seafaring community". Some were dragooned into service when drunk, or were forced to sign up for a slaving voyage after being encouraged to run up debts with a port pub keeper in league with a slave ship officer. They were a rough and surly lot, who often fought their officers and suffered brutal whippings in return. If a sailor remained disobedient, his captain handed him over to the nearest Royal Navy ship, where iron discipline was guaranteed to break any rebel spirit. The amount of recorded violence between slave ship officers and men gives us an idea of the violence that would have been unleashed on the chained slaves below decks.

Extreme Human Degradation that Characterized the Middle Passage

Because so much of the slave trade was done illegally it is difficult to estimate the actual numbers of Africans who were shipped as slaves on European vessels. The Middle Passage was at best a voyage that was very unpleasant and dehumanising. At its worst it was an ordeal that led to a slow and painful death.

European ships were loaded with groups of six people chained together with neck and foot shackles. On board, they were put below the decks, placed head to foot, still chained in long rows. Some historians estimate that for every ton of cargo there were four slaves transported. Conditions below deck were horrendous: crowded cargo holds where the air circulation was very bad, unbearable heat, and a chronic lack of adequate supplies of food and water. Most Africans suffered from seasickness and vomited often. The poor food led to widespread diarrhea and these conditions led to the outbreak of diseases like typhoid fever, measles, yellow fever, and smallpox.

The unhealthy conditions were made worse by the common practice of overcrowding a ship in order to maximise profit. The longer the ship was at sea the higher the slave mortality rate. There was never any question that Africans would die during a voyage, only how many. Short voyages, like the run to São Tomé from Benin, could expect a 5 to 10 per cent mortality rate. Longer voyages, like the run to Lisbon from São Tomé might be 30 per cent or higher. Those that survived the voyage were usually reduced to skeletons and many would die from neglect while awaiting customs clearance and sale.

The extreme human degradation that characterised the Middle Passage left many Africans to suffer severe psychological shock. This was compounded by a common fear among the Africans that they had been taken by the Europeans to be eaten, to be made into oil or gunpowder, or that their blood was to be used to dye the red flags of Spanish ships. In fact it was their skill as agricultural laborers, and their adaptability to tropical climates, that were sorely needed in the agricultural economy of the European colonies, an economy based upon the plantation system.

Conditions on the Slave Ships

The ship that carried the Africans across the Atlantic was the Teçora, a slave ship sailing under a Portuguese flag, bound for Cuba. The ship was a brig, specially built for the slave trade, with a narrow, clipper-shaped hull and a sharp bow built for maneuverability and above all speed, to evade British anti-slave trade patrols.

The voyage the "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic took two months. After weeks or months of waiting in the baracoons at the river mouth, embarkment happened in a sudden rush: the slaves were herded out of the baracoons, marched to the water's edge and forced into large wooden canoes to be ferried out to the slave ship looming beyond the surf. The European slavers and their African workers, members of a coastal tribe, the Kru, worked rapidly; if a British cruiser suddenly appeared on the horizon, the venture was lost and the slaves likely thrown into the surf to drown.

In a series of wrenching dislocations, this must have been most terrifying. None of the captives had ever been to sea before, in all likelihood. Many, convinced they were going to be killed and eaten by their captors, tried to plunge into the surf and drown themselves; slavers and Kru men had learned to watch carefully for that.Once loaded, the slave ship quickly weighed anchor and sailed off. Land -- Africa -- would have dropped out of sight within a few hours, if any of the slaves were on deck to see it. The Middle Passage had begun.

The slaves were packed into a dark, stooped space called the slave deck, about four feet high, built below the main deck, above the hold. In the testimony later given by the Amistad Africans about this nightmare voyage, the most vivid aspect of the experience was the cramped waiting, tossing in the waves, in suffocating, fetid darkness. Periodically they were brought up on deck and fed rice. If some of the captives tried to starve themselves, as often happened, they were whipped and forced to eat. Few managed to starve, but over the two months they were at sea, water supplies ran low, and disease spread through the close-packed, unventilated slave deck. By the time theTeçora had crossed the Atlantic, a third of the Africans had died.