Brazilian Slave Ship


THE CROSSING of slave ships from Africa to North and South America was called the "Middle Passage."  The term basically refers to the tribulations Africans faced on their journey from Africa on slave ships.  These ordeals included the loss of their freedom, families, homeland, identity, the horrible suffering onboard the ships, and incredibly, their ability to survive.



An African's journey into European slavery typically began on the west coast of Africa, which was referred to as the "Slave Coast."  It was here, on September 16 1858, that the Wanderer arrived at the mouth of the Congo River.


In Africa, European slave traders would barter with native tribe leaders for slaves.  Once negotiations were finished, slave traders would inspect the captives to be sure none were sick or dying.  The Africans were then shackled and transported to the slave ships.


Once aboard, the horrors of the Middle Passage began.  Africans were placed on cramped decks - often so crowded the captives had little room to move. With all of those bodies in such a small space the temperature was frequently stifling so it was often hard to breath.  The sanitary conditions below decks were repulsive as Africans were often forced to lie in their own vomit and excrement.  Given these conditions it is not surprising that contagious diseases would spread quickly.  The most common diseases were malaria and smallpox.  Horrifically, in order to stop the spread of disease sick captives were simply thrown overboard.




AFRICANS WERE brought to the upper deck for fresh air and exercise.  The excercise was a form of dancing, which lasted for around an hour.  A problem with this exercise was that the slave's ankles were often shackled, so intensive movement would cause the shackles to bruise and cut their legs.  If a slave refused to dance, then he or she was prodded by the whip.


These and other horrors were part of the journey of the Middle Passage, a journey which could take months to complete.  The Wanderer crossed the Atlantic from Africa in around six weeks.  But the Wanderer was a racing schooner, built in the Long Island shipyards, and a member of the prestigious New York Yacht Club.  Then, shortly after she was built, the Wanderer was sold and outfitted for the slave trade: large water tanks were added and her beautiful interior was replaced with slave decks, but she was still one of the fastest vessels afloat with speeds up to 20 knots.


In the early days of the slave trade, when vessels were slower, it could take four to five months to complete the Middle Passage.  It is not surprising that so many slaves perished on this journey.  In the 300 years of the slave trade researchers have conservatively estimated that 11 million Africans survived the Middle Passage crossing, but another 9 million did not.



(Image: "Hold of a Brazilian Slave Ship," 1845, by Lt. Francis Meynell, *image reference: E029)