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Hell On Water: The Brutal Misery Of Life On Slave Ships

The Atlantic Slave Trade saw millions of Africans removed from their homeland, shipped across an ocean, and forced to work in brutal conditions in the Americas. The trip itself, known as the Middle Passage, was a horrible, deadly, and inhumane experience. The conditions on slave ships were dirty, scary, and offered no amount of comfort to the enslaved passengers.

With little understanding of what was to come and even less hope of ever being free again, captives on slave ships would resort to tears, acts of defiance, and even suicide to try escaping their plight. To this day, we are still uncovering evidence that attests to the horrible realities of slavery - but no amount of scholarship and understanding will change the scarring experiences of slave ship conditions.

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  • Africans Were Seized In Raids Or Purchased From African Slave Traders

    Slavery was part of African society long before the arrival of European slave traders, but the type of slavery practiced in the African tradition was very different. Captives were traded within the continent as a sign of wealth - they could be debtors, prisoners of war, or political prisoners - but slaves were not chattel. With the influx of Islamic merchants, slaves from Africa were transported to the Mediterranean, and later to the Americas, by European merchants. 

    When Europeans arrived in Africa, they first tried to raid the area themselves. This didn't prove a successful practice, so Europeans began buying enslaved people from African slave traders in places like the kingdom of the Kongo. Soon, African traders started raiding nearby areas to acquire more people to sell to Europeans.

  • Captives Were Chained Together And Marched To The Boats

    Captives from throughout Africa were brought together in port cities to be transported across the Atlantic Ocean. As they moved around from place to place on their journey toward the coast, the enslaved Africans would be chained to one another in slave trains. The people came from different backgrounds, spoke different languages, may have never seen the ocean before, and almost certainly had never been on a ship like the ones they were about to board.

  • Captives Were Put Onto The Ships And Chained Below Deck
    Photo: S. Weuijster / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Captives Were Put Onto The Ships And Chained Below Deck

    Once at the port city, slaves were marched onto ships and put below deck. Former slave Olaudah Equiano wrote about his experiences after being freed (he was active in the abolition movement in England in the 18th century) and described the confusion and shock he felt.

    He wasn't sure if the white men were going to kill him or eat him. Once he was on board, he saw "a multitude of Black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow," and was so filled with fear that he fainted.

    The chains used on the enslaved Africans would chafe and dig into their skin, making movement painful. With such a high death rate along the Middle Passage, many captives would find themselves fettered to corpses.

  • Ships Designed To Carry A Few Hundred People Transported As Many As 700

    Slave ships were designed to carry hundreds of people, but were usually over-crowded in the interest of profit. The more slaves on a ship, the more money there was to be made. Captives were packed into the ship so tightly that they had no more than a few feet to move, sit, or sleep. Conditions were so cramped that those enslaved would not have been able to find a bucket to defecate or urinate in, thus forcing them to stay in their own waste.

    The Brookes ship, later a key part of the argument against the slave trade, depicted how slaves were to be put below deck and carried on slave ships. Prior to the passage of the Regulation Act of 1788, the Brookes carried over 700 slaves. After the law was passed, regulations restricted the number of captives aboard to about 450.

  • Below Deck, The Odor From Feces, Urine, And Vomit Was Sickening

    Olaudah Equiano described what met him when he went below deck:

    I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me.

    Slaves were sometimes taken above deck and bathed, weather permitting, but the periodic washings were no match for the brutal conditions.

  • If Enslaved People Disobeyed Their Captors, They Were Flogged, Beaten, and Branded

    The punishment for captives who didn't listen to the crew, tried to escape, didn't eat, or showed some sign of defiance usually included floggings. When he refused to eat, Equiano was punished by two men, "one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely."

    According to another source, if slaves refused to participate in their daily exercises, "deemed necessary for the preservation of their health... if they go about it reluctantly or do not move with agility, they are flogged; a person standing by them all the time with a cat-o'-nine-tails in his hands for the purpose." Branding and torture devices were also used to drive the enslaved people into submission.

    When insurrections broke out - and there were many - slaves would also be met with fierce punishment. Many captives had nothing to lose, however, and would rise up against the crew only to face cannon fire, muskets, and more bloodshed.