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

Melissa Sartore
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The Atlantic Slave Trade saw millions of Africans forcibly 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, smelly, scary, and offered no amount of comfort to the newly enslaved passengers.

With little understanding of what was to come and even less hope of ever being free again, passengers on slave ships would resort to tears, acts of defiance, and even suicide to try to escape 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 coming of European slave traders, but the type of slavery practiced in the African tradition was very different. Slaves 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 areas for slaves themselves. This didn't prove to be a successful practice and Europeans began buying slaves from African slave traders in places like the Kingdom of the Kongo. Soon, African traders began raiding nearby areas to acquire more slaves to sell to Europeans.

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Slaves Were Marched To The Boats In Slave Trains

Slaves 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, slaves would be chained to one another in slave trains. The slaves came from different backgrounds, spoke different languages, had probably never seen the ocean before, and almost certainly had never seen a ship like the ones they were about to board.

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Slaves Were Put Onto The Ships And Chained Below Deck

Once at the port city, slaves were herded onto ships and put below deck. Former slave Olaudah Equiano wrote about his experiences after he was 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 on slaves bodies would chafe and dig into their skin, making movement painful. With such a high death rate along the Middle Passage, many slaves would find themselves fettered to corpses.

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Ships That Were Supposed To Carry 150 People Transported As Many As 700

Slave ships were designed to carry hundreds of people but were usually over-crowded in the interest of expediency. The more slaves on a ship, the more money there was to be made. Slaves 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 slaves would not have been able to find a bucket to defecate or urinate into and would have had to stay in their own filth.

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 had carried over 700 slaves. After the law was passed, regulations restricted the number of slaves aboard to about 450.