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The Middle Passage

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Map of African Slave Trade dates.

The map above gives the routes and years of African exploration; the year of Christopher Columbus's voyage discovering the Americas; and the earliest times when African captives were brought to the Americas including the English Colony at Jamestown, Virginia.

Elmina Castle in 1625
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Elmine Castle Slave Prison (circa 1625).

 Elmina Castle is the oldest slave trading port in Africa. It is reported that Christopher Columbus sailed as a deck-hand on one of the ships that carried building materials from Portugal to build Elmina Castle. Elmina Castle was completed less than a decade before Columbus discovered the Americas.

The volume of the AST grew rapidly in West Africa after the European Discovery of the New World and reached its peak in the eighteenth century.

Philip Curtin, a leading authority on the African slave trade, estimates that roughly 6.3 million slaves were shipped from West Africa to North America and South America, about 4.5 million of that number between 1701 and 1810. Perhaps as high a number as 5,000 a year were shipped from the Slave Coast alone.

The demographic impact of the slave trade on West Africa was probably substantially greater than the number actually enslaved because a significant number of Africans perished during slaving raids or while in captivity awaiting transshipment. Thousands of Africans died on the countless voyages that brought enslaved Africans the Americas. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean an the Americas was called: "The Middle Passage".

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Slave Ship Henrietta

The slave ship Henrietta Marie perished off the Florida Keys in 1700. She is the first and only shipwreck verified as a slave cargo ship. The greenish lettering of her ship's bell, the remains of her cargo and still-intact iron shackles gave her away. The physical evidence is there for us to touch. The drawing was reconstructed to show how she once had looked.

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Shackles for restraining cargo of slaves.

These shackles were found and documented in the ship wrecked Henrietta Maria. The shackles are but one brutal detail of how African captives were treated on their forced immigration to the Americas.

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Slave packed in ship's cargo hold.

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Aboard a slave ship on the Middle Passage.

The Middle Passage for African Captives.

African captives, mostly the males, were shackled and chained, like sardines in a can, to gain maximum cargo capacity. There was limited space to move or even to answer the call of nature, forcing the captives to urinate and deficate upon each other. The stench was horrendous! During hot weather, this alone was an unimaginable nightmare! Try to think of yourself being restrained under such conditions for a two month journey across the Atlantic Ocean! 

Many African captives commited suicide by leaping into the ocean when they got the chance. Other captives refused to eat the rotten gruel. Their front teeth were knocked out and a funnel was inserted down their throat to force feed them.

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Slave ship's cargo hold

A loaded slave ship ready to depart from Africa and begin the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. This voyage was called the Middle Passage. Millions of Africans made this trip over the course of three Centuries. Africans did not make this voyage seeking opportunties. They did not make this voyage to find a better life. In fact they were forced to make this voyage in order to live out their lives working, without pay for Europeans. Most of these Africans would never set foot in Africa again, nor would most of their descendents ever see Africa.

This scene shows a slave ship in route to the Americas. Generally female captives were kept on the upper deck to entertain the ship's crew and to cook and serve food to the men captives who were restrained in the ship's hold.

The captives came from many cultures and few spoke the same language. When they were bought by the Captains of the European ships, they looked wretched from months of deprivation in the dungeons of their holding prisons. Europeans assumed that these Africans were sub-human because they could not speak the European language. They thought that they were better off serving white men in America, than living like how they appeared when the were purchased. In reality, the African captives were being transshipped from a relative life of plenty into a relative life of horrors, brutality, hunger and utter degradation!

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Click to enlarge.

Since the captives were likely to stage a revolt if too many were brought above board for forced exercice, they were brought up in small groups so the could be managed. This meant that the captives were kept chained in the fetid conditions of the cargo hold for days on end.