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The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of people from Africa were shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Ships departed Europe for African markets with manufactured goods, which were traded for purchased or kidnapped Africans, who were transported across the Atlantic as slaves; the slaves were then sold or traded for raw materials, which would be transported back to Europe to complete the voyage. Voyages on the Middle Passage were a large financial undertaking, and they were generally organized by companies or groups of investors rather than individuals.
The "Middle Passage" was considered a time of in-betweenness for those being traded from Africa to America. The close quarters and intentional division of pre-established African communities by the ship crew motivated captive Africans to force bonds of kinship which then created forced transatlantic communities. These newly established bonds greatly impacted and altered African identity and culture within each community. It was a significant contributing aspect to the slaves survival of the "Middle Passage" and carried into their life in America.
Traders from the Americas and Caribbean received the enslaved Africans. European powers such as Portugal, England, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Brandenburg, as well as traders from Brazil and North America, took part in this trade. The enslaved Africans came mostly from eight regions: Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Windward Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, West Central Africa and Southeastern Africa.
An estimated 15% of the Africans died at sea, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships. The total number of African deaths directly attributable to the Middle Passage voyage is estimated at up to two million; a broader look at African deaths directly attributable to the institution of slavery from 1500 to 1900 suggests up to four million African deaths.
For two hundred years, 1440–1640, Portuguese slavers had a near monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. During the eighteenth century, when the slave trade transported about 6 million Africans, British slavers carried almost 2.5 million.
The duration of the transatlantic voyage varied widely, from one to six months depending on weather conditions. The journey became more efficient over the centuries; while an average transatlantic journey of the early sixteenth century lasted several months, by the nineteenth century the crossing often required fewer than six weeks.
African kings, warlords and private kidnappers sold captives to Europeans who held several coastal forts. The captives were usually force-marched to these ports along the western coast of Africa, where they were held for sale to the European or American slave traders in the barracoons. Typical slave ships contained several hundred slaves with about thirty crew members. The male captives were normally chained together in pairs to save space; right leg to the next man's left leg — while the women and children may have had somewhat more room. The captives were fed beans, corn, yams, rice, and palm oil. Slaves were fed one meal a day with water, but if food was scarce, slaveholders would get priority over the slaves. Sometimes captives were allowed to move around during the day, but many ships kept the shackles on throughout the arduous journey.
Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World. Disease and starvation due to the length of the passage were the main contributors to the death toll with amoebic dysentery and scurvy causing the majority of deaths. Additionally, outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, measles, and other diseases spread rapidly in the close-quarter compartments. The rate of death increased with the length of the voyage, since the incidence of dysentery and of scurvy increased with longer stints at sea as the quality and amount of food and water diminished. In addition to physical sickness, many slaves became too depressed to eat or function efficiently due to loss of freedom, family, security, and their own humanity.
While treatment of slaves on the passage was varied, slaves' treatment was often horrific because the captured African men and women were considered less than human; they were "cargo", or "goods", and treated as such; they were transported for marketing. For example, the Zong, a British slaver, took too many slaves on a voyage to the New World in 1781. Overcrowding combined with malnutrition and disease killed several crew members and around 60 slaves. Bad weather made the Zong's voyage slow; the captain decided to drown his slaves at sea, so the owners could collect insurance on the slaves. Over 100 slaves were killed and a number of slaves chose to kill themselves. The Zong incident became fuel for the abolitionist movement and a major court case, as the insurance company refused to compensate for the loss.
While slaves were generally kept fed and supplied with drink, as healthy slaves were more valuable, if resources ran low on the long, unpredictable voyages, the crew received preferential treatment. Slave punishment was very common, as on the voyage the crew had to turn independent people into obedient slaves. Whipping and use of the cat o' nine tails were a common occurrence; sometimes slaves were beaten for "melancholy". The worst punishments were for rebelling; in one instance a captain punished a failed rebellion by killing one involved slave immediately, and forcing two other slaves to eat his heart and liver.
Slaves resisted in a variety of ways. The two most common types of resistance were refusal to eat and suicide. Suicide was a frequent occurrence, often by refusal of food or medicine or jumping overboard, as well as by a variety of other opportunistic means. Over the centuries, some African peoples, such as the Kru, came to be understood as holding substandard value as slaves, because they developed a reputation for being too proud for slavery, and for attempting suicide immediately upon losing their freedom. Both suicide and self-starving were prevented as much as possible by slaver crews; slaves were often force-fed or tortured until they ate, though some still managed to starve themselves to death; slaves were kept away from means of suicide, and the sides of the deck were often netted. Slaves were still successful, especially at jumping overboard. Often when an uprising failed, the mutineers would jump en masse into the sea. Slaves generally believed that if they jumped overboard, they would be returned to their family and friends in their village, or to their ancestors, in the afterlife. Suicide by jumping overboard was such a problem that captains had to address it directly in many cases. They used the sharks that followed the ships as a terror weapon. One captain, who had a rash of suicides on his ship, took a woman and lowered her into the water on a rope, and pulled her out as fast as possible. When she came in view, the sharks had already killed her—and bitten off the lower half of her body.
When we found ourselves at last taken away, death was more preferable than life, and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames.
The number of participants varied widely, often the uprisings would end with the death of a few slaves and crew, and the surviving rebels were punished or executed to be made examples to the rest of the slaves on board.
Slaves also resisted through certain manifestations of their religions and mythology. They would appeal to their gods for protection and vengeance upon their captors, and would also try to curse and otherwise harm the crew using idols and fetishes. One crew found fetishes in their water supply, placed by slaves who thought it would kill all who drank from it.
The sailors experienced subpar conditions and were often employed through coercion. Sailors knew and hated the slave trade, so, at port towns, recruiters and tavern owners would get sailors very drunk (and indebted), and then offer to relieve their debt if they signed contracts with slave ships. If they did not, they would be imprisoned. Sailors in prison had a hard time getting jobs outside of the slave ship industry, since most other maritime industries would not hire "jail-birds", so they were forced to go to the slave ships anyway.