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Lynching A
Legacy of Terror
| Black History Month | The Middle Passage |

Holding Forts on the Coast

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For the journey to the coast enslaved Africans (who could have been bought, sold, captured, kidnapped, enslaved as punishment or for acts of war) were taken by African traders or middlemen and marched or rowed by river canoe, to be sold to European traders. For the march, also known as the coffle, African peoples would be chained together in either two's or three's or as many as 30 or 40. Sometimes they were forced to carry items on their heads, such as bundles of elephants' teeth, corn, ivory and hides or water in skin bags. They would be forced to walk or march through the interior for many days or weeks until they reached the coast. Some would be chained and crowded into river canoes and sailed along routes from the interior to awaiting European slavers on the coast. Others were taken to the forts to await sale. At the slave forts the enslaved Africans were placed in barracoons or holding cells, where they sometimes waited for many days or weeks for the slave ships to collect them. Sometimes slavers would come from different ports to collect their human cargo, although by the mid 18th century, the Captain would send out boats to collect up to 50 enslaved people at one time. During the period of the illegal slave trade, enslaved Africans spent longer in the barracoons, as Captains often picked up many of their human cargo together so as to avoid interference from the British navy. A variety of items were used in the sale of this 'human merchandise' ranging from guns to beads.

The conditions in the forts for the enslaved women, men and children were inhumane (see pick and mix section 'Inside a Slave Fort'). Having arrived from the long march or by river canoe, people were exhausted and hungry as well as disheartened and mentally and emotionally distressed. Many bore open wounds from acts of enslavement either by raid or war. A ship's surgeon would examine them and eliminate those who were not fit for the journey. As a result of the suffocating and unhealthy conditions in the barracoons, many Africans died while waiting to be collected. There were also gender differences in the experiences of the enslaved, for example the women were targets for rape and physical abuse. Conditions were made worse by the long waiting period, which could vary from days to weeks to months. In 1846, 2000 African enslaved peoples were murdered in a barracoon in Lagos because Italian steamers feared the inevitable repercussions of trading illegally in slaves.

Slave Ships

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As the Slave Trade grew and became more organised, slavers were especially built for the journey. By the 1770s most ships built in Liverpool were for slave trading. The area below deck was designed to hold the maximum number of enslaved Africans. With the high mortality rates in the early period of the trade, some Liverpool ships added ventilation, hoping to reduce deaths during the voyage. The 17th century 'flute ship' was a partially armed ship designed for war, and had, by the 18th century, become the popular choice. It was large square-rigged vessel, with three masts.


The Middle Passage - A Way of Death

At the savage Captain's beck,
Now like brutes they make us prance
Smack the cat about the Deck
And in scorn they bid us dance

This late 18th century verse refers to the action now known as 'dancing the slave'. The enslaved Africans were brought daily above deck and were made to 'dance' as a way of exercising their muscles after the long periods of cramped positions below deck. The 'cat' referred to in the poem was the 'cat-o-nine-tails', a whip with nine strands, each of which would have had a razor like instrument on the end.

The now famous 18th century British Anti-Slavery model of a slave ship (the Brookes model) with enslaved Africans packed below deck like sardines, provides the most graphic image of the Middle Passage. The men were packed and secured in irons to platforms below deck, and had to either crouch or lie down in the tightly confined space. They were made to lie in their own vomit and filth. The women and children were placed in a separate section below deck or in a secured area above. The unhygienic and overcrowded conditions led to the spread of such diseases like dysentery, or the flux, infected people being forced to stay below deck, sometimes until death. Their bodies would eventually be removed and thrown overboard. The living would experience the pain and agony of the sick and dying.

The ship's crew sailed the ship, attended to naval duties and policed the enslaved Africans. They whipped, punished and ridiculed the Africans, and played an integral role in maintaining their inhumane conditions. The crew also often raped the women enslaved on board. Ironically, the appalling living and working conditions experienced by the white crew, also played a key role in supporting abolition of the Slave Trade. With an early estimate of one death in every five crew members, the Middle Passage was much despised among seamen. It became difficult for ship Captains to recruit for the journey, and they often had to resort to capturing men for the job. Many seamen jumped ship when the opportunity arose to escape the cruel treatment and harrowing conditions.

Revolts and Punishments

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A large number of revolts took place while the slave ship was still in view of the African coastline, and sometimes communities on the coast would help the enslaved on the ship. In 1773, the enslaved Africans from Gambia killed all but two crew members and forced them to sail the ship back to Sierra Leone. The most famous open sea revolt was led by an enslaved African named Cinque aboard the Amistad when most of the crew were overthrown. However, their ship was sailed to the United States and the fate of the enslaved was decided by law. Europeans were very wary of revolt and the crew regularly inspected their ships for weapons, punishing the enslaved Africans who resisted authority. Punishments varied in severity and much depended on the character of ship's captain. John Newton for example, a famous Liverpool Captain, put the young male enslaved "slightly in thumb screws to obtain confession". Teeth chisels were sometimes used to force enslaved Africans who went on hunger strike, to eat. Whips, such as the 'cat-o-nine-tails' and the manatea, a whip made from the hide of a manatee, were also used. The enslaved were also placed in shackles and irons as punishment. Africans took every opportunity they could to resist their enslavement. Sometimes individuals and groups of chained Africans threw themselves overboard. These acts were what Europeans called suicide, but what the Africans called physical and spiritual redemption from the horrendous experiences of the Middle Passage.

Seasoning and Preparation for Sale

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Once they had arrived in the Americas or Caribbean, the ritual of preparing the enslaved for sale would begin. The focus was on reducing the obvious effects of the journey on the body of the African. The enslaved were washed, shaved and 'oiled' for example with palme oyle. Sometimes they were fed fresh fruit like oranges to try to improve the appearance of the skin. The enslaved were also made to 'exercise' to stretch the muscles and get them back into working order. It is believed that the limbo, the dance now known for the display of great dexterity and flexibility, evolved from the series of exercises practised by the crew in preparing the African for sale. If this was not the end of their journey, enslaved Africans would be placed in holding bays in ports. For example, Barbados had barracoons where Africans would wait for ships to take them to Brazil.

 
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