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.
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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
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.