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Ready to Use Lesson Plans and Activities and Reference Links

The Slave Ship Zong (pdf)
he aim of this activity is to make students question the moral issues around the story of the slave ship Zong. Students are encouraged to use their imaginations to think about what society may have been like in a city such as Liverpool that was growing enormously rich as a result of the slave trade. (pdf)

The Middle Passage

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Middle Passage was the leg of the Atlantic slave trade that transported people from Africa to North America, South America and the Caribbean. It was called the Middle Passage because the slave trade was a form of Triangular trade; boats left Europe, went to Africa, then to America, and then returned to Europe. They also made a stop in the West Indies for food, supplies, or traded molasses or rum for the slaves.

Slave traders acquired slaves by purchasing them from numerous ports in Africa. They were able to pack nearly 300 slaves and approximately 35 crew into most slave ships. The men 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 very small portions of corn, yams, rice, and palm oil, normally just enough to sustain them. Sometimes captives were allowed to move around during the day, but many ships kept the shackles on throughout the journey.

It is estimated that of the 15 million that made the journey, 3 million did not survive. Disease, starvation, and the length of the passage were the main contributors to the death toll. Many believe that overcrowding caused this outrageously high deathrate, but amoebic dysentery and scurvy were the main problems. Additionally, outbreaks of smallpox, measles, and other diseases spread rapidly in the close-quarter compartments. Slave ships might take anywhere from one to six months to cross the Atlantic depending on the weather conditions at sea. The death rate rose steadily with the length of voyage, as the risk of dysentery increased with longer stints at sea, and the quality and amount of food and water diminished with every passing day.

Precise records are not available to provide an actual death toll, but it is estimated that as many as 8 million slaves may have perished to bring 4 million to the Caribbean islands. This number does not include the slaves brought to North or South America.

The Atlantic

The Atlantic slave trade was the purchase and transport of Africans into bondage and servitude in the New World. It is sometimes called the Maafa by African Americans. This term means holocaust or great disaster in kiSwahili. The slaves were one element of a three-part economic cycle-the Triangular Trade and its infamous Middle Passage-which ultimately involved four continents, four centuries and the lives and fortunes of millions of people.

Research published in 2006 [1] reports the earliest known presence of slaves in the New World. A burial ground in Campeche, Mexico suggests slaves had been brought there not long after Hernán Cortés completed the subjugation of Mexico. Contemporary historians estimate some 12 million individuals were taken from west Africa to North, Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands by European colonial/imperialist powers.


The slave trade originated in a shortage of labour in the new world. The first slaves used were Aboriginal peoples, but they were not numerous enough and were being decimated by European cruelty and diseases. It was also difficult to get Europeans to emigrate to the colonies, despite incentives such as indentured servitude or even distribution of free land (mainly in the English colonies that became the United States). Massive amounts of labour were needed for mining, and especially for the plantations in the labor-intensive growing, harvesting and (semi-)processing of sugar (also for rum and molasses), cotton and other prized tropical crops which could not be grown profitably - in some cases, could not be grown at all - in the colder climes of Europe. (It was cheaper to import them American colonies than to import them from the Ottoman empire, etc.) To meet this demand for labour European traders thus turned to Western Africa, especially Guinea as a source of slaves.
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View of the Deck of the Slave Ship Alabanoz Lieutenant Francis Meynell. 1846

There, Europeans tapped into the African slave trade that saw slaves transported to the coast of Guinea where they were sold at European trading forts in exchange for muskets, manufactured goods, and cloth. As a rule [citation needed], they were not stolen by the Europeans but captured in tribal wars, in many cases even started with a view to the capture of fellow Africans- given the modest prices they asked, African labor was clearly considered abundant, not very valuable.

The principal areas of the slave trade in Africa were Senegambia (present day Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea Bissau), Sierra Leone (including the area that later became Liberia), Windward Coast (modern Ivory Coast), Gold Coast (Ghana), Bight of Benin (Togo, Benin and western Nigeria), Bight of Biafra (Nigeria south of the Benue River, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea), Central Africa (Gabon, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Southeast Africa (Mozambique and Madagascar).

The number of slaves sold to the new world varied throughout the slave trade. The most widely accepted statistics [citation needed] claim Senegambia provided about 5.8%, Sierra Leone 3.4%, Windward Coast 12.1%, Gold Coast 14.4%, Bight of Benin 14.5%, Bight of Biafra 25%, Central Africa 23% and Southeast Africa 1.8%.

African slaves were usually sold to European traders by powerful coastal or interior states in exchange for European goods, such as textiles and firearms. Africans were rarely kidnapped by Europeans, except as the opportunity presented itself, because they did not know the lay of the land.

As coastal and near-coastal nation states in Africa expanded through military conflicts, the captives of these wars, usually civilians but sometimes defeated warriors, were enslaved and sold. Collection of slaves was sometimes a basis for warfare but more often than not, enslavement was simply a by-product of war. Slavery had been a staple of African political life long before the coming of Europeans. Conviction of a crime was another way to become a slave. Since most if not all of these nations did not have a prison system, criminal slaves were usually sold

There were over twenty-five known kingdoms or empires that participated in the slave trade
located in present day Senegal
(1350 - 1890)
Kayor located in present day Senegal once part of Wolof Empire (1549-1886)
Koya Temne located in present day northwestern Sierra Leone (1505-1898)
Denkyira located in border area of present day Ivory Coast and Ghana (1550-1710)
Dagomba located on border of Ghana and Burkina Faso (1416-1874)
Bono located in central Ghana west of Lake Volta conquered by Ashanti (1420-1723)
Akim located in present day southeast Ghana (1500-1911)
Akwamu located in present day south central Ghana conquered by Akim (1480-1730)
Ashanti conquered nearly all of present day Ghana (1701-1900)
Popo located in present day Togo (1750-1883)
Whydah located in present day central Benin conquered by Dahomey (1580-1727)
Abomey/Dahomey located in present day central Benin (1600-1894)
Adjatche located in present day southern Benin (1688-1908)
Benin located in present day Western Nigeria (1300-1897)
Oyo located in present day southwest Nigeria (1400-1905)
Nupe located in present day West Central Nigeria (1531-1805)
Akwa Akpa located in present day southeast Nigeria (1786-1896)
Bamoun located in present day west Cameroon (1394-1889)
Mandara located in northern Cameroon (1600-1902)
Congo located in northeast Angola (1400-1568)
Sabhanga located in southeast Central African Republic (1700-1787
Nzakara replaced the Sabhanga state in southeast Central Africa Republic (1787-1878)
Kazembe located in the southeastern present day Dem Rep Congo (1710-1899)
Luba located in south central portion of the Dem Rep Congo (1620-1889)
Lunda located in southern Dem Rep Congo bordering Angola (1600-1887)

African slaves were loaded into extremely cramped ships and given only minimal amounts of food and water. It is estimated that fifteen percent of slaves died in the voyage over the Atlantic.

The first slave traders were Portuguese who desired workers for their mines and sugar plantations in Brazil. When the Dutch seized much of Brazil and became the dominant trading power in seventeenth century they became the leading traders selling slaves to both their own colonies and to British and Spanish ones. As Britain rose in naval power and controlled more of the Americas they became the leading slave traders, mostly operating out of Liverpool and Bristol. By the late 17th century, one out of every four ships that left Liverpool harbour was a slave trading ship [citation needed]. Other British cities also profited from the slave trade. Birmingham was the largest gun producing city in Britain at the time, and guns were traded for slaves. 75% of all sugar produced in the plantations came to London to supply the highly lucrative coffee houses there.


The slave trade was part of the triangular Atlantic trade, which was probably the most important and profitable trading route in the world. Ships from Europe would carry a cargo of manufactured trade goods to Africa. They would exchange the trade goods for slaves which they would transport to the Americas. In the Americas, they would sell the slaves and pick up a cargo of agricultural products, often produced with slave labour, for Europe. The value of this trade route was that a ship could make a substantial profit on each leg of the voyage. The route was also designed to take full advantage of prevailing winds and currents. For example, the trip from the West Indies or the southern US to Europe would be assisted by the Gulf Stream. The outward boundtrip from Europe to Africa would not be impeded by the same current.

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Loading slaves aboard slave ship, mid 19th century

Theslave trade was supported by church teachings and the introduction of the concept of the black man's and white man's burdens. Under this black men were expected to labour because they were not Christian and white men were charged with the duty of imposing the conditions of labour upon them.

Slavery was involved in some of the most profitable industries of the time: 70% of the slaves brought to the new world were used to produce sugar, the most labour intensive crop. The rest were employed harvesting coffee, cotton, and tobacco, and in some cases in mining. The West Indian colonies of the European powers were some of their most important possessions and they went to extremes to protect and retain them. For example, in 1763, France agreed to giving the vast colony of New France in exchange for keeping the minute Antillian island of Guadeloupe (still a French overseas département).

By far the most successful West Indian colonies in 1800 belonged to the United Kingdom. After entering the sugar colony business late, British naval supremacy and control over key islands such as Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados and the territory of British Guiana gave it an important edge over all competitors; while many lost their shirt, some made enormous fortunes, even by upper class standards. This advantage was reinforced when France lost its most important colony, St. Dominigue (western Hispaniola, now Haiti), to a slave revolt in 1791 and supported revolts against its rival Britain, after the 1793 French revolution in the name of liberty (but in fact opportunistic selectivity). The British islands produced the most sugar, and the British people quickly became the largest consumers of sugar. West Indian sugar became ubiquitous as an additive to Chinese tea. Products of American slave labour soon permeated every level of British society with tobacco, coffee, and especially sugar all becoming indispensable elements of daily life for all classes.

Reproduction of a handbill advertising a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769.

End of the Atlantic slave trade

In Britain, and in other parts of Europe, opposition developed against the slave trade. Led by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and establishment Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce the movement was joined by many and began to protest the trade. They were opposed by the owners of the colonial holdings; despite this Britain banned the slave trade in 1807, imposing stiff fines for any slave found aboard a British ship. That same year the United States banned the importation of slaves. Denmark, who had been very active in the slave trade, was the first country to ban the trade through legislation (1792) to take effect from 1803. The Royal Navy, which then controlled the world's seas, moved to stop other nations from filling Britain's place in the slave trade and declared that slaving was equal to piracy and could be punished by death.

For the British to end the slave trade, significant obstacles had to be overcome. In the 18th century, the slave trade was an integral part of the Atlantic economy. The economies of the European colonies in the Caribbean, the American colonies, and Brazil required vast amounts of man power to harvest the bountiful agricultural goods. In 1790 the British West Indies, islands such as Jamaica and Barbados had a slave population of 524 000, while the French had 643 000 in their West Indian possessions. Other powers such as Spain, the Netherlands, and Denmark had large numbers of slaves as well. Despite these high populations more slaves were always required. Harsh conditions and demographic imbalances left the slave population with well below replacement fertility levels. Between 1600 and 1800 the English imported around 1.7 million slaves to their West Indian possessions. The fact that there were well over a million fewer slaves in the British colonies than had been imported to them illustrates the conditions in which they lived.

How did the abolition of the slave trade occur if it was so economically important and successful? The historiography of answers to this question is a long and interesting one. Before the Second World War the study of the abolition movement was performed primarily by British scholars who believed that the anti-slavery movement was probably "among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages ... in the history of nations" (Lecky [citation needed]).

This opinion was controverted in 1944 by the West Indian historian, Eric Williams, who argued that the end of the slave trade was a result of economic transitions totally unconnected to any morality. Williams' thesis was soon brought into question as well, however. Williams based his argument upon the idea that the West Indian colonies were in decline at the early point of 19th century and were losing their political and economic importance to Britain. This decline turned the slave system into an economic burden that the British were only too willing to do away with.

The main difficulty with this argument is that the decline only began to manifest itself after slave trading was banned in 1807. Before then slavery was flourishing economically. The decline in the West Indies is more likely to be an effect of the suppression of the slave trade than the cause. Falling prices for the commodities produced by slave labour such as sugar and coffee can be easily discounted as evidence shows that a fall in price leads to great increases in demand and actually increases total profits for the importers. Profits for the slave trade remained at around ten percent of investment and showed no evidence of being on the decline. Land prices in the West Indies, an important tool for analyzing the economy of the area did not begin to decrease until after the slave trade was discontinued. The sugar colonies were not in decline at all, in fact they were at the peak of their economic influence in 1807.

Williams also had reason to be biased. He was heavily involved in the movements for independence of the Caribbean colonies and had a motive to try to extinguish the idea of such a munificent action by the colonial overlord. A third generation of scholars lead by the likes of Seymour Drescher and Roger Anstey have discounted most of Williams' arguments, but still acknowledge that morality had to be combined with the forces of politics and economic theory to bring about the end of the slave trade.

The movements that played the greatest role in actually convincing Westminster to outlaw the slave trade were religious. Evangelical Protestant groups arose who agreed with the Quakers in viewing slavery as a blight upon humanity. These people were certainly a minority, but they were a fervent one with many dedicated individuals. These groups also had a strong parliamentary presence, controlling 35-40 seats at their height. Their numbers were magnified by the precarious position of the government. Known as the "saints" this group was led by William Wilberforce, the most important of the anti-slave campaigners. These parliamentarians were extremely dedicated and often saw their personal battle against slavery as a divinely ordained crusade.

After the British ended their own slave trade, they were forced by economics to press other nations into placing themselves in the same economic straitjacket, or else the British colonies would become uncompetitive with those of other nations. The British campaign against the slave trade by other nations was an unprecedented foreign policy effort. Denmark, a small player in the international slave trade, and the United States banned the trade during the same period as Great Britain. Other small trading nations that did not have a great deal to give up such as Sweden quickly followed suit, as did the Dutch, who were also by then a minor player.

Four nations objected strongly to surrendering their rights to trade slaves: Spain, Portugal, Brazil (after its independence), and France. Britain used every tool at its disposal to try to induce these nations to follow its lead. Portugal and Spain, which were indebted to Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, slowly agreed to accept large cash payments to first reduce and then eliminate the slave trade. By 1853 the British government had paid Portugal over three million pounds, and Spain over one million in order to end the slave trade. Brazil, however, did not agree to stop trading in slaves until Britain took military action against its coastal areas and threatened a permanent blockade of the nation's ports in 1852.

For France, the British first tried to impose a solution during the negotiations at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but Russia and Austria did not agree. The French people and government had deep misgivings about conceding to Britain's demands. Not only did Britain demand that other nations ban the slave trade, but also demanded the right to police the ban. The Royal Navy had to be granted permission to search any suspicious ships and seize any found to be carrying slaves, or equipped for doing so. It is especially these conditions that kept France involved in the slave trade for so long. While France formally agreed to ban the trading of slaves in 1815, they did not allow Britain to police the ban, nor did they do much to enforce it themselves. Thus a large black market in slaves continued for many years. While the French people had originally been as opposed to the slave trade as the British, it became a matter of national pride that they not allow their policies to be dictated to them by Britain. Also such a reformist movement was viewed as tainted by the conservative backlash after the revolution. The French slave trade thus did not come to a complete halt until 1848.

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