MIDDLE PASSAGE REALITY (Illustration) Ethics Civil Rights Famous People Geography Law and Politics Social Studies World History Slaves and Slave Owners

In 1787, a revolt takes place aboard an overcrowded slave ship en route on a “Middle Passage” journey from Africa to the New World. The crew fires on the slaves while some Africans dive overboard. The image was originally published, as a black-and-white illustration, in 1794. Learn more about it by clicking on the first link of this chapter’s “Media Stream.”


In July of 1788, Liverpool slave-trade participants testified about their activities in Parliament. They told MPs that slaves, among other things, were comfortable during transatlantic crossings.

Then, under intense cross examination, they acknowledged the truth. We pick up the story in chapter 23 of Clarkson's history:

Every slave, whatever his size might be, was found to have only five feet and six inches in length, and sixteen inches in breadth, to lie in. The floor was covered with bodies stowed or packed according to this allowance: but between the floor and the deck or ceiling were often platforms or broad shelves in the mid-way, which were covered with bodies.

When captives were brought to the African ports, they were bound together, two by two. Were they also tethered, in some manner, aboard ship?

The men were chained two and two together by their hands and feet, and were chained also by means of ring-bolts, which were fastened to the deck. They were confined in this manner at least all the time they remained upon the coast, which was from six weeks to six months as it might happen.

If they were captured to provide free labor, Africans needed nourishment. What did they eat?

Their allowance consisted of one pint of water a day to each person, and they were fed twice a day with yams and horsebeans.

Some of the captives refused to eat, wishing to die rather than to live in such horrific conditions. When that happened, slavers would force-open their mouths with a device (called a speculum oris) which looked like an instrument of torture. (See Clarkson, chapter 17.)

Confined in cramped quarters, how did the captives keep their bodies limber?

After meals they jumped up in their irons for exercise. This was so necessary for their health, that they were whipped if they refused to do it; and this jumping had been termed dancing.

Young girls could also be whipped if they refused the captain's order to dance without their clothes. One example was memorialized by George Cruikshank on the 10th of April, 1792.

John Kimber, captain of the slave ship Recovery, whipped a fifteen-year-old captive while she was suspended by her ankle. Although she died of her injuries, a jury in the High Court of Admiralty acquitted Kimber. They concluded the girl had died of disease, not mistreatment.

Were captives allowed to breathe fresh air, or did they spend most of their time below deck?

They were usually fifteen and sixteen hours below deck out of the twenty-four. In rainy weather they could not be brought up for two or three days together. If the ship was full, their situation was then distressing. They sometimes drew their breath with anxious and laborious efforts, and some died of suffocation.

It is said one could smell an approaching slave ship ten miles away, so horrific were its onboard conditions.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jan 01, 2007

Updated Last Revision: Apr 24, 2015

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