The transat­lantic trade in Africans: The Mid­dle Pas­sage

Part 2

Jamaica Gleaner - - YL: FEATURE - DEBBION HYMAN Con­trib­u­tor Debbion Hyman is an in­de­pen­dent con­trib­u­tor. Send ques­tions and com­ments to kerry-ann.hep­burn@glean­


AT THE end of the les­son, you should be able to: 1. Eval­u­ate the role of African rulers in the transat­lantic slave trade. 2. De­scribe the ex­pe­ri­ences of the African cap­tives dur­ing the mid­dle pas­sage jour­ney. 3. Out­line five rea­sons why there was a high mor­tal­ity rate for African cap­tives dur­ing the Mid­dle Pas­sage jour­ney. 4. Em­pathise with the plight of the African cap­tives as they jour­neyed through the Mid­dle Pas­sage.

The fo­cus of this week’s les­son is on the ex­pe­ri­ence of African cap­tives as they jour­neyed through the Mid­dle Pas­sage. This week’s les­son in­cor­po­rates ex­tracts from the text Olau­dah Equiano- The In­ter­est­ing Nar­ra­tive of the Life of Olau­dah Equiano, or Gus­tavus Vassa, The African.


While we stayed on the coast I was mostly on deck; and one day, to my great as­ton­ish­ment, I saw one of these ves­sels com­ing in with the sails up. As soon as the whites saw it, they gave a great shout, at which we were amazed; and the more so, as the ves­sel ap­peared larger by ap­proach­ing nearer. At last, she came to an an­chor in my sight, and when the an­chor was let go, I and my coun­try­men who saw it, were lost in as­ton­ish­ment to ob­serve the ves­sel stop — and were now con­vinced it was done by magic. Soon af­ter this the other ship got her boats out, and they came on board of us, and the peo­ple of both ships seemed very glad to see each other. Sev­eral of the strangers also shook hands with us black peo­ple, and made mo­tions with their hands, sig­ni­fy­ing I sup­pose, we were to go to their coun­try, but we did not un­der­stand them.

At last, when the ship we were in, had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fear­ful noises, and we were all put un­der deck, so that we could not see how they man­aged the ves­sel. But this dis­ap­point­ment was the least of my sor­row. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so in­tol­er­a­bly loath­some, that it was danger­ous to re­main there for any time, and some of us had been per­mit­ted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were con­fined to­gether, it be­came ab­so­lutely pesti­len­tial. The close­ness of the place, and the heat of the cli­mate, added to the num­ber in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn him­self, al­most suf­fo­cated us. This pro­duced co­pi­ous per­spi­ra­tions, so that the air soon be­came un­fit for res­pi­ra­tion, from a va­ri­ety of loath­some smells, and brought on a sick­ness among the slaves, of which many died — thus fall­ing vic­tims to the im­prov­i­dent avarice, as I may call it, of their pur­chasers.

One day, when we had a smooth sea and mod­er­ate wind, two of my wea­ried coun­try­men who were chained to­gether (I was near them at the time), pre­fer­ring death to such a fife of mis­ery, some­how made through the net­tings and jumped into the sea; im­me­di­ately, an­other quite de­jected fel­low, who, on ac­count of his ill­ness, was suf­fered to be out of irons, also fol­lowed their ex­am­ple; and I be­lieve many more would very soon have done the same, if they had not been pre­vented by the ship’s crew, who were in­stantly alarmed.

At last we came in sight of the is­land of Bar­ba­dos, at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy to us. We did not know what to think of this; but as the ves­sel drew nearer, we plainly saw the har­bor, and other ships of dif­fer­ent kinds and sizes, and we soon an­chored amongst them, off Bridgetown. Many mer­chants and planters now came on board, though it was in the even­ing. They put us in sep­a­rate parcels, and ex­am­ined us at­ten­tively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, sig­ni­fy­ing we were to go there. We thought by this, we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they ap­peared to us; and, when soon af­ter we were all put down un­der the deck again, there was much dread and trem­bling among us, and noth­ing but bit­ter cries to be heard all the night from these ap­pre­hen­sions, in­so­much, that at last the white peo­ple got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our coun­try peo­ple. This re­port eased us much. And sure enough, soon af­ter we were landed, there came to us Africans of all lan­guages.

We were not many days in the mer­chant’s cus­tody, be­fore we were sold af­ter their usual man­ner, which is this: On a sig­nal given (as the beat of a drum), the buy­ers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are con­fined, and make choice of that par­cel they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is at­tended, and the ea­ger­ness vis­i­ble in the coun­te­nances of the buy­ers, serve not a lit­tle to in­crease the ap­pre­hen­sion of ter­ri­fied Africans, who may well be sup­posed to con­sider them as the min­is­ters of that de­struc­tion to which they think them­selves de­voted. In this man­ner, with­out scru­ple, are re­la­tions and friends sep­a­rated, most of them never to see each other again.


Di­rec­tion: Com­plete the ac­tiv­ity below. 1. Imag­ine you are a newly ar­rived African slave on a Ja­maican plan­ta­tion in the mid1700s. Us­ing his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion, write a jour­nal en­try in which you de­scribe the con­di­tions aboard the slavers and how it ac­counted for a highly mor­tal­ity rate dur­ing the mid­dle pas­sage jour­ney. To­tal 15 marks


1. The In­ter­est­ing Nar­ra­tive of the Life of Olau­dah Equiano, or Gus­tavus Vassa, The African, Equino, Olau­dah.

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