The Middle Passage

Learn more about the harrowing journey of over 6 million Africans taken from their homeland to the New World as part of the 18th century American slave trade.

One of the most well-known figures from this era was Olaudah Equiano, a West African kidnapped at the age of 11 and enslaved in Virginia. Eventually Equiano was able to buy his freedom and became the leading black campaigner for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade (The Equiano Project). His biography, "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African" is as powerful now as it was in his lifetime. Other important figures of the era were John Paul Jones, a decorated naval fighter during the Revolutionary War, who, during his time serving aboard a number of British slave ships became disgusted with the cruelty of his profession and abandoned his position and William Wilberforce, a British politician and philanthropist and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, another towering figure of the era, led a slave revolution which resulted in the free, self-governing black state of Haiti.

Click for a lightbox of notable and notorious people from the Atlantic slave trade.

Titlepage from "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African"</br> British Library, London, UK
Cross-section of a slave ship, late 18th century (w/c ink on paper) / Bibliotheque de L'Arsenal, Paris, France
The conditions onboard slave ships were horrendous. The compartments, sometimes not even three feet high, were packed so tightly that people couldn't lay down, much less move around or change positions. Reverend Robert Walsh gives an account of boarding the ship, Feloz, of conditions that only allowed men space of around 23" wide, while women got 13("Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829," EyeWitness to History,, 2000). On many ships, the captives were chained by the neck and ankles. The duration was highly dependent on the weather, one month if you were lucky, six months if you weren't. With more than several hundred slaves and several dozen crew members on board the typical ship, disease and starvation were rampant.

A one page description of the Middle Passage hardly the subject justice. It is estimated that over the three centuries of active slave trading, between 9 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World. More than 2 million people died during the Atlantic voyage alone. A broader figure, including deaths related to capture and transportation in Africa, the transatlantic journey and deaths attributed to the institution of slavery, suggests that up to 4 million Africans died overall.  

There are many collections in the Bridgeman archive which do an amazing job of telling the story visually. One of these is a collection from British photographer Michael Graham-Stewart, whose archive contains everything from restraints used on the captives to photography aboard slave ships and paper documentation of slave trafficking, to abolition ephemera and much more. 

In the end, we hope to have provided enough narrative to spark further interest in the subject. We suggest the PBS Online web series called Africans in America, with part one shedding particular light on the Middle Passage. Our next feature on the African-American experience deals with the 19th century during the Civil War and Reconstruction era.



The New World, from an Atlas of the World in 33 maps, Venice, 1553 (ink on vellum)/ Museo Correr, Venice, Ital

The Middle Passage gets its name from the triangular trade route established between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Ships departed Europe for African markets with manufactured goods, which were traded for purchased (or more likely, kidnapped) Africans, who were then transported across the Atlantic. The slaves were then sold or traded for raw materials in the Americas and the Caribbean, which would be transported back to Europe, thereby completing the the journey. The Atlantic slave trade is customarily divided into two eras. The first was the trade to primarily South American colonies of the Portuguese and Spanish empires during the 16th century. The second was the trade by European traders with Caribbean colonies, Brazil and North America during the 18th century, which is the focus of our feature below.

After being captured or kidnapped (in many cases by their own countrymen), Africans were force-marched to coastal forts, sold to Europeans and held in pens to await the sea voyage.


Joseph Cinque (c. 1813-1879) the slave rebel (coloured engraving) / Peter Newark American Pictures

People resisted in many ways, but suicide by jumping overboard and refusing to eat were most frequent. Uprisings were fairly common, but rarely successful. One exception was a rebellion led by Sengbe Pieh, later known as Joseph Cinque, on the La Amistad in 1839, which had a key effect on abolition in the U.S. If you survived the journey and were destined for South America, you would be sent to a 'seasoning camp' in the Caribbean. For the next year, the enslaved were tortured for the purposes of 'breaking' them and conditioning them for their new life. The most notorious of these camps was in Jamaica.(Most slaves destined for North America avoided this fate.)

Selected lightboxes:

From capture to coastal forts awaiting transport.

Notorious slave ships and slave 'catchers', including The Brookes and  HMS Black Joke.


Back to top