African Slave Ships Research Article from The Way People Live

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For the captives, setting sail began a journey into the unknown. Many Africans had never seen the ocean before they boarded a slave ship, and the sight frightened them. As Olaudah Equiano explains, "Not being used to the water, I naturally feared the element the first time I saw it."

Equiano's fear of water hardly compared with the journey itself. Confessed one young sailor aboard a French slaving vessel, the cries of the slaves "are so terrible that I do not like to go down and look into the hold. At first I could not close my eyes, the sound froze my very blood." The suffocating stench of the hold, the brutal beatings of slaves and crew, the perpetual presence of disease and death, all were part of daily life on the slave ship.

Especially unsettling for these Africans was the fact that their destination was unknown. As historian John Henrik Clarke explains, "The manacled and terrified Africans knew very little about the process in which they have been ensnared." Even though Equiano managed to find some captives aboard the slave ship who actually spoke his language and explained to him that they were being taken away to the white men's country to work for them, he was still very fearful and suspicious. Equiano, like many Africans, believed the European slavers were cannibals and that he would be taken to a far off country to be eaten.

The terror of the voyage was amplified by the fact that the captives had no idea how long their trip would last. According to Clarke,

Many of the Africans huddled in the darkness cursed their fate, while others shrieked in horror each time the hatch cover closed above, virtually entombing them. They had no idea what to expect; what cruel injustices still remained.... Having been shipped from their homeland, from their gods, they could only guess what bitter misfortune awaited them.

Torn Away

The agony of being wrenched from the shores of Africa filled the captives with despair. Captain Thomas Phillips witnessed scene after scene of desperate slaves willing to risk death to avoid leaving Africa: "The Negroes are so wilful and loath to leave their own country," he wrote, "that they have often leap'd out of the canoos, boat and ship, into the sea, and kept under water till they were drowned."

From the slaver's point of view, this distress signaled the increased possibility of sickness and death among the slaves. To minimize loss of life and therefore loss of their investment, slave ship captains tried to set sail immediately after slaves boarded the ship. "From the moment that the slaves are embarked, one must put the sails up," advised seventeenthcentury French businessman Jacques Savary. "The reason is that these slaves have so great a love for their country that they despair when they see that they are leaving it forever; that makes them die of grief."

Many slave crews took this advice one step further, keeping captives locked below deck in the slave hold until the ship left port. According to one former slave,

At the time we came into this ship, she was full of black people, who were all confined in a dark and low place in irons. The women were in irons as well as the men.... When our prison could hold no more, the ship sailed down the river; and on the night of the second day after she sailed, I heard the roaring of the ocean as it dashed against her sides.

The Slave Deck

Traveling across the ocean below deck was a miserable experience. Slaves were forced to lie down and were chained to one another, the right wrist and ankle of one to the left wrist and ankle of another, on a rough wooden deck built especially for transporting them. Between 250 and 450 captives—although sometimes as many as 700 to 800—were jammed together in this small, poorly ventilated space, which was about five feet high. Taller slaves were placed in the widest part of the ship; shorter slaves were positioned in narrower parts. As one former captive later explained, "The place in which we were confined was so full that no one could lie down; and we were obliged to sit all the time, for the room was not high enough for us to stand.... When we arrived at Charleston, I was not able to stand. It was more than a week after I left the ship before I could straighten my limbs."

Eighteenth-century slave ship captain John Newton described the way slaves were crammed into slave quarters. Slaves were packed on ledges, he attests, "in two rows one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close that the shelf would not easily contain one more. And I have known a white man sent down among the men to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage so that as little space as possible be lost."

The atmosphere of these slave decks proved intolerable for both slaves and crew members. The space was so small and crammed with people that there was no room to move and no fresh air to breath. There was no bathroom, so people lay in their own filth, and because the conditions were so poor, sickness spread quickly. The disgusting smell alone made people sick to their stomachs. Some Africans went crazy, moaning and raving; others lost their will to live and died.

Slave ship captain James Barbot described how slave-quarter conditions even prevented the ship doctor from examining and treating ailing captives: "To administer proper remedies ... between decks" was impossible to do "leisurely... because of the great heat that is there continually which is sometimes so excessive that the surgeons would faint away and the candles would not burn."

Sleeping Arrangements

Arranging the captives in the slave decks each evening at sundown required the efforts of both the second mate and the boatswain, who went below, armed with a whip, to cram hundreds of people into the dank filthy hold. Most slaves slept on the bare boards of the slave ledges, but some Portuguese slavers provided coarse mats to lie on.

To maintain order during the night, the sailors appointed a monitor, one for every ten slaves. The monitor was usually a slave himself, who was given a cat-o'-nine-tails and was instructed to flog any slave who made noise or a disturbance. As Captain Thomas Phillips reported, "We have some thirty or forty Gold Coast negroes... to make guardians and overseers of their Whydah [Ouidah] negroes, and sleep among them to keep them from quarreling." As a reward for their assistance, the monitors were provided with an old shirt and a pair of trousers, distinguishing them from the other slaves who were naked.

Even the threat of a monitor's whip could not prevent the battles for sleeping space that raged nightly in the slave hold. To minimize injuries, the ship's barber cut the fingernails and shaved their heads. During their nightly imprisonment in the slave deck, slaves were supposed to use buckets, placed in each sleeping area, as latrines. However, shackled as they were and with minimal space to move, it was often an impossible struggle to reach these buckets in the middle of the night.

One seventeenth-century slave trader from Portugal described arranging slaves in the hold and their terrible experience trying to survive:

Women who were pregnant were assembled in the back cabin, the children were huddled together... as if they were herrings in a barrel. If anyone wanted to sleep, they lay on top of each other. To satisfy their natural needs, they had bilge places... over the edge of the sea, but, as many feared to lose their place... they relieved themselves where they were, above all the men [who were] cruely pushed together, in such a way that the heat and the smell became intolerable.

The Daily Routine of the Captives

Generally, in mild weather slaves were brought above deck for air at eight o'clock in the morning. There, the ship's doctor would examine them for any sores and ailments. If they were ill, they were taken to a separate part of the ship for treatment. However, according to surgeon Alexander Falconbridge, sick slaves often endured further misery in their quarantined area:

The place allotted for the sick Negroes is under the half deck, where they lie on the bare planks. By this means those who are emaciated frequently have their skin and even their flesh entirely rubbed off, by the motion of the ship, from the prominent parts of the shoulders, elbows and hips so as to render the bones quite bare.

If they were well, the slaves remained on deck and were given saltwater to wash themselves and palm oil to massage into their skin. As part of the morning routine, petty officers also examined the slaves' shackles to make sure they were secure.

Sometimes, after checking the iron shackles for any weaknesses, captains unlocked them because they knew that slaves survived the transatlantic crossing in better health and greater numbers if freed of irons. Most captains, however, so feared rebellion that they kept the male captives chained together, fastened to a thick iron ring bolted in the deck. Historians Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley explain the general routine: "If the weather was clear, [the slaves] were brought on deck... in the morning. The men were attached by their leg irons to the great chain that ran along the bulwarks on both sides of the ship; the women and half-grown boys were allowed to wander at will."

To occupy the female captives, some slavers gave them colored beads. In agreeable weather, these women strung beads to pass the time on deck. At six in the evening, the men were chained and confined to the slave quarters below. Women and children were permitted to remain above deck longer, and sometimes they were allowed to sleep on deck.

Feeding the Captives

Slaves were fed twice a day at ten in the morning and four in the afternoon. They ate in groups on deck in good weather. In rough weather though, they ate in the hold.

During the voyage, slaves were fed small rations of food, in part because slavers were continually fearful of running out of rations before reaching land. As a result, the slaves suffered from great hunger. Olaudah Equiano remembered the cruel flogging some captives received aboard ship when they first begged for and then tried to steal extra food.

As a way to restrain the captives' ravenous appetite and make them eat more slowly, slavers sometimes used a monitor, according to one historian, to signal when the slaves were allowed to scoop up their food with their fingers or wooden spoon and when they were allowed to swallow what they were chewing. Monitors also watched closely for slaves who refused to eat. Many slaves tried to starve themselves, and if the monitor caught them, the captives were whipped.

Because starved captives hold little monetary value, torturous methods were used to force them to eat. "Upon the Negroes refusing to take sustenance," reported Alexander Falconbridge, "I have seen coals of fire, glowing hot, put on a shovel and placed so near their lips to scorch and burn them." 81 Crew members also used a particularly cruel device called a speculum orum, which pried open the mouth of a slave to allow force-feeding.

Dancing the Slaves

Slavers also believed that forcing slaves to sing and dance once a day was a necessary part of the Middle Passage. Thomas Trotter, a surgeon on board the Brookes in 1783, observed, "Those who were in irons were ordered to stand up and make what motions they could, leaving a passage for such as were out of irons to dance around the deck."

Traders maintained that this exercise regime kept the slaves in good condition throughout the journey. However Ecroyde Claxton, a doctor aboard the Young Hero, revealed the truth about dancing the slaves. He said, "They sing, but not for their amusement. The captain ordered them to sing, and they sang songs of sorrow. Their sickness, fear of being beaten, their hunger, and the memory of their country."

If a slave refused to dance or seemed sluggish in his movements, crew members whipped him with a cat-o'-nine-tails. Reported slaver Richard Drake, "We had half the gang on deck today for exercise; they danced and sang, under the driver's whip, but are far from sprightly." Generally slaves remained in their irons and were forced to move in any way they were able. Captives used a drum, the bottom of a tub, or an African banjo to make music. Sometimes a sailor might play the bagpipes or fiddle as accompaniment.

The Daily Routine of the Crew

The grueling and complex routine of sailing a slave ship or any merchant ship across the Atlantic Ocean during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an endless task. The twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule, called the watch, was divided into six four-hour shifts, manned by a handful of men, each responsible for a vast number of chores. While the captain charted the ship's course and petty officers made sure the captain's orders were carried through, sailors concentrated on two areas of work: manipulating the ropes, or rigging, and working the sails.

Rigging supported and controlled the sails, masts, and yards. There were two types of rigging, and sailors worked with both: standing rigging, which remained in place and did not move, and running rigging, which could be hauled in or let out, tightened, wound around a winch (crank), or uncoiled.

The other demanding aspect of a sailor's duty on board a slave ship involved working the sails. Seamen moved the sails, adjusting their angles and increasing or reducing them by manipulating the rigging. Following the officers' instructions, seamen pulled the special rigging, or sheets, to extend a sail and the halyards to raise or lower it.

Sailors could accomplish much of the work from the deck, where they were able to pull or let out the appropriate rope. However, frequently sailors climbed aloft using the specially fashioned rigging called ratlines to gain their footing.

Caring for the sails and rigging was part of taking care of the ship itself. Sailors tarred the masts and the cracks in the hold; greased the windlass (a machine used to haul in the ship's anchor); scrubbed, painted, oiled, and varnished the deck; not to mention scraped rust from all metal parts, including chains, anchors, and guns.

One of the most exhausting jobs for seamen, however, involved pumping bilge water. Two to seven sailors united in the backbreaking work of pulling large levers to suction the excess water out of the hold and up onto the deck where it flowed out the side openings, called scuppers. Pumping water caused deadening fatigue, and the strain pushed some crews to desert or mutiny. As a result the carpenter who managed to plug leaks and keep the ship watertight earned the praise of every man on board.

The Rhythm of Work

Two qualities stand out to describe work at sea. One, it was collective. Men worked together and depended on each other to do a good job, so that one man might easily take up a task where another left off. If, for example, a seaman were mending a sail and had to stop in the middle because his shift during the watch was over, he would have to leave his work in such a way that the new sailors might easily continue and finish mending the torn sail.

Also men relied on each other to keep the ship safe. A well-tarred hull, watertight and dry, would benefit all because leaks could endanger everyone.

The other unique aspect of life at sea was that work was done in public. Everyone could see what others were doing. Experienced sailors knew how to perform the basic tasks and had seen others perform them, from the captain's work on down. "Consequently," asserts historian W. Jeffrey Bolster, "even the lowest ordinary seaman considered himself a judge of his officers... and there was considerable pressure to demonstrate one's skills." It was virtually impossible to hide a job badly done because other crew members closely watched each task as a sailor did it. Sometimes seamen exposed the inadequacies of their superior officers by following their incorrect orders to the greatest detail.

Sailor's Slang and Sea Chants

The way seamen talked to one another revealed the unique way they related to each other. Sailors primarily communicated with short, clear commands. Each sentence or phrase had a specific meaning everyone immediately understood and obeyed. Sailors were particularly inventive when describing punishment. The phrase "the cat wailed on 'market day'" meant to flog someone, and a seaman severely punished was "dried out in the shrouds."

Cursing was another characteristic way seamen spoke to each other. From captain to cabin boy, everyone cursed, sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously. The eighteenthcentury clergyman George Whitefield wondered whether seamen could "pull their ropes without swearing." As a joke or in earnest, asserts Marcus Rediker, "seamen damned each other's blood, cursed each other's bodies and wished misery and destruction on their foes. Seamen hurled insults at each other and at their officers: [they yelled] You fat-gutted chucklehead! Blood and thunder, you... knave!"

Using Slaves on Board

Tropical diseases and other hardships sometimes killed or disabled so many crew members that slave ship captains required the captives to work on board. While they worked, officers forced the slaves to sing, no matter what the job. Singing was supposed to keep up the spirit of the slaves. Some historians believe that the rhythmic way sailors sing as they pull rigging or push the crank of a windlass came from watching African slaves working together aboard a ship.

Female slaves helped the cook with tasks such as grinding corn. Male slaves were often used to help sailors with particularly unpleasant jobs. "Last Tuesday," wrote Richard Drake, "the smallpox began to rage, and we hauled 60 corpses out of the hold.... We stimulated the blacks with rum in order to get their help in removing corpses."

Keeping the slave decks clean was another job some slavers considered particularly important, and they frequently used the slaves who slept there to help maintain the areas. Captain Thomas Phillips even appointed some captives as overseers, providing them with whips: "[To] make [the] negroes scrape the decks where they lodge ... to [avoid any illness] that may engender from filth and dirtiness; when we appoint a guardian we give him a cat o' nine tails as a badge of his office."

Inner Fortitude

Whether because slaves refused to eat or as way to coerce them to clean the slave decks, slavers whipped, flogged, and cruelly mistreated the captives. As former slave Louis Asa-Asa remembers in his memoir, published in 1831, "The slaves we saw on board were chained together by the legs below deck, so close they could not move. They were flogged very cruelly; I saw one of them flogged till he died; we could not tell what for."

Afloat in the middle of the ocean and subjected to routines they neither chose nor understood, captives were miserable and confused aboard the ship. Olaudah Equiano wondered how European seamen were even able to move the ship in the water. Along with other slaves, locked in the hold and manacled to each other, Equiano surmised that the sailors were demons who performed magic with wind, cloth, and ropes to guide the vessel across the great expanse.

The whole experience so terrified Equiano that he later wrote, "I even wished [I remained a slave in Africa] in preference to my present situation which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo." Despite his fear and horror, Equiano endured, like so many Africans, who managed to survive the Middle Passage.

A Sailor's Schedule: The Watch

Life on a slave ship rotated around the watch. There were six watches in one twenty-four-hour period. All seaman, including officers, stood watch—meaning, they had to complete certain tasks depending on the time of the watch. To make sure that groups alternated tasks and watch hours, the twilight watch—scheduled between 4:00 P. M. and 8:00 P. M.—was split in half: 4:00 P. M. to 6:00 P. M., and 6:00 P. M. to 8:00 P. M. Breaking up the watch was called "dogging the watch."

The second part of the "dog watch" (from 6:00 P. M. to 8:00 P. M.) was the time when the entire crew was on deck. The captain paced the weather side of the quarter deck—the side of the ship facing into the wind—and calculated the ship's location. The first mate walked on the opposite side of the ship, the lee side, and also read the wind's direction and determined the ship's whereabouts.

The steward and cook sat together in the galley smoking their pipes, and those sailors not on duty took that time to relax, smoking, singing, playing cards, and telling long, improbable stories, often referred to as yarns.

At 8:00 P. M., the second mate struck eight bells. The captain entered his calculations about direction and location in the ship's record, or log book, and the first mate set up the watch schedule. The helmsman (the sailor steering the ship) changed shifts, and the cook shut the galley for the night. Finally, off-duty crew members went below to the forecastle to sleep.

Feeding the Slaves

In his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Equiano remembered the cruel treatment he received when sickness and sadness prevented him from eating.

"I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely."

Yet at the same time that the captives were forced to eat and were savagely punished if they refused, they were also denied food they found palatable.

"One day [the whites] had taken a number of fishes; and when they had killed and satisfied themselves with as many as they thought fit, to our astonishment who were on deck, rather than give any of them to us to eat, as we expected, they tossed the remaining fish into the sea again, although we begged and prayed for some as well as we could, but in vain; and some of my countrymen, being pressed by hunger, took an opportunity, when they thought no one saw them, of trying to get a little privately; but they were discovered, and the attempt procured them some very severe floggings."

No Air to Breathe

Lack of air circulating in the slave decks caused many slaves to suffocate. Alexander Falconbridge, a slave ship surgeon whose remarks have been excerpted from Thomas Howard's Black Voyage, left a particularly clear picture of the slave hold. When bad weather confined all of the captives below deck, they were chained together in their cramped slave ledges.

"Fevers among the negroes ensued. While they were in this situation, my profession requiring it, I frequently went down among them, till at length their apartments became so extremely hot as to be only sufferable for a very short time. But the excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered their situation intolerable. The deck, that is the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucous... that it resembled a slaughter-house. It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture to itself a situation more dreadful or disgusting."

In his autobiography, entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Equiano also remembered the slave deck and how it felt to be chained in the hold.

"The stench of the hold was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time.... [When] the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat... added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, [and] almost suffocated us. This... brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died.... [The] wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now... insupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated."

Spirits and Cannibals

For some slaves, ship life seemed so foreign that they believed they had entered a world of demon spirits. In his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Equiano mentioned aspects of his voyage that he could explain only by the supernatural.

"During our passage, I first saw flying fishes, which surprised me very much; ... I also now first saw the use of the quadrant [an instrument to measure altitude]; I had often with astonishment seen the mariners make observations with it.... One of them... made me one day look through it. The clouds appeared to me to be land, which disappeared as they passed along. This heightened my wonder; and I was now more persuaded than ever, that I was in another world, and that every thing about me was magic."

One great fear slaves had centered around the uncertainty of their future. Upon leaving Africa, slavers often explained to the captives that they were being taken across the sea to farm and work the land. No matter how many times the crew tried to persuade them of this, however, many captives feared that the white men were cannibals and that the unfortunate Africans would soon be eaten.

As Equiano explains, "We thought we should be eaten by these ugly men [the white planters and merchants who came aboard when Olaudah's slave ship first arrived in Barbados].... There was much dread and trembling among us... that at last the white people got some old slaves [who]... told us we were not to be eaten but to work."

This section contains 4,390 words
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African Slave Ships from Lucent. ©2002-2006 by Lucent Books, an imprint of The Gale Group. All rights reserved.
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