African Slave Ships Research Article from The Way People Live

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As the slave ship made its way across the Atlantic Ocean, life was a continual battle for survival for both slaves and crew members. At any moment the terrible daily hardships could easily overwhelm and destroy everyone on board.

For the slaves, chained and imprisoned in the putrid hold, surviving the suffocating slave deck and the deadly diseases it bred became a feat of endurance. Another equally threatening aspect of daily life involved the abuse and mistreatment that slavers inflicted on captives during the crossing. As freed slave Ottobah Cugoano later expressed, "It would be needless to give a description of all the horrible scenes which we saw, and base [degrading] treatment which we met with in this dreadful captive situation."

For the crew, life aboard a slave ship was also extremely perilous. Like the slaves, crew members died of the contagious diseases that ravaged the hold, and slave ship captains treated crew members cruelly, often punishing them severely for petty blunders. Many sailors could recount stories such as the one seaman James Morley remembered: For accidentally breaking a glass belonging the captain, "I was tied up to the tiller in the cabin by my hands, and then flogged with a cat [-o'-nine-tails], and kept hanging there some time."

Other perils also challenged those aboard the ship. The unpredictability of the weather and the imprecise navigation skills of the era made crossing the Atlantic Ocean dangerous. Crew members often wrestled with ropes and sails as wind and driving rain pummeled their tiny vessels. In addition, slave ships might find themselves embroiled in a battle at sea with a pirate ship or a vessel from a rival nation. Often without warning, in the middle of the Atlantic the captives and crew would suddenly become the target of cannon fire from an attacking ship.

Abuse and Mistreatment of the Captives

The dangers captives suffered from outside forces such as bad weather and enemy ships were far less life-threatening than the cruelty and wanton acts of violence they had to endure on board. From the moment they were captured, slaves were abused and mistreated. The violence they experienced on land in Africa continued and was often heightened during the Middle Passage. As former slave Olaudah Equiano comments, "The white people looked and acted... in so savage a manner.... I had never seen such instances of brutal cruelty."

Sometimes, historians attest, slave treatment was less vicious than other times, depending on the nature of the captain and the crew. But even sympathetic behavior during the eighteenth century could include very brutal actions. African women, for example, were regularly abused by the slave ship crew.

Slaver John Newton, known as a kind captain, noted one practice in his journal: "When women and girls are taken on aboard a ship, naked, trembling, terrified, perhaps almost exhausted from cold, fatigue and hunger, they are often exposed to the wanton rudeness of white savages." Women who protested were whipped and beaten.

Some slave trading companies such as the Dutch Middleburg Commercial Company, active during the eighteenth century, made it illegal and severely punishable for sailors to assault female slaves. On the long, exhausting trip to and from Africa, however, where crew members were themselves often brutalized, it is unlikely the laws were enforced.

Captain Newton tried to protect female slaves on his ship. Once, when he caught a sailor assaulting an African woman, he wrote that he "put him in irons. I hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep [the crew] quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman, I shall impute it to him."

At the same time that African women became targets of abuse from the white crew members, they were also given more freedom than men. Male slaves were kept in irons for longer periods throughout the voyage. They also spent a greater amount of time in the hold and were forced to do more strenuous labor aboard the ship. Women and children were often allowed to remain on deck without shackles throughout the voyage.

Sickness and Death

In addition to the physical abuse slaves suffered, they also often fell victim to any number of fatal epidemics, such as smallpox, that the unsanitary conditions of slave ship life bred. Keeping the slaves healthy became a major worry for slavers during the Middle Passage. As a way of preventing widespread illness, some crews tried to keep the slave decks clean. "Thrice a week," reported slaver Jean Barbot, "we perfume betwixt' decks with a quantity of good vinegar in pails, and red hot bullets in them to expel the bad air, after the place had been well scrubbed with brooms: after which the deck is cleaned with cold vinegar."

However, not all slave ship captains attempted to maintain a degree of cleanliness to promote health. Eyewitness accounts such as the one left by slaver Richard Drake, who was a trader for twenty-four years, describe a different scene below deck: "On the eighth day [out at sea]... I took my round of the half deck, holding a camphor bag in my teeth; for the stench was hideous. The sick and dying were chained together. I saw pregnant women give birth of babies whilst chained to corpses, which our drunken overseers had not removed."

Often, unsanitary conditions, combined with inadequate food rations, caused raging epidemics of fever, the flux, and smallpox to sweep through the slave decks and kill many of the captives. Venture Smith, an African slave who was later freed, recalled that at the time of his crossing, there was "a great mortality by the small pox, which broke out on board.... Out of the two hundred and sixty that sailed from Africa, [we found] not more than two hundred alive."

Slaves whom the captain believed were too weak and sick to recover, were sometimes hurled into the ocean. Some slavers believed ridding the ship of diseased slaves might stop contagion from spreading. As Thomas Howard explains, "Ruthless ship captains would throw over the side the first slave or two to show any evidence of sickness, thus hoping to prevent its spread."

When slaves and crew members died, their bodies were also tossed into the sea. Often a school of sharks followed the slave ship to feed on the bodies thrown overboard.

The Perils of Maritime Work

In addition to the constant danger of becoming deathly ill, seamen faced the ongoing hazards of maritime work itself. Seamen often became maimed or disabled as a result of the everyday chores. Even loading and unloading barrels of goods for trade could cause injury, particularly since heavy crates sliding around the hold of a rocking ship could crush a sailor's limb. "It was not unusual," one sailor reported, "for a finger to be lost to a rolling case, for an arm or leg to be broken by shifting cargo, or for a hand to be burned in tarring ropes."

Sometimes seamen died while working on the ship. For example, during a strong wind or turbulent sea, crew members perched on a rope rung high above the deck could lose their balance, fall overboard, and drown. Also, the equipment used aboard a slave ship was heavy. If, as a result of the wear and tear of life at sea, a loose iron spike or piece of equipment fell from a yard and hit a crew member below, the blow could kill him.

As historian Marcus Rediker notes, "The chances of a seaman ending his life in... a catastrophe were high, and many a man fell from the rigging, was washed overboard, or was fatally struck by falling gear."

Attacking Ships

Another peril that crews suffered was the ongoing possibility of a hostile attack from an enemy ship. These vessels might be manned by pirates, privateers, or coastal raiders cruising the waters for plunder. Attacks were frequent, and the slave ports in the Caribbean were particularly treacherous for any trading ship bound for the West Indies.

Newspapers at the time often ran articles about slavers narrowly escaping pirate attacks. On October 3, 1754, the South Carolina Gazette, for example, reported that "Capt. Seymour, in a large Bemuda Sloop... had been chased... for two Days and Nights by a large Black Schooner, [later] being informed [that] she was a Pirate."

Articles told of ships that pirates had robbed. In the same issue of the South Carolina Gazette, a story about a sloop captained by James Berry recounts how the vessel was

boarded by a fine large Bermuda built sloop, arm'd only with Blun de busses [guns], commanded by a Spaniard (who said he had taken many Prizes on this Coast...) with a mixed crew of many Nations [who] strip[ed] Capt. Berry, a Passenger he had, and his Crew, of all their Cloaths [clothes], Money, Watches, &c, and took out of the Vessel, two negro men, 4 Hogsheads of Rum, one of Sugar, with whatever else they wanted.

In addition to the dangers that pirate attacks posed, a slave ship might discover itself caught between the crossfire of warring nations. Over the four hundreds years during which European nations participated in the slave trade, alliances shifted frequently, and even if not actively at war, each European nation defended its own territorial waterways. If, for example, an English slaver happened to drift into Spanish territory as it made its way across the Atlantic, the seamen aboard might find themselves in the midst of a pitched battle at sea, fighting for their lives.

Sailors understood the risks of these battles, which could often leave them badly wounded or maimed. Sometimes, they banded together in protest. "[We] did not hire [ourselves] to fight," seamen Samuel Howell asserted in 1713. "Who would maintaine [us] and [our] Familys in case (we) should lose a Legg or an Arm?" At best, after years at sea, if they were still alive, they emerged from the experience broken, sickly, and unfit to work.

Discipline and Abuse of the Crew

Although pirate attacks were brutal, they were rare, and some historians believe that the most perilous aspect of manning a slave ship was the cruel discipline a captain or another commanding officer used to intimidate the crew. Seamen were regularly beaten for minor infractions or occurrences. The cook, for example, might become the target of a captain's murderous rage if the captain disliked how the food tasted. Once, when the cook on a particular slave ship served tainted meat, the infuriated captain beat both the cook and steward and tied them together. They were imprisoned in the hold for two days.

Officers often beat crew members to punish and discipline them. As a result, sailors sustained lasting injuries, including lameness or constant headaches, or even permanent bouts of dizziness. Sometimes bouts of dizziness were referred to as "falling sickness." Ordinary seaman John Marchant reported before the High Court of Admiralty that he had been caned mercilessly by first mate John Yates during one voyage. Because of the caning, he became continually "troubled with a diziness in his Head... in so much that he cannot go aloft without danger of falling down."

Even captives such as Olaudah Equiano expressed horror over the brutality officers showed crew members during the Middle Passage. Describing his feelings in his memoir, he remarked,

I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves. One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute.

Relations Among the Crew

It is little wonder that crew relations were tense. Sailors on a slave ship lived for months at a time in the middle of the ocean on a ship that most teenagers could cross in fifteen paces. They slept in hammocks for only three or four hours at a time in a forecastle that stank of bilge water, and they rarely had enough to eat or drink. They always felt chilled or wet and lived day after day in the same damp clothes, sharing the small cramped space of the boat with fifteen to forty-five other people.

The type of people who frequently manned slave ships heightened the harsh environment: poor vagrants or runaways, drunkards, hardened seamen, and tyrannical captains. One justification officers gave for their inhuman treatment of seamen was that severe discipline provided order within an otherwise unruly group.

However, cut off from contact with other people, sailors created a bond with each other, forged from the years spent together aboard ship. Pitted against the forces of nature, seamen banded together to battle the ever-present dangers of wind and water.

Sailors also became allies to unite against the power and cruelty of commanding officers. Within the ship's world, two separate communities arose—seamen at the bottom of the social ladder and officers at the top, each group socializing among themselves. Sometimes stronger seamen looked out for the welfare of weaker seamen. For example, "young seamen often tried to protect the older ones by giving them more or better provisions or by shielding them from an abusive captain." In 1749 it was reported that when a drunken captain, Thomas Sanderson, hit the boatswain aboard his ship, "the Crew rose and said that [the Captain] should not beat the Boatswain (who was a very old man.)"

Racial Relations on Board

Another aspect of crew relations involved the relationship between black and white mariners. As historian W. Jeffrey Bolster explains, "One of the most significant changes during the period between 1740 and 1820 was in the increase in the number of black mariners who manned ships traveling the Triangle of Trade." Most men were slaves, rented out by their masters to assist on trading voyages. Some, however, were free men, who saw seafaring as one of their only opportunities to make a living.

Blacks attained skills that enabled them to serve in any station aboard ship, but prejudice denied them positions beyond that of able-bodied seamen. Usually, free blacks were hired as cabin boys, cooks, musicians, and stewards. However, slaves who worked on board might be allowed to assume positions of authority more easily than free blacks. Slaves could serve their white masters, using the very seafaring skills with which free blacks were not allowed to use to earn a living.

Racial prejudice also included ongoing brutal physical abuse. In his autobiography, John Jea, a veteran seacook during the early nineteenth century, recalled enduring terrible treatment because of his color. "They used to flog, beat, and kick me about the same as if I had been a dog," 111 he recounted. Yet Jea persisted for years because seafaring allowed him to make a living, travel widely, and, as a preacher, spread the word of spiritual awakening and social equality, two ideas that ultimately contributed greatly to outlawing the slave trade.

Racial relations on board were not always horrible, though. Olaudah Equiano, for example, described one rare instance when a friendship formed between blacks and whites aboard ship. As a young teenager enslaved on his master's ship, Equiano wrote that he met

a young lad who had never been at sea before, about four or five years older than myself; his name was Richard Baker.... Soon after I went on board, he showed me a great deal of... attention.... [F]or the space of two years [he] was my constant companion and instructor. Although he had many slaves of his own,... such a friendship was cemented between us... a faithful friend who, at the age of fifteen, discovered a mind superior to prejudice.

Surviving Storms

In addition to the harsh treatment sailors received at the hands of their superiors, they also had to grapple with harsh weather, which made slave ship life a life-and-death drama. Historian Marcus Rediker recounts the valiant efforts of two seamen, who tried to keep their ship from capsizing in the midst of a raging storm. While

whitecapped waves slapped the bobbing ship and... water casks rolled from side to side... the violence of the elements ... quickly flipped the frail vessel onto its side.... Two seamen armed with axes went on deck [to cut down the foretop mast and some of the rigging.] As they hacked [away], a monstrous wave hit the forward part of the ship, snapping the foremast as though it was a thin twig and carrying... one... sailor into the sea.... The other seaman was crushed between the mast and the side of the ship.

Devastating storms also brought death to the slaves. Sometimes disastrous weather might result in a path of destruction that claimed hundreds of lives. In 1702, for example, more than eight hundred slaves died when the Danish vessel the KronPrintzen perished during a tempest at sea.

Even if they survived the storm, the horror of the experience left slaves terrified and bewildered. Locked on the hold of the ship, they braved extreme anguish as the brutal weather tore the vessel apart. Sometimes, the captives were flung about the lurching ship so violently that they suffered broken bones. One Portuguese captain, who lived through a violent storm off the coast of Mozambique, left a vivid account:

Suddenly, the weather closes in, and the sea rises so high and forcefully that the ships obey the waves without course or control, at the mercy of the winds. It is then that the din [noise] from the slaves, chained to one another, becomes horrible. The clanking of the irons, the moans, the weeping, the cries, the waves breaking over one side of the ship and then the other, the shouting of the sailors, the whistling of the winds, and the continuous roar of the waves.... Some of the food supplies are pushed overboard.... Many slaves break their legs and their arms, while others die of suffocation. One ship will break apart from the fury of the storm and sink. The other drifts on, dismasted, ruined by the force of the ocean... on the verge of capsizing.

When mariners battled a tumultuous sea, they relied on slaves to help shoulder the burden. Captains used slaves to relieve tired crews of the backbreaking job of pumping water, often pushing them to the point of physical collapse. According to historian Hugh Thomas,

Slaves were often called on to help an over worked or exhausted crew. Thus we hear how in the midst of these distresses, the vessels, after being three weeks at sea, became so extremely leaky, as to require constant exertion at the pumps. It was found necessary, therefore, to take some of the ablest negroes out of the irons and employ them at this labour, in which they were often worked beyond their strength.

During storms, the captives on board were sometimes in danger of more than the weather. In 1738 a Dutch slaver foundered on rocks off the coast of South America. Stormy weather blinded the crew, and the ship was about to sink. Asserts Thomas, "The crew closed the hatches of the slave decks to avoid pandemonium and then escaped with fourteen slaves who had been helping them; 702 slaves were left to drown."

Factors of Survival

During the slave trade, ship captains often argued over the most efficient way to transport slaves while minimizing disease and loss of life. Their interest derived from discovering how to make the highest profit. Says Thomas Howard, "Some captains favored giving each slave plenty of room, thus giving each and all a better chance for health en route." Other captains thought that filling the ship beyond capacity would ensure the greatest profit from the slaving voyage. Howard described their motto as "don't worry about the loss from disease, because those who survived would more than make up the cost of the dead."

According to many historians today, however, the length of the voyage played a far more significant role than the number of slaves a ship carried. Slaves aboard a ship that took a little over three weeks (the least amount of time an eighteenth-century slaver required to sail from Africa to the New World) had a greater chance of survival than ships that took three months. According to historian Edward Reynolds, "The time-span of the voyage and the danger of... contagious disease probably had more effect on mortality than overcrowding.... The reduced rations sometimes necessary during long voyages lowered the resistance of both slaves and crew.... The longer the voyage the greater the chance of illness and death."

Staying alive amid extreme abuse was the real concern for most Africans and crew members. Even though the slave traders mistreated the slaves profoundly, they had a great interest in keeping the enslaved Africans alive. As one slave trader observed, "There was no profit on a slaving voyage until the Negroes were landed alive and sold."

Emergencies at Sea

On February 29, 1758, Captain Joseph Harrison of the Rainbow wrote to his ship's owners, informing them of his situation. The following portion of his letter, excepted from Black Cargoes, by Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley, illustrates the dangers a slave ship captain had to face as he made his slaving voyage.

"We arrived here on the 25 [February] in company with Capt. Perkins from Bonny, and Capt. Forde from Angola. ... I expected to sail for hence for South Carolina in five days, having on board 225 slaves, all in good health except eight. On the 23rd of June last, I had the misfortune to fall in with a French brig privateer [enemy ship], of fourteen 6-ponders [cannons]. We engaged him four hours, and were so near... that I expected every moment we should run on board him, as he had shot away all my running rigging and the fluke of my small bow anchor. My standing rigging and sails were mostly cut to pieces and the privateer was in a little better condition. Fifteen of his shot went through and through my sides. I lost in my engagement my boatswain.... My first and second mates, three landsmen, and one servant wounded. The privateer being well satisfied sheered off. We were three days in repairing."

Crew Conditions

Crew conditions aboard a slave ship caused significant illness and a notable number of deaths. Although more than half of all crew deaths occurred on the African coast, during the Middle Passage, sailors suffered from conditions similar to those suffered by slaves, including exposure to disease, insufficient food, and deprivation when the voyage took a long time.

In his book Stand the Storm, historian Edward Reynolds describes the treatment of sailors during the Middle Passage.

"Day and night, seamen were exposed to wind and sea. They were forced to sleep on deck [especially when the ship was overcrowded] exposed to all types of weather, an old tarpaulin thrown over a boom being their only shelter. This exposure frequently caused illness and death.... Often, the crew was given only one meal a day [consisting of a small amount of bread, meat, and water] and because they were the first to be deprived when there was a shortage of provisions, it was common for sailors to beg rations from the slaves. Provisions were commonly refused to sick sailors: on many slavers, the rule was 'no work, no victuals.'"


One of the worst diseases that slaves and crew could acquire during the voyage across the Atlantic was a blinding eye infection called opthamalia. In his book Black Voyage, Thomas Howard quotes from the letter of J. B. Romaigne, a twelve-year-old boy on his way to visit his father in the West Indies. Romaigne's letter tells what happened as a result of an opthamalia outbreak on the French slaver Le Rodeur .

"The man who preserved his sight the longest recovered the soonest. To his exertions alone... is it owing that we are now within a few leagues of Guadaloupe, this twenty-second day of June, 1819.... I am myself almost well.... Among the slaves 39 are completely blind.... This morning the Captain called all hands on deck.... The mate picked out thirty nine who were completely blind, and, with the assistance of the rest of the crew, tied a piece of ballast to the legs of each. The miserable wretches were then thrown into the sea."
This section contains 4,056 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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