The Conditions On Slave Ships: What Was It Like On A Slave Ship?

By Grace Taylor

1835: Slaves aboard a slave ship being shackled before being put in the hold. Illustration by Swain (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Imagine you're standing on the edge of a tropical island, with soft golden sand between your toes and bright blue skies above, yet all you can feel is a deep sense of dread. You've been shaved near bald, your clothes have been stripped from you, and your body has been inspected by strangers. The man next to you was a slave in the Maghreb before being sold to new traders, and the woman behind you was from a village overtaken by a local warlord and forced into captivity, but you don't know this because neither of them speak your language. You were simply playing outside with your sister one day when three people climbed over your fence and kidnapped, bound, and gagged you in the dark woods by your town, and you haven't seen your family since.

Suddenly, you're ushered up the boarding ramp onto the decks of a humongous ship. Your eyes fixate on the massive gun attached to the deck, like something from a pirate story, but that fascination is quickly overtaken by the most horrendous stench you've ever encountered as you're ushered further and further into the lower deck. You're looked over by a member of the crew, who seems unsure which hold to send you into, but he eventually determines that you're a child and sends you in with the women, which feels almost lucky as you watch the men be shackled to one another with iron chains.

Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The underdeck is dark and grotesque, and the space gets smaller and smaller as a seemingly impossible number of people are shoved closer and closer together. By the time the doors close, hundreds of people are crammed shoulder to shoulder, and the only way to sit is to lay legs atop legs in the already sweltering heat. The air is stifling. Through the fearful chatter, you finally hear a familiar tongue, and you move just enough to be able to converse. You ask her what is happening, and she tells you that you're going to a place across the sea to work.

The next day, you're let back onto the deck, where the crew offers you food. You're too sick with worry to eat, but because of your refusal, two crew members tie your feet together and beat you with a whip. This time, when you're led down beneath the deck, you're moved in with the men, where conditions are somehow even worse. You're chained together with two others and stuffed into compartments where you're forced to lie one on top of another, unable to move at all.

East African slaves aboard the Daphne, a British Royal Naval vessel involved in anti-slave trade activities in the Indian Ocean, 1868. (National Archives of the U.K.)

Days carry on like this, between paltry meals of rice and beans and forced exercise on deck and dark, wet, cramped spaces below. It's not long before the men around you start falling ill. You aren't sure if it's the water or the near constant suffocation doing this, but over the next few weeks, people begin to die. To say they dropped like flies would be too kind, because it takes an agonizing few days or weeks. Even in the incredible heat, they begin to feel feverish, and soon, they start to vomit and lose all control of their bowels. If they refuse to eat to find relief from the sickness, their mouths are held open by a speculum orum and food is forced down their throats.

Sometimes, the man attached to you by chain dies, and it takes until the next time you're let out on deck for the crew to detach the deceased from you. The bodies of all the dead are thrown overboard into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean without ceremony or any tradition their personal religion might have detailed. As the weeks go on, death is more common, and by the time you reach the strange shores of a foreign land, two of every 10 people you've known aboard perish by way of dysentery, malnutrition, or violence.  

Olaudah Equiano, autrement dit "Gustavus Vassa", par Daniel Orme, after W. Denton, Londres 1789. (London National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

Congratulations, you've survived the perils of the Middle Passage, and for all your troubles, you win the prize of being a slave for the rest of your life. While there are few firsthand accounts of what it was like to be a slave aboard a slave ship, as longevity and literacy in Western languages were both struggles to attain, we do have the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, who survived the trade route from Africa to the Caribbean and eventually the Colonies until he bought his own freedom in 1766. Although gruesome, his tale necessarily leaves out the horrors many women and children suffered, as sexual abuse was commonplace on many slave trading ships.

The true horrors of the Middle Passage became known to the wider world through the 1783 British legal battle of the trial of the Zong, when a slave trader fought his insurance company over the deaths of many of the African slaves who comprised his so-called "cargo." The ship had failed to efficiently navigate the Atlantic and spent a dangerous amount of time lost in open water, and the crew soon ran out of food for all of the souls trapped beneath the deck. Their solution? Kill the ones they couldn't feed. Their insurance policy didn't cover starvation or illness, but it did cover drowning, so an estimated 122 people were thrown overboard to their deaths.

A painting entitled "The Slave Ship" by J. M. W. Turner depicting slaves thrown overboard. (Boston Museum of Fine Arts/Wikimedia Commons)

Thanks to the trial of the Zong and Equiano's writings, the general public became aware of the horrifying conditions on slave ships. Abolitionist groups began to form in England, but it took until 1807 for the British and 1808 for the United States to finally outlaw the inhumane transatlantic slave trade, which took the lives of over two million innocent Africans. The British outlawed slavery officially in 1833, and the Unites States at last followed after the Union's victory over the Confederates during the American Civil War in 1865. Lincoln's famous Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 only freed the slaves of the "rebellious states" which didn't recognize him as their leader and didn't apply to those enslaved in the Northern-controlled territories or the West.

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Grace Taylor