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

By | January 10, 2021

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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.

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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.