Life Aboard a Slave Ship

Life Aboard a Slave Ship

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From approximately 1525 to 1866 CE, 12.5 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Middle Passage to serve as slaves in the New World. Life aboard slave ships was agonizing and dangerous; nearly 2 million slaves would perish on their journey across the Atlantic.

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The diaries of the trader John Newton help show the fear many crew members had about being attacked by the slaves. In one instance, he writes that &ldquowe were alarmed with a report that some of the men slaves had found a means to poison the water… which they had the credulity to suppose must inevitably kill all who drank it&rdquo. While this turned out to be a false alarm, the fear remained, with Newton noting that the &ldquointentions&rdquo of the slaves they held captive were always clear.

Such fears were by no means ill-founded. Indeed, given the mental and physical abuse they suffered, it was inevitable that some slaves would try and fight back, however futile such a gesture might have been. Newton again noted instances of male slaves secreting makeshift weapons in preparation for an &ldquoinsurrection&rdquo, with such plotting clamped down on in the most brutal way possible. Even the smallest act of resistance could be met with violence, though the punishments meted out by the crews were designed to hurt the slaves but not kill them &ndash after all, a dead slave would cost them money.

One of the most common forms of punishments used on board the slave ships was subjecting a man, woman or even a child to the thumbscrews. This simple but brutally effective method saw the victim&rsquos thumbs, fingers or toes placed into a crude vice and slowly but steadily crushed. The pain was intense, especially if sharp points were embedded in the vide to add to the agony. By the year 1800, these had become a quintessential tool of the slave trade. Indeed, so widespread was their use that Thomas Clarkson, an English abolitionist and a leading campaigner against the slave trade, would carry a pair of thumbscrews with him at all times. He would use these, as well as other small instruments of torture, to illustrate the cruelty of the trade and to win support for his cause.

Crude whips and other instruments for flogging were also used to maintain discipline on slave shops. In 1827, the Revered Robert Walsh joined the British Navy in patrolling the waters of the Atlantic in search of ships breaking the law that had by then made the slave trade illegal. He noted with horror the way in which the slaves on the ship were kept down. He wrote: &ldquoOver the hatchway stood a ferocious-looking fellow with a scourge of many twisted thongs in his hand, who was the slave driver of the ship, and whenever he heard the slightest noise below, he shook it over them and seemed eager to exercise it.&rdquo Reverend Walsh confiscated the whip and kept it for himself, not as a sick memento but rather as a symbol of the unquestionable cruelty of the slave trade.

A Newly Digitized Logbook Documents Life and Death on a Slave Trading Ship

Last month, the Georgetown University Library announced its acquisition—and digitization—of a rare logbook detailing life aboard the Mary, which transported enslaved West Africans across the Atlantic at the turn of the 18th century.

The text documents day-to-day happenings on a 1795­­ voyage from Providence, Rhode Island, to several ports along the coasts of modern-day Senegal, Liberia and Ghana. It also recounts the Mary’s return to the United States the following year.

Per the library’s catalog entry, the ship departed Africa in mid-June 1796 with 142 men, women and children on board. By the time the boat reached Savannah, Georgia, on October 22, 38 of these enslaved individuals had succumbed to infectious diseases, suicide and violent disciplinary measures.

“We don’t know their names,” says Georgetown historian Adam Rothman in a video about the logbook. “We don’t know their biographies. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know anything about their families. All we know is what’s recorded in this journal.”

The logbook keeper—probably one of the captain’s assistants—recorded enslaved people’s deaths in “the numbest way” possible, Rothman tells Atlas Obscura’s Matthew Taub. Each demise is noted simply by a number indicating the voyage’s growing death toll.

Far from acting as a “photographic portrait of reality,” Rothman adds, the logbook is “a representation from a certain perspective, one of the officers on board this vessel for whom the Africans were commodities, potential sources of profit and loss. That helps you understand why the deaths are recorded the way they are.”

The Mary’s transatlantic passage was one of 18 such voyages funded by slave trader Cyprian Sterry. All of these trips are recorded in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which tracks nearly 36,000 journeys undertaken between 1514 and 1866.

Prior to the logbook’s acquisition, the database’s record of the Mary’s 1795󈞸 journey were sparse, consisting mainly of the dates the ship left each port and the names of its owner and captain. The newly digitized document offers additional insights on the crew’s experience between ports.

In March 1796, for instance, the logbook’s writer describes three crew members’ attempted mutiny. The insurrection failed, and Captain Nathan Sterry later dismissed the trio.

Three months later, a group of enslaved men escaped their chains and tried to take control of the ship. The logbook dedicates a full page to the fight and its aftermath: Per Atlas Obscura, two of the men were killed in the fight, while two others jumped overboard. The entry ends with a jarring note about the good weather.

The logbook is available to peruse online. (Courtesy of the Georgetown University Library)

Speaking with Atlas Obscura, Rothman says, “[T]he experience of actually seeing this artifact in person and turning the pages yourself is absolutely terrifying.”

He adds, “It’s a really emotional experience. It’s a record of so much pain and trauma, and just to have it in front of you—it’s just a kind of testament.”

As Samantha Tritt reports for the Georgetown Voice, Sterry continued to fund voyages long after his home state of Rhode Island passed a 1787 decree banning residents from participating in the slave trade. Sterry only halted operations in 1797, when the Providence Abolition Society threatened to sue him for violating state law.

At some point in its more than 200-year history, the Mary’s logbook ended up in the closet of Robert S. Askew’s California home. After finding the document, Askew reached out to family friend (and Georgetown University alumnus) Jack Pelose, who connected him with the school’s library. Pelose even built a custom crate used to safely transport the fragile text across the country, according to a statement.

Per the video, the library worked with preservation specialists to remove the book’s binding, clean its pages and paste the crumbling leaves on Japanese paper.

Georgetown University historian Hillary MacKinlay is currently transcribing the sprawling 18th-century logbook, notes the Georgetown Voice. Rothman, meanwhile, intends to create a digital storytelling project that will track the ship’s journey on a map.

Life Aboard a slave ship.

The slaves were packed aboard a slave ship then taken across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. This journey took about six to eight weeks. In the West Indies, slaves were either sold through auction or prearranged sales.

Overcrowded conditions were the norm aboard a slave ship, as the captains attempted to maximize the profits. The slaves were kept in crampt condition with little more than a sitting room. Only shelves being about 18" deep were built to accommodate the slaves. Overcrowded conditions were the main cause of the spread of diseases.

Extreme depressions were common among slaves on the ship. Slaves were taken on decks once a day to exercise to enable the circulation of the blood. During this time, many slaves attempted to commit suicide by jumping overboard and having their spirits return to Africa. They were given meals, twice a day, which was not properly cooked and prepared and those who refused to eat, their teeth was knocked out and the food was then forced down their throats.

One bucket of water was thrown on them (where they were everyday) to keep down the stench: because they excreted, urinated and died right there. Almost all the slaves who arrived on the sugar plantation, in the West Indies, were in need of medical care. Sometimes, slaves needed to be quarantined in order to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Slaves often became ill with fever and influenza before they became accustomed to the climate.

Newly arrived Africans underwent serious personality trauma. Symptoms of withdrawals and apathy were common. Extreme depression was often the cause of suicidal behavior. The general's uncaring attitude towards their personal property was a reflection of the mental condition of the African Slaves would provide some form of welcoming entertainment for the newly arrived.

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Reviews of: "Life Aboard a slave ship." :

Slaves &lt*&gt&lt*&gt

Awesome paper. I couldn't stop reading it. Very informative and interesting. Nice work!I like your style of writing!

5 out of 5 people found this comment useful.


Thank you snowflakes for you kind words that encouraged me for the future (of writing more essays)I'm glad you liked my essay.I myself, think it was very the end product was very passionate.

2 out of 2 people found this comment useful.

Life aboard a slave ship

This is really very good. I'm a Caribbean native myself and I've studied this type of history since I was in elementary school. You missed a few details but all in all, it was a good attempt!

1 out of 1 people found this comment useful.

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Life Aboard a Slave Ship - History

E lizabeth Keckley lived a remarkable life. She was born a slave however, through her talent and persistence, she was able to buy her freedom and eventually became the seamstress and confidant of Mary Lincoln when she was First Lady.

Elizabeth's , or "Lizzie" as she was called, odyssey began with her birth in Virginia around 1818. When she was about fourteen she was given to her master's eldest son as a wedding present. The son, a Presbyterian minister, soon moved his household to North Carolina where he became the pastor of a small parish. It was here that she gave birth at age eighteen to her only child - a son - the result of an unwanted sexual relationship with a white man whom she never named.

Elizabeth Keckley
from a contemporary illustration
ca. 1868
After a few years, Lizzie was returned to Virginia as she became the slave of the daughter of her original master and her husband. The bright spot of this change in her life was that Lizzie was reunited with her mother. Her new household suffered hard times that prompted a move to St. Louis where they hoped their fortunes would improve. Unfortunately, the family's new location did not strengthen its economic situation and a new plan was developed. Lizzie, who had learned her sewing skills from her mother, would be hired out as a seamstress.

Lizzie's talent as a seamstress soon attracted a large following. Her business prospered - although her earnings went to her master. As she said: "with my needle I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months." Lizzie's circumstances changed when her master told her she could buy her release from slavery for $1,200.00 (approximately $27,000 in today's money). Her patrons loaned her the money and her freedom and that of her son, were granted in 1855. By 1860, the two had made their way to Washington, D.C. where Lizzie set up shop. Her skills again resulted in a large and influential clientele including Mary Lincoln who hired Lizzie as her personal maid and seamstress.

"My life has been an eventful one."

In 1868, Lizzie wrote a memoir of her experiences as a slave. Because she never benefited from any formal education, some have questioned whether she actually authored this work. None, however, have questioned the authenticity of her experiences:

"My life has been an eventful one. I was born a slave - was the child of slave parents. I am now on the shady side of forty, and as I sit alone in my room the brain is busy, and a rapidly moving panorama brings scene after scene before me, some pleasant and others sad and when I thus greet old familiar faces, I often find myself wondering if I am not living the past over again.

The baby was named Elizabeth, and it was pleasant to me to be assigned a duty in connection with it, for the discharge of that duty transferred me from the rude cabin to the household of my master. My simple attire was a short dress and a little white apron. My old mistress encouraged me in rocking the cradle, by telling me that if I would watch over the baby well, keep the flies out of its face, and not let it cry, I should be its little maid.

I began to rock the cradle most industriously, when lo! out pitched little pet on the floor, I instantly cried out, "Oh! the baby is on the floor" and, not knowing what to do, I seized the fire-shovel in my perplexity, and was trying to shovel up my tender charge, when my mistress called to me to let the child alone, and then ordered that I be taken out and lashed for my carelessness.

The blows were not administered with a light hand, I assure you, and doubtless the severity of the lashing has made me remember the incident so well. This was the first time I was punished in this cruel way, but not the last. The black-eyed baby that I called my pet grew into a self-willed girl, and in after years was the cause of much trouble to me.

I was my mother's only child, which made her love for me all the stronger. I did not know much of my father, for he was the slave of another man, and when Mr. Burwell moved from Dinwiddie he was separated from us, and only allowed to visit my mother twice a year-during the Easter holidays and Christmas. At last Mr. Burwell determined to reward my mother, by making an arrangement with the owner of my father, by which the separation of my parents could be brought to an end. It was a bright day, indeed, for my mother when it was announced that my father was coming to live with us. The old weary look faded from her face, and she worked as if her heart was in every task. But the golden days did not last long.

Slave quarters ca. 1860
[one morning] Mr. Burwell came to the cabin, with a letter in his hand. He was a kind master in some things, and as gently as possible informed my parents that they must part for in two hours my father must join his master at Dinwiddie, and go with him to the West, where he had determined to make his future home. I can remember the scene as if it were but yesterday - how my father cried out against the cruel separation his last kiss his wild straining of my mother to his bosom the solemn prayer to Heaven the tears and sobs - the fearful anguish of broken hearts. The last kiss, the last good-by and he, my father, was gone, gone forever.

My father and mother never met again in this world. They kept up a regular correspondence for years, and the most precious mementoes of my existence are the faded old letters that he wrote, full of love, and always hoping that the future would bring brighter days.

When I was about seven years old I witnessed, for the first time, the sale of a human being. We were living at Prince Edward, in Virginia, and master had just purchased his hogs for the winter, for which he was unable to pay in full. To escape from his embarrassment it was necessary to sell one of the slaves. Little Joe, the son of the cook, was selected as the victim. His mother was ordered to dress him up in his Sunday clothes, and send him to the house. He came in with a bright face, was placed in the scales, and was sold, like the hogs, at so much per pound. His mother was kept in ignorance of the transaction, but her suspicions were aroused.

When her son started for Petersburgh in the wagon, the truth began to dawn upon her mind, and she pleaded piteously that her boy should not be taken from her but master quieted her by telling her that he was simply going to town with the wagon, and would be back in the morning. Morning came, but little Joe did not return to his mother. Morning after morning passed, and the mother went down to the grave without ever seeing her child again.

'When I was quite a child, an incident occurred which my mother afterward impressed more strongly on my mind. One of my uncles, a slave of Colonel Burwell, lost a pair of plough-lines, and when the loss was made known, the master gave him a new pair, and told him that if he did not take care of them he would punish him severely. In a few weeks the second pair of lines was stolen, and my uncle hung himself rather than meet the displeasure of his master. My mother went to the spring in the morning for a pail of water, and on looking up into the willow tree which shaded the bubbling crystal stream, she discovered the lifeless form of her brother, suspended beneath one of the strong branches. Rather than be punished the way Colonel Burwell punished his servants, he tock his own life. Slavery had its dark side as well as its bright side."

Keckley, Elizabeth, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868, republished 1988).

In the early 1600s, more than a century after the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, [3] demand for unpaid labor to work plantations made slave-trading a profitable business. The peak time of slave ships to the Atlantic passage was between the 18th and early-19th centuries, when large plantations developed in the southern colonies of North America. [ citation needed ]

To ensure profitability, the owners of the ships divided their hulls into holds with little headroom, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy led to a high mortality rate, on average 15% [4] and up to a third of captives. Often the ships carried hundreds of slaves, who were chained tightly to plank beds. For example, the slave ship Henrietta Marie carried about 200 slaves on the long Middle Passage. They were confined to cargo holds with each slave chained with little room to move. [5]

The most significant routes of the slave ships led from the north-western and western coasts of Africa to South America and the south-east coast of what is today the United States, and the Caribbean. As many as 20 million Africans were transported by ship. [6] The transportation of slaves from Africa to America was known as the Middle Passage of the triangular trade.

Slaves Edit

The owners of slave ships held as many slaves as possible by cramming, chaining, and selectively grouping slaves to maximize space and make travel more profitable. Slaves on board were underfed and brutally treated, causing many to die before even arriving at their destination dead or dying slaves were dumped overboard. These people were not treated as human, living like animals throughout their long voyage to the New World. It took an average of one to two months to complete the journey. The slaves were naked and shackled together with several different types of chains, stored on the floor beneath bunks with little to no room to move due to the cramped conditions. Some captains would assign Slave Guardians to watch over and keep the other slaves in check. They spent a large portion of time pinned to floorboards which would wear skin on their elbows down to the bone. Firsthand accounts from former slaves, such as Olaudah Equiano, describe the horrific conditions that slaves were forced to endure. [7]

The Slave Trade Act 1788, also known as Dolben's Act, regulated conditions on board British slave ships for the first time since the slave trade started. It was introduced to the United Kingdom parliament by Sir William Dolben, an advocate for the abolition of slavery. For the first time, limits were placed on the number of slaves that could be carried. Under the terms of the act, ships could transport 1.67 slaves per ton up to a maximum of 207 tons burthen, after which only one slave per ton could be carried. [8] The well-known slave ship Brookes was limited to carrying 454 people it had previously transported as many as 609 enslaved. [1] Olaudah Equiano was among the supporters of the act but it was opposed by some abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce, who feared it would establish the idea that the slave trade simply needed reform and regulation, rather than complete abolition. [9] Slave counts can also be estimated by deck area rather than registered tonnage, which results in a lower number of errors and only 6% deviation from reported figures. [10]

This limited reduction in the overcrowding on slave ships may have reduced the on-board death rate, but this is disputed by some historians. [11]

Sailors and crew Edit

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the sailors on slave ships were often poorly paid and subject to brutal discipline and treatment. [12] Furthermore, a crew mortality rate of around 20% was expected during a voyage, with sailors dying as a result of disease, flogging or slave uprisings. [13] [14] While conditions for the crew were far better than those of the slaves, they remained harsh and contributed to a high death rate. Sailors often had to live and sleep without shelter on the open deck for the entirety of the Atlantic voyage as the space below deck was occupied by slaves. [12]

Disease, specifically malaria and yellow fever, was the most common cause of death among sailors. A high crew mortality rate on the return voyage was in the captain's interests as it reduced the number of sailors who had to be paid on reaching the home port. [14] Crew members who survived were frequently cheated out of their wages on their return. [12] These aspects of the slave trade were widely known the notoriety of slave ships amongst sailors meant those joining slave ship crews did so through coercion or because they could find no other employment. This was often the case for sailors who had spent time in prison. [15]

It is known that black sailors were among the crews of British slave ships. These men came from Africa or the Caribbean, or were British-born. Dozens of individuals have been identified by researchers from surviving records. However knowledge of this is incomplete as many captains did not record the ethnicity of crew members in their ship's muster roll. [16] African men (and occasionally African women) also served as translators. [17]

The African slave trade was outlawed by the United States and the United Kingdom in 1807. The 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire. The US law took effect on 1 January 1808. [18] After that date, all US and British slave ships leaving Africa were seen by the law as pirate vessels subject to capture by the United States Navy or Royal Navy. [19] In 1815, [20] at the Council of Vienna, Spain, Portugal, France, and the Netherlands also agreed to abolish their slave trade. The trade did not end on legal abolition between 1807 and 1860 British vessels captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 160,000 slaves. [21]

After abolition, slave ships adopted quicker, more maneuverable forms to evade capture by naval warships, one favorite form being the Baltimore Clipper. Some had hulls fitted with copper sheathing, which significantly increased speed by preventing the growth of marine weed on the hull, which would otherwise cause drag. [22] This was very expensive, and at the time was only commonly fitted to Royal Navy vessels. The speed of slave ships made them attractive ships to repurpose for piracy, [23] and also made them attractive for naval use after capture USS Nightingale and HMS Black Joke were examples of such vessels. HMS Black Joke had a notable career in Royal Navy service and was responsible for capturing a number of slave ships and freeing many hundreds of slaves.

There have been attempts by descendants of African slaves to sue Lloyd's of London for playing a key role in underwriting insurance policies taken out on slave ships bringing slaves from Africa to the Americas. [24]

Life Aboard a Slave Ship - Reading Comprehension / Informational Text

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This Reading Comprehension worksheet is suitable for beginner to proficient ESL learners. A summary of Markus Rediker’s book “The Slave Ship”, the text explores the history of the slave trade across the Middle Passage and the horrors pf life aboard a slave ship.

After carefully reading the text, students are required to complete some comprehension exercises including a True or False exercises, a definitions match, a multiple choice exercise and a fun crossword.

This worksheet can also be used for IGCSE, TOEFL vocabulary building purposes. The handout can be completed in class or assigned for homework. A full answer key is included.

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This Reading Comprehension worksheets bundle is suitable for upper intermediate to proficient ESL learners. The texts describe the origins of slavery in South America, the abolitionist and post-abolitionist movement as well as Martin Luther King's life and work. After carefully reading each text, students are required to complete some comprehension exercises including: questions, gap filling exercises, True or False, definitions matching exercises, word searches, classroom discussions and crosswords. The vocabulary used in the text is rather advanced and can also be used for IGCSE, TOEFL or IELTS vocabulary building purposes. The handout can be completed in class or assigned for homework.

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This bundle includes a number of Reading Comprehension handouts suitable for higher intermediate advanced ESL learners / native speakers. The texts explore human rights, equality, discrimination, oppression, exploitation and social injustice throughout history. After carefully reading each text, students are required to complete some comprehension exercises including: questions, True or False, gap filling exercises, crosswords, word search exercises, matching exercises and engage in in-depth classroom discussions on topics relevant to each text. The vocabulary used in the texts is rather advanced and can also be used for IGCSE, TOEFL or IELTS vocabulary building purpose

African Slave Ships Research Article from The Way People Live

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

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,

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&mdashseamen 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

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

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:

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,

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.

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.


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 story of the Zong slave ship: a mass murder masquerading as an insurance claim

I n August 1781, a British slave ship, the Zong, left Ghana with 442 slaves aboard – twice the number it was designed to carry – bound for Jamaica. The ship’s owners claimed that due to navigational errors, it took longer than anticipated to reach Jamaica, and as water was running low, the crew threw more than 130 live slaves overboard. The truth of what happened is disputed and evidence suggested that rain meant the ship had enough water.

As was common practice, the ship owners had taken out insurance for their “cargo” of enslaved people. When news of the massacre reached England, they made a claim for compensation. The insurers refused to pay and the ship owners took them to court.

The case demonstrates how the law facilitated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but also strengthened the campaign for abolition. It was, says James Walvin, author of the book The Zong, and professor emeritus of history at the University of York, “mass murder masquerading as an insurance claim”.

A jury heard the dispute, Gregson v Gilbert, at London’s Guildhall in March 1783, and ruled in favour of the ship owners. The insurers appealed, as solicitor Andrew Bicknell notes, not on the basis of common humanity, but because it occurred as a result of errors of navigation and mismanagement of the vessel, namely insufficient water onboard.

The case came before the lord chief justice, Lord Mansfield, who in a previous judgment had ruled that there was never a legal basis for slave ownership within England under English law. He decided there should be a retrial because of new evidence which suggested that the captain and crew had been at fault.

“It appears that no trial ever took place, so happily the owners didn’t receive their insurance payment, but perhaps a chance was lost by the court to put down a moral marker in relation to such a case,” says Bicknell.

While the facts of the Zong case were unusual, he says there would have been many claims under policies of cargo insurance for the loss of slaves during their transportation.

“It was standard practice for slavers to insure their cargo of slaves and had the Zong simply sunk in a storm with a similar loss of life, no such notoriety would have been attached to the case. Almost certainly, the insurance claim for the value of the lost slaves would have been paid,” he says. The only restriction was that deaths had to arise from “perils of the seas” and would not for example cover deaths through disease or insurrection.

Some academics have suggested that the West Indian trade in slaves plus slave-grown produce accounted for up to 40% of the cargo insurance premium in the London market of the late 18 th century.

The “hugely important” case, says Walvin, exposed the brutality of the trade, reducing African lives to chattels and mere items of trade or cargo that could be insured and claims made for their loss.

After the first trial, anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharpe attempted unsuccessfully to have the ship’s crew prosecuted for murder. Reports of the massacre increased momentum for the abolitionist movement.

“The Zong case lit the blue touch paper in England – it aroused abolitionist anger, and fed into the initial campaigns against the Atlantic slave trade,” says Walvin.

It wasn’t until 50 years later that the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery in most British colonies, and the League of Nations 1926 Slavery Convention sought global prohibition of slavery and the slave trade.

The UK introduced the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, which brought together previous law seeking to prevent and prosecute slavery, servitude, forced labour and human trafficking, as well as making big businesses accountable for slavery and labour abuses in their supply chain.

While international law has shifted from permitting and regulating slavery to denying and outlawing it, Katarina Schwarz, professor of antislavery law at the University of Nottingham, stresses that there is still a long way to go.

“Everyone assumes that slavery is illegal around the world, but almost half of all countries have no criminal offence of slavery and there are huge gaps in the laws, including in the UK, to combat slavery and protect and support survivors,” she says.

Random Facts About Hell On Water: Brutal Misery Of Life On Slave Ships (14 items)

The majority of captives were men - they were deemed better for labor - but women were enslaved, as well. On the slave ships, men and women were kept apart from one another. Women and girls were often not kept in chains like their male counterparts. And on some ships, the captain slept in a hammock over the girls.

But women would often be sexually brutalized by the crew. John Newton tells a story of one of his crewmen assaulting a pregnant woman aboard his ship:

William Cooney seduced a woman slave down into the room and lay with her brutelike in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons. l hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep them quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman I shall impute it to him, for she was big with child.

(#3) Captives Were Put Onto The Ships And Chained Below Deck

Once at the port city, slaves were marched onto ships and put below deck. Former slave Olaudah Equiano wrote about his experiences after being freed (he was active in the abolition movement in England in the 18th century) and described the confusion and shock he felt.

He wasn't sure if the white men were going to kill him or eat him. Once he was on board, he saw "a multitude of Black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow," and was so filled with fear that he fainted.

The chains used on the enslaved Africans would chafe and dig into their skin, making movement painful. With such a high death rate along the Middle Passage, many captives would find themselves fettered to corpses.

(#6) If Enslaved People Disobeyed Their Captors, They Were Flogged, Beaten, and Branded

The punishment for captives who didn't listen to the crew, tried to escape, didn't eat, or showed some sign of defiance usually included floggings. When he refused to eat, Equiano was punished by two men, "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."

According to another source, if slaves refused to participate in their daily exercises, "deemed necessary for the preservation of their health. if they go about it reluctantly or do not move with agility, they are flogged a person standing by them all the time with a cat-o'-nine-tails in his hands for the purpose." Branding and torture devices were also used to drive the enslaved people into submission.

When insurrections broke out - and there were many - slaves would also be met with fierce punishment. Many captives had nothing to lose, however, and would rise up against the crew only to face cannon fire, muskets, and more bloodshed.

(#5) Below Deck, The Odor From Feces, Urine, And Vomit Was Sickening

Olaudah Equiano described what met him when he went below deck:

I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me.

Slaves were sometimes taken above deck and bathed, weather permitting, but the periodic washings were no match for the brutal conditions.

(#12) Once Captives Arrived At Their Destination, They Were Taken To Market And Put On Display

After six to eight weeks aboard the ship - longer if weather was particularly poor - the enslaved people arrived at a port in the Americas and were marched onto land. Many Africans didn't know what would happen next. Equiano recounts:

We thought by this we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they appeared to us and, when soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread and trembling among us, and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from these apprehensions, insomuch that at last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much and sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages. We were conducted immediately to the merchant's yard, where we were all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age.

(#4) Ships Designed To Carry A Few Hundred People Transported As Many As 700

Slave ships were designed to carry hundreds of people, but were usually over-crowded in the interest of profit. The more slaves on a ship, the more money there was to be made. Captives were packed into the ship so tightly that they had no more than a few feet to move, sit, or sleep. Conditions were so cramped that those enslaved would not have been able to find a bucket to defecate or urinate in, thus forcing them to stay in their own waste.

The Brookes ship, later a key part of the argument against the slave trade, depicted how slaves were to be put below deck and carried on slave ships. Prior to the passage of the Regulation Act of 1788, the Brookes carried over 700 slaves. After the law was passed, regulations restricted the number of captives aboard to about 450.

About This Tool

In August 1619, a Dutch ship carried 20 black slaves to Jamestown, the first colonial stronghold in Britain, which was the earliest black slave trade. The slaves were sent to several tobacco plantations along the coast, and the long history of slavery began. In the modern history of humans, the slave trade was the most shameful and despicable page.

From the Senegal estuary to the Congo estuary, there are slave ships of European colonial countries moored one after another. The jet-black bow of the ship is like an open blood basin that is waiting to devour human flesh. The random tool will help us to know 14 facts about the brutal life on slave ships.

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Watch the video: Life aboard a slave ship


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