Life Aboard a Slave Ship | History

about 1525 to 1866, 12 and 1/2 million Africans
were taken from their homeland and forcibly shipped
across the Atlantic. A journey that almost 2 million
of them wouldn’t survive. By the turn of the 18th
century, European merchants were building vessels
capable of transporting hundreds of slaves per journey. These ships had extra
portholes for ventilation, weapons mounted on deck
in case of rebellion, and additional compartments
added below deck to take on more human cargo. Before boarding the ships
at African port cities, slaves were stripped
of their clothing and remaining
possessions and had their heads completely shaved. During boarding, which could
take weeks or even months, slaves lived on the
deck of the ship in a temporary wooden house
constructed by the crew. The crew also installed
netting around the deck of the ship
designed to catch slaves who might opt for
death over forced servitude. Once moved below deck, slaves
would find themselves stuffed into compartments
with ceilings as low as 4 and 1/2
feet, where they would spend most of their voyage. They were segregated
by gender and age. Adult men were kept separately
and shackled in pairs, women usually left unbound in
their designated compartment, and children often free
to move about the ship. There was no
plumbing of any kind. Slaves were forced to relieve
themselves where they sat, creating hellish conditions when
combined with the heat and lack of ventilation below deck. Disease was rampant. Measles, smallpox, influenza,
scurvy, and dysentery, the number one killer, ravaged
slaves and crew members alike. The slaves generally spent about
eight hours a day above deck, but were still separated
by gender with a barricado, a reinforced wall that could
be used to protect crew members in case of a revolt.
Slaves were also subject to forced
exercise, sometimes including dance and song for
the entertainment of the crew. Disobedient slaves were tortured
and beaten, usually whipped with the especially cruel cat
of nine tails, a tool designed to inflict maximum pain. Slaves who refused to eat their
typical meal of rice and beans were forced to do so,
sometimes with a speculum oris, a medieval tool used
to pry open unwilling mouths. Women, while usually
left unshackled, were raped and sexually
abused by members of the crew, sometimes arriving in the new
world carrying the children of their attackers. But it was the women using
their minuscule freedoms who would often coordinate
mutinies against their captors. But these rebellions
were rarely successful. The true extent of the
horrors of the Middle Passage came to light in a 1783 court
trial over the slave ship Zong. The Zong left Africa in 1781
with 442 enslaved on board. After a two month journey
riddled with navigation errors, 62 slaves and seven crew members
had perished without reaching their destination. Disease was spreading
throughout the ship, and fresh water was
running dangerously low. Captain Luke Collingwood was
afraid of the financial costs of more deaths. Slaves that died
of disease were not covered by the ship’s insurance,
but slaves who drowned were. Some 133 slaves were
thrown overboard. Collingwood claimed it
was necessary to do so to halt the spread of disease. At the trial between
the Zong’s owners and their insurance
company, the owners argued that because it was
legal to kill sick animals for the health of a ship,
it was legal to treat infected slaves the same. The court agreed. But the trial itself exposed
the horrors aboard the Zong. The story was republished
by British abolitionists with the name of
the ship redacted, meant to show that this tragedy
could happen on any slave ship across the Middle Passage. 24 years after the Zong
trial, the slave trade was outlawed in both Great
Britain and the United States. It would take England another
26 years and the US another 58, plus a civil war, before
the practice of slavery was banned outright.

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