Slave Ships


The slave ship was the means by which nearly 12.5 million enslaved Africans were transported from Africa to the Americas between 1500 and 1866 as part of the transatlantic slave trade. Slave ships ranged in size from the ten-ton Hesketh, which could carry a crew plus thirty captive Africans, to the 566-ton Parr, which carried a crew of 100 and could hold a cargo of as many as 700 enslaved people. The lower deck of a slave ship was divided into separate compartments for men and women, with the men shackled together in pairs and the women left unchained but confined below. The conditions were appalling, with hundreds of people crowded together with little airflow and even less sanitation. Captive Africans suffered from diseases such as dysentery and smallpox, depression and outright despair, the cruelty of captain and crew, and sexual exploitation. As a result, mortality rates averaged above 20 percent for captive Africans in the first decades of the slave trade and about 10 percent by 1800. The possibility of mutiny or revolt resulted in a heavy hand with discipline. Crew and captive cargo were routinely whipped and more extreme forms of violence, including thumbscrews, were used to discipline the Africans. Despite this, Africans did resist. Some committed suicide by jumping overboard or refused to eat, while others organized insurrections, although due to the overwhelming weaponry brought to bear by the crew, few attempts at revolt succeeded.



Tobacco Wrapper

Between 1500 and 1866, 12.5 million enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas, about 1.8 million of whom died on the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1672, the Royal African Company received a monopoly over deliveries of captives to the English Caribbean islands of Barbados and Jamaica. Before outfitting its own ships, the company hired vessels at a rate of £5 to £6 per slave delivered alive to America. The captains of these ships sailed first to Africa, where they sold goods—textiles, metals, decorative items, and guns—for enslaved Africans, who were picked up either directly from African dealers or from coastal forts built by the company to hold already purchased slaves. This human cargo, which usually numbered several hundred people per vessel, was then taken to America on the Middle Passage, suffering mortalities of about 15 percent. A few ships came directly to Virginia, while most sold their choicest cargo at higher-volume ports in Jamaica or South Carolina, delivering unsold “remainder” slaves to the the Chesapeake Bay region. An estimated 140,000 enslaved captives dismbarked in the Chesapeake region, initially to work in the tobacco fields. In 1698, the Royal African Company lost its monopoly and soon was eclipsed by private British and American merchants. Those based in Bristol and London dominated the Virginia trade until the 1730s, when the London merchants were overtaken by others based in Liverpool. Nearly two-thirds of the Atlantic slave trade took place between 1698 and British abolition in 1807–1808.

A Chain of Slaves travelling from the Interior.

The Ships and Their Voyages

The Slave Deck of the Bark "Wildfire

Slave ships ranged in size from the ten-ton Hesketh, which sailed out of Liverpool and delivered ensalved captives to Saint Kitts in 1761, to the 566-ton Parr, another Liverpool ship that sailed in the 1790s. Ships comparable in size to the Hesketh were designed to carry as few as six pleasure passengers; refitted as a slaver, the Hesketh transported a crew plus thirty Africans. The Parr, on the other hand, carried a crew of 100 and a cargo of as many as 700 enslaved people. Most ships—nicknamed Guineamen, after the Gulf of Guinea on the west coast of Africa—were sized somewhere in between, growing in tonnage over time as the Atlantic trade itself grew. American traders preferred somewhat smaller ships than their British counterparts: two-masted sloops (25 to 75 tons) and schooners (30 to 150 tons) required smaller crews and shorter stays on the African coast, where tropical diseases were a constant threat to crew and cargo alike.

At first, merchants adapted general merchant vessels for the slave trade. Later they built ships to the trade’s particular specifications, which included portholes for better airflow to the lower decks and copper-sheathed hulls to combat the wood rot and boring worms found in tropical waters. Sometimes ships were modified to increase the space between decks, although a typical 140-ton Guineaman might have had only four and a half feet between the lower deck’s floor and ceiling, which would have precluded many of the Africans confined there from standing. The lower deck generally was divided into separate compartments for men and women, with the men shackled together in pairs. Most women were left unchained but confined below, while children had the run of the ship. African men and women used the children as means to communicate with one another and, in some cases, to plan insurrection.

A wooden grating separated the men’s quarters from the main deck and was designed, along with the portholes, to facilitate airflow through the lower deck. Even so, with the captives crowded together, unsanitary conditions, and oppressive heat, one observer described the area below decks as “most impure and stifling.” The anonymous author of Liverpool and Slavery: An Historical Account of the Liverpool-African Slave Trade by a Genuine “Dicky Sam” (1884) cited a trader who “stated that after remaining ten minutes in the hold, his shirt was as wet as if it had been in a bucket of water.” “So close and foul was the stench,” the writer said, that some enslaved Africans “have been known to be put down the hold strong and healthy at night; and have been dead in the morning.” In addition to seasickness, the captives suffered from dysentery and outbreaks of smallpox in the crowded conditions. Mortality rates among captives averaged above 20 percent in the first decades of the slave trade and about 10 percent by 1800.

The captain and his officers enjoyed personal cabin space, usually below the raised quarterdeck at the stern of the ships, while common sailors slept on the main deck, sometimes under cover of a tarpaulin or in the longboat. Also on the main deck, and built especially for the slave ship, was a ten-foot-tall wooden barricade that bisected the deck at the main mast and extended about two feet beyond the ship’s sides. This barricado separated the African men from the women, and in case of insurrection, the crew retreated to the women’s side and used the barricado as a defensive fortification. Captain William Snelgrave, in A new account of some parts of Guinea, and the slave-trade (1734), described how a group of African men “endeavoured to force the Barricado on the Quarter-Deck, not regarding the Musquets or Half Pikes, that were presented to their Breasts by the white Men, through the Loop-holes.” Slave ships were well armed in case of insurrection or attack by pirates. According to an officer on the 140-ton Diligent, which sailed out of France in 1731, the ship carried “eight four-pound cannons, fifty-five muskets, eighteen pistols, twenty swords, and two swivel guns, all in excellent condition.”

While the ships were still off the coast of Africa—accumulating cargoes could take from a few weeks to several months—the crew built a “house”: a bamboo enclosure on the main deck designed to secure Africans prior to leaving the coast. The sailor James Field Stanfield, in Observations on a Guinea voyage (1788), labeled the business of constructing the house “destructive” and “fatal” to the crew because harvesting the bamboo forced crew members to be “immersed up to the waist in mud and slime; pestered by snakes, worms, and venomous reptiles; [and] tormented by muskitoes, and a thousand assailing insects,” all the while being whipped and otherwise prodded by “their relentless officers.”

Once the ship was ready to begin the Middle Passage, the crew removed the house and hung netting from the sides of the ship. This was designed to catch anyone who tried to escape by jumping overboard. (Although many enslaved Africans committed suicide in this way, so did some crew members, who were also tormented by disease, low-quality food, and the officers’ whips.) In the warm waters, sharks often followed the ships, feeding off the bodies of the dead thrown overboard. “When dead Slaves are thrown over-board,” the Dutch merchant William Bosman wrote in A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea (1705), “I have sometimes, not without horrour, seen the dismal Rapaciousness of these Animals; four or five of them together shoot to the bottom under the Ship to tear the dead Corps to pieces, at each bite an Arm, a Leg, or the Head is snapt off; and before you can tell twenty have sometimes divided the Body amongst them so nicely that not the least Particle is left.”

Captains and Crews

The Abolition of the Slave Trade. Or the Inhumanity of Dealers in human flesh exemplified in Captn. Kimber's treatment of a Young Negro Girl of 15 for her Virjen Modesty

The captain of a slave ship was an employee of a merchant or company in Europe or the Americas. He hired and managed the crew; outfitted the ship; sold its cargo for humans on the coast of Africa; enforced a harsh discipline on crew members and Africans alike on the Middle Passage; worked to prevent mutiny, insurrection, and sickness; and sold the slaves in America for the best possible price. The “crux of the whole enterprise” was discipline, according to the historian Marcus Rediker. Maintaining order was critical in keeping an often-desperate crew in line, and the routine violence employed by the captain and his officers trickled down the ranks, as the author of Liverpool and Slavery pointed out: “The captain bullies the men, the men torture the slaves, the slaves’ hearts are breaking with despair.”

Rebellion or mutiny could spread like a virus, and many captains attempted to snuff out resistance by terrorizing the accused (either crew members or Africans) in full view of their fellows. This most often involved either a cat-o’-nine-tails (a whip of nine knotted cords attached to a handle) and full horsewhips or, for Africans, thumbscrews. Still, too much violence, employed routinely, might spark mutiny, insurrection, or suicide, making it the captain’s job to strike the right balance. Merchants often put in writing that their captains should refrain from mistreating the African cargo, but few held their employees to account. Fewer still were captains who, like John Newton, experienced a humane—in his case religious—awakening and attempted to treat their slaves well. More common was the sort of captain described by James Field Stanfield: as his ship approached Africa, Stanfield wrote, “the Demon cruelty seems to fix his residence within him.”

Crew members were often the direct recipients of the cruelty. Frequently forced into shipboard service because of debts or run-ins with the law, sailors performed the backbreaking and often violent work of the slave ship, which included building the “house” and barricado, cooking and dispensing food, scrubbing the decks and the often feces-covered hold where the slaves were kept, and policing the captive Africans. They also were the victims of their officers’ whips and suffered from the same diseases that ravaged the Africans, including dysentery, the leading cause of death, as well as diseases prevalent along the African coast, such as malaria and yellow fever. The mortality rate among sailors, according to one survey taken between 1784 and 1790, was higher than 20 percent. In fact, according to Rediker, half of all European seamen who journeyed to West Africa in the eighteenth century died within a year.

Crews still managed to inflict more than their share of suffering on Africans in the form of physicial violence and sexual exploitation. An extreme example occurred aboard the slave ship Zong in 1781. Over several days, the crew—at the urging of the captain—bound and threw overboard 122 living Africans. This was done apparently because the captain feared an outbreak of disease, and the ship’s owners were liable for all disease-related deaths. The ship’s insurance company, however, would cover unnatural deaths—from punishment, insurrection, or, in this instance, being thrown alive into the sea. In addition to the 122 captives thrown overboard, ten more committed suicide and sixty succumbed to disease, reducing the ship’s human cargo from 470 to 278.

Captive Africans

Life in Seventeenth-Century Africa

The men and women exposed to the brutalities of the Middle Passage came from up and down the west coast of Africa—from Senegambia in the north and west to the so-called Slave Coast of present-day Benin and western Nigeria to West-Central Africa. They came from increasingly farther inland as the trade grew and transformed the people of the continent from farmers to raiders, traders, and refugees. They tended to be prisoners of war, petty criminals, or common people kidnapped by African traders. (European powers often encouraged or waged war for no other reason than to produce prisoners.) Their religions varied—many Africans, especially in Angola, were exposed to Christianity through Portuguese missionaries. Their languages also varied, but, especially among Africans of the same region, were often mutually intelligible. Although captains worried about chaining men of shared backgrounds together, lest they know how to speak to one another and plot insurrection, they also feared chaining together men who could not speak to one another, lest their inability to communicate in their shared distress lead to quarrels and injuries.

Discipline Aboard Slave Ships

The two-person leg irons chafed, causing pain and making any movement difficult, especially when one party needed to use the “necessary bucket.” Some captains used both wrist manacles and leg shackles, others just one or the other. Some captains even declined to restrain certain ethnic groups that had proven over time unlikely to rise in revolt. After sixteen hours in the hold, all Africans were herded onto the main deck for about eight hours each day, weather permitting. There they were fed twice and forced, as a form of exercise, to “dance” and sometimes sing, although almost any movement was painful for those in manacles and shackles.

Africans on the slave ships lived in terror. Many of them had been separated from their friends, families, and communities when first captured, and then separated again aboard ship. They were the victims of often-terrible punishments and sexual exploitation, and many believed that the white men planned to kill and eat them. (Their misapprehension of European cannibalism was actually encouraged by some African elites who manipulated their people with the fear of enslavement.) Africans did resist, however. Some committed suicide by jumping overboard, while others refused to eat. The latter were fed with the help of the speculum oris, a scissors-shaped instrument that, with the help of a thumbscrew, forced the jaws open. Officers often treated hunger strikers with special ruthlessness because such acts of resistance were prone to spread.

Joseph Cinquez

Enslaved captives revolted nonetheless. They planned their actions carefully, using a variety of means to communicate. The risk of discovery was great so the groups of conspirators were often kept small, with the hope that others would join spontaneously when the time came. Physical separation hindered communication between males and females, and tensions between ethnic groups also caused problems. In carrying out an insurrection, many African men benefited from previous experience in the military and, in some cases, with European firearms. Occasionally slaves were able to survive the weaponry arrayed against them and take control of the ship, as they did aboard the Clare in 1729. In other instances, an insurrection resulted in the deaths of nearly everyone aboard—captives and crew—such as what happened on the “ghost ship” discovered in the Atlantic in 1785. Although several hundred uprisings are known from the records of slave ships, insurrections usually failed and resulted in a large loss of African life and gruesome punishments.

The Africans who survived to arrive in Virginia were cleaned, greased with palm oil to improve their appearance, and prepared for sale, which took place either aboard ship (in what was called a “scramble”) or at a market on shore. Here those who had bonded over the length of the Middle Passage—through terror, sickness, and resistance—were separated again. Having been known to their custodians on the ship just as numbers, they now were given English names. And, as Rediker has noted, if they boarded the ship as Igbo, Fante, or Ndongo, they left it enslaved and Black.

  • Anonymous. Liverpool and Slavery: An Historical Account of the Liverpool-African Slave Trade by a Genuine “Dicky Sam.” Liverpool, England: A. Bowker and Son, 1884.
  • Eltis, David and David Richardson. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Harms, Robert. The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
  • Heywood, Linda M. and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1600. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Miller, Joseph C. Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730­–1830. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
  • Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
  • Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Snelgrave, William. A new account of some parts of Guinea, and the slave-trade. London, England: James, John, and Paul Knapton, 1734.
  • Stanfield, James Field. Observations on a Guinea voyage. In a series of letters addressed to the Rev. Thomas Clarkson. By James Field Stanfield. Late a Mariner in the African Slave Trade. London, England: James Phillips, 1788.
  • Stanfield, James Field. The guinea voyage. A poem. In three books. By James Field Stanfield. London, England: James Phillips, 1789.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Slave Ships. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/slave-ships-and-the-middle-passage.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Slave Ships" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 May. 2024
Last updated: 2023, September 18
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