Slaves in the Middle Passage: Definition, Facts & Summary

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  • 0:01 The Slave Trade
  • 1:33 The Triangle Trade
  • 3:01 The Groans of the Dying
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
The Middle Passage, the second leg of the Triangle Trade of transatlantic slavery, was a horrific ordeal for the millions of Africans kidnapped from their home nations.

The Slave Trade

Imagine being taken from your home, placed on a ship, and sailed far away. Imagine no one you know (your friends, your family) having any idea of what happened to you. Imagine being trapped, unable to move, unable to escape, destined for a life of backbreaking labor and servitude. And the whole time, imagine no one ever telling you why.

Most Americans know that slavery in American history was a relatively unique institution (the 'peculiar institution,' it was often called). The reason why it was so 'peculiar' is that the importation of Africans into slavery had ended officially in 1808. That meant that the slave population of the U.S. was self-reproducing, which is another way of saying that if you were born to parents who were slaves, you were a slave until you died, escaped, or were set free.

This is not to say, however, that the slave trade ended in 1808. The only thing that ended was the legal importation of slaves. The slave trade had flourished since the middle of the 16th century, first with Portugal and then other European nations, especially Britain, France, and Spain. These nations would ship slaves to their Caribbean, South, and Central American colonies. From the mid-1500s until the middle of the 19th century, around 12 million Africans had been forced from their homes into slavery. Even though it was against the law for slaves to be brought into the U.S., it happened all the same.

The Triangle Trade

So, how did this work? It was a routine process known as the Triangle Trade. The first leg of the Triangle started as slave ships, loaded down with goods like iron, brandy, weapons, and gunpowder, sailed from Europe to the west coast of Africa. Here, they would trade for slaves. The second leg, the Middle Passage, was the shipment of these slaves to the New World colonies where they would be sold and go through a 'breaking-in' process of two to three years in plantation work in the Caribbean or Central or South America. The final leg of the journey was back to Europe, with goods produced in the Americas: sugar, cotton, tobacco, rum, and molasses. Slave ships could make three or four circuits of the Triangle per year.

On the first leg, slavers would trade for slaves primarily with coastal African tribal kings and chieftains. Many African societies at this time practiced their own forms of slavery. Unlike the 'peculiar' form practiced in the U.S., African slavery was generally a milder version of the institution. Slaves were often captives taken in war with neighboring tribes, or were people that owed debts and were working them off. In such cases as these, the offspring of enslaved Africans were not slaves. Still, these coastal tribes traded their captives for European goods, and the victims were forced into the worst, most brutal part of the Triangle Trade, the Middle Passage.

The Groans of the Dying

The horrible conditions of the Middle Passage are hard to overstate. Captive Africans were packed together in cargo areas with barely enough room to breathe, to the point that it was common for slaves to die from a lack of breathable air. Upon boarding the ships, slaves were regularly chained to their neighbors, left foot to right foot, on rough wooden floors. If the weather was good, the journey could take around six weeks, but if it wasn't favorable, this hellish journey could take much longer.

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