The Middle Passage

John Newton, from Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade

Most accounts of the Atlantic crossing or Middle Passage are written by ship's officers or traders, who describe the business of transporting and managing slaves and who often congratulate themselves on the decent treatment of their own African cargo. But the point of view of the cargo must have been different. Most slaves had not seen a ship or a white man before, nor did they have any idea where they were going. They feared the worst; and the voyage often confirmed their fears. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789) shocked its readers by showing the Middle Passage through the eyes of someone who had survived it (see NAEL 8, 1.2851). Like John Newton's protest against slavery (1788), it was published when a bill for abolishing the slave trade was pending in Parliament. The bill was defeated, but passed in 1807.

John Newton (1725–1807) captained two Liverpool slave ships in his twenties and kept detailed logs of his voyages. "During the time I was engaged in the slave trade," he later wrote, "I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness. . . . It is, indeed, accounted a genteel employment and is usually very profitable." But later he became an Evangelical minister and looked back at his early life with horror. "I once was lost, but now am found," he wrote in his great hymn "Amazing Grace." In addition to powerful abolitionist preaching, Newton helped change attitudes toward slavery with an influential account of the Middle Passage, based on his personal experience.


With our ships, the great object is, to be full. When the ship is there, it is thought desirable she should take as many as possible. The cargo of a vessel of a hundred tons, or little more, is calculated to purchase from two hundred and twenty to two hundred and fifty slaves. Their lodging-rooms below the deck, which are three (for the men, the boys, and the women), besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle, for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close that the shelf would not, easily, contain one more. And I have known a white man sent down, among the men, to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost.

Let it be observed, that the poor creatures, thus cramped for want of room, are likewise in irons, for the most part both hands and feet, and two together, which makes it difficult for them to turn or move, to attempt either to rise or to lie down, without hurting themselves, or each other. Nor is the motion of the ship, especially her heeling, or stoop on one side, when under sail, to be omitted; for this, as they lie athwart, or cross the ship, adds to the uncomfortableness of their lodging, especially to those who lie on the leeward or leaning side of the vessel.

Dire is the tossing, deep the groans. —

[Click on image to enlarge] The heat and smell of these rooms, when the weather will not admit of the slaves being brought upon deck, and of having their rooms cleaned every day, would be almost insupportable to a person not accustomed to them. If the slaves and their rooms can be constantly aired, and they are not detained too long on board, perhaps there are not many who die; but the contrary is often their lot. They are kept down, by the weather, to breathe a hot and corrupted air, sometimes for a week: this added to the galling of their irons, and the despondency which seizes their spirits when thus confined, soon becomes fatal. And every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found, of the living and the dead, like the captives of Mezentius, >> note 1 fastened together.

Epidemical fevers and fluxes, which fill the ship with noisome and noxious effluvia, often break out, and infect the seamen likewise, and thus the oppressors, and the oppressed, fall by the same stroke. I believe, nearly one-half of the slaves on board, have, sometimes, died; and that the loss of a third part, in these circumstances, is not unusual. The ship, in which I was mate, left the coast with two hundred and eighteen slaves on board; and though we were not much affected by epidemical disorders, I find by my journal of that voyage (now before me), that we buried sixty-two on our passage to South Carolina, exclusive of those which died before we left the coast, of which I have no account.

[Click on image to enlarge] I believe, upon an average between the more healthy, and the more sickly voyages, and including all contingencies, one fourth of the whole purchase may be allotted to the article of mortality: that is, if the English ships purchase sixty thousand slaves annually, upon the whole extent of the coast, the annual loss of lives cannot be much less than fifteen thousand.

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