Why the Middle Passage?

Many people have questioned the Middle Passage as the focal point of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP). Why choose this as a defining point of history related to Africans and their descendants? We are often asked why not start in Africa? There are three reasons:

  • All people who were captives from the African Continent had to endure the Middle Passage to arrive in Europe or the Americas, no matter from where they came and no matter who shipped them. The Middle Passage was a common shared experience. For all, this was a forced migration, not one made by choice or opportunity.
  • Africans from every geographic region and ethnicity shared in this history from the 15th through the 19th Centuries.
  • All those who survived the Middle Passage contributed to the economic, cultural, social, religious, and linguistic development of each place where they landed.

Those three principles provide the rationale for framing our effort with the Middle Passage. It is not an arbitrary selection.

Because of the horrors associated with the transatlantic voyage, 18th and 19th Century abolitionists used it as a means to garner popular support for their movement. Concentrating more on ship conditions during transport, many people (other than the captives) did not consider emancipation, only stopping the ocean journey. Surprisingly, people have even challenged the unique history of the Middle Passage by stating that all transatlantic voyages were rough and unpleasant. We include here Professor David Eltis’ statement to reinforce the reality that only captive people, most of whom were Africans with a few European and Native American exceptions, experienced the Middle Passage resulting in their enslavement.


                                              Middle Passage – Professor David Eltis                                                            (Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Data Base)

Whatever the route taken, conditions on board reflected the outsider status of those held below deck. No European, whether convict, indentured servant, or destitute free migrant, was ever subjected to the environment which greeted the typical African slave upon embarkation. The sexes were separated, kept naked, packed close together, and the men were chained for long periods. No less than 26 percent of those on board were classed as children, a ratio that no other pre-twentieth century migration could come close to matching. Except for the illegal period of the trade when conditions at times became worse, slave traders typically packed two slaves per ton. While a few voyages sailing from Upper Guinea could make a passage to the Americas in three weeks, the average duration from all regions of Africa was just over two months. Most of the space on a slave ship was absorbed by casks of water. Crowded vessels sailing to the Caribbean from West Africa first had to sail south before turning north-west and passing through the doldrums. In the 19th century, improvements in sailing technology eventually cut the time in half, but mortality remained high in this period because of the illegal nature of the business. Throughout the slave trade era, filthy conditions ensured endemic gastro-intestinal diseases, and a range of epidemic pathogens that, together with periodic breakouts of violent resistance, meant that between 12 and 13 percent of those embarked did not survive the voyage. Modal mortality fell well below the mean mortality as catastrophes on a relatively few voyages drove up average shipboard deaths. Crew mortality as a percentage of those going on board, matched slave mortality over the course of the voyage, but as slaves were there for a shorter period of time than the crew, mortality rates for slaves (over time) were the more severe. The eighteenth century world was violent and life expectancy was short everywhere given that the global mortality revolution was still over the horizon, but the human misery quotient generated by the forced movement of millions of people in slave ships cannot have been matched by any other human activity.

David Eltis is Professor of History at Emory University co-author of Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, and Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project Honorary Board member

The next point related to the Middle Passage is that it was designed to deliver people for enslavement. Its purpose was to insure that these captive people and their progeny would forever be “servants for life.” Here again there have been challenges to this because the systems of enslavement varied. Under the Spanish and Portuguese, in stark contrast to the British and others, enslaved people had an opportunity – if they were able and fortunate – to purchase or earn freedom for themselves and family members. That may be true, but it still is slavery – the loss of freedom. The granting of rights and privileges was not based upon the enslaved person, but the master/owner’s rights, privileges, and intention -whether Spanish, Dutch, British, or French. Forced free labor, was the basis for enslavement in order to provide and maintain wealth for another.

By marking Middle Passage arrival sites throughout the Americas, MPCPMP enables the descendants of captive Africans to have a beginning place in their personal history. For the greater community it highlights time periods and local history related to Black people. Without this construct slavery will always be associated exclusively with shame and guilt, never allowing for healing.

As we prepare for the annual Black history Month commemorations and activities, we should understand that it is a vehicle and opportunity, as is the Middle Passage, to expand awareness of the role that captive Africans and their descendants had in creating today’s world.

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