The Middle Passage to American Slavery Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the British North American colonies, slavery arrived late, and then only after a significant transitional period, during which chattel slavery gradually supplanted the system of indentured servitude that had supplied the main source for manual plantation labor. By 1700, chattel slavery had become legally institutionalized throughout British North America, but it flourished primarily in the Chesapeake region and the Carolina Low Country.

Summary of Event

The Middle Passage long predated the year 1619, which is traditionally denoted as the occasion of the arrival of the first African slaves in the British North American colonies. In point of fact, the two phenomena—the Middle Passage and chattel slavery—would never truly coincide until much later, though by the end of the seventeenth century, chattel slavery would indeed be established as the pattern for British North America. [kw]Middle Passage to American Slavery, The (1619-c. 1700) [kw]Slavery, The Middle Passage to American (1619-c. 1700) [kw]American Slavery, The Middle Passage to (1619-c. 1700) Social issues and reform;1619-c. 1700: The Middle Passage to American Slavery [0810] Trade and commerce;1619-c. 1700: The Middle Passage to American Slavery [0810] Economics;1619-c. 1700: The Middle Passage to American Slavery [0810] Agriculture;1619-c. 1700: The Middle Passage to American Slavery [0810] Colonization;1619-c. 1700: The Middle Passage to American Slavery [0810] Africa;1619-c. 1700: The Middle Passage to American Slavery [0810] American Colonies;1619-c. 1700: The Middle Passage to American Slavery [0810] North America;slavery Slavery;North America Middle Passage

The Middle Passage may be defined as the second “leg” of the Atlantic world’s Triangular Trade which, briefly stated, consisted of European articles being shipped to and exchanged for African trade items, including slaves; African items (mainly slaves) being transported across the Atlantic to the New World; and American-produced or refined items, such as rum, tobacco, and molasses, then being carried back to Europe and sold. This is, of course, a more simplified overview of an extremely complex process, but slavery became such an integral part of the transatlantic socioeconomic system and so affected the movement of so many millions of people that it has become synonymous with the term Middle Passage. Trade;slaves

As it developed from the time of initial contact between West Africans and Portuguese mariners around the late fifteenth century, the Middle Passage began with the actual capture of individuals within Africa itself and their immediate transformation into marketable chattel labor. Though some Africans (mainly those who dwelled closest to the coast) were kidnapped by Europeans, many were taken by other Africans, either as the traditional spoils of warfare between tribal and national units or as captives to be transported to the trading posts and fortresses on the coast and sold to Europeans. It was in the course of the actual abduction, and the often long, always arduous trek to the coast, that the first fatalities (some sources assert as many as half the numbers involved) occurred. Some died resisting or were killed attempting to escape; others might be chained together and forced to march—some were even strapped to poles and carried along—and these latter captives might succumb to the beatings they received to keep them moving or to the exhaustion of the forced march itself.

African captives were often held in coastal stockades for days or weeks, forced to wait for the next slave ship to take them to the New World.

(Library of Congress)

Once on the coast, some captives were sold right then and there to be immediately loaded into waiting slave ships, although it was more often the case that European-controlled redoubts would open their gates and the slaves would be hustled into semi-underground prisons to await loading and transport aboard the next available ship. The cannons of these fortresses were invariably pointed seaward so as to provide defense from other Europeans rather than to counter any threat from the Africans—which was considered negligible.

To avoid disputes over ownership at busy ports where several slave ships might be harbored at the same time, all simultaneously loading their human cargo, slaves were branded with hot irons, receiving the mark of their ship’s captain or of the company that owned the sailing vessel. The slaves were then placed below deck, in holds where they were chained lying on their backs to the planks. In order to increase their profits, some ship captains advocated “tight” packing, that is, cramming as many individuals in as small a space as possible so as to assure that, by sheer weight of numbers, more Africans would complete the journey alive. Those who favored “loose” packing, for their part, argued that a higher survival rate would exist when the captives were placed into less cramped and, theoretically, less unhealthy conditions.

With at most five feet from floor to ceiling, minimal lighting, stagnant air, and very basic, haphazard facilities for the disposal of human waste, the slave ships were prime for the spread of diseases on these voyages. Many captives died from dysentery, smallpox, scurvy, measles, malaria, yellow fever, suicide, and in slave mutinies, which were occasionally successful. The diet was usually minimal and most often consisted of water served with yams or rice. With lack of sanitation, whippings, and malnutrition, and despite the captives being occasionally taken on deck for air and forced to do “exercises,” the death rates on the Middle Passage were high. Anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of the captives perished en route. Bodies were tossed overboard, and it became the norm for a slave ship to be so identified on the high seas by the sighting of scavenging sharks following in its wake.

The actual numbers involved have always been a source of controversy from the moment that W. E. B. Du Bois put forward a figure of fifteen million individuals who were transported to the Americas (this did not account for fatalities along the way). Though initially the tendency was to reduce this figure, the estimate began to increase over the course of the late twentieth century. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, commonly accepted estimates ranged between twenty million and thirty million people transported from Africa to the Americas. Basil Davidson has speculated that the Middle Passage cost Africa fifty million people, including fatalities en route. With smooth sailing, the Atlantic crossing might take less than a month, though it might also last sixty to ninety days. Those who survived would be disembarked and auctioned to the highest bidder in the New World.

In 1619, when the first “twenty and odd” Africans were recorded to have been sold in Virginia, and for years thereafter, chattel slavery as practiced in the Iberian-settled colonies was not established in the British colonies. Initially, the Africans brought to these colonies were indentured servants, on a par with white indentured servants and with at least the nominal, legal right to freedom when their terms of indenture(the “contract periods” during which they were required to labor under the direction of their masters) expired. Indentured servitude The “contract period” generally lasted seven years. Most of these indentured Africans had been purchased under these terms from a Dutch ship by then-governor of Virginia Sir George Yeardley Yeardley, Sir George and some of his associates. The best known of these African servants, Anthony Johnson, Johnson, Anthony who was originally documented in 1625 as “Antonio, a Negro,” had arrived in Virginia in 1621, and, having served his indenture, had by 1651 acquired a 250-acre (100-hectare) farmstead on the Eastern Shore of Virginia at the Pungoteague River. Virginia;slavery

Even during Johnson’s lifetime, however, attitudes were shifting toward discontinuing the indentured labor system and supplanting it with chattel slavery based on race. In 1640, John Punch, Punch, John the only black man among three indentured servants who had attempted to escape from their master, was sentenced to servitude for life by the court at Jamestown, while his two white accomplices received lesser sentences. Indentured servitude could provide only a temporary, increasingly restive and unreliable, source of labor, while chattel slavery placed at the plantation owner’s beck and call a racially and legally distinct population that could be more readily controlled. Indentured servitude

During the course of the seventeenth century, nine colonies endorsed and codified slavery into law, Massachusetts (1641), Connecticut (1650), Virginia (1661), Maryland (1663), New York (1664), New Jersey (1664), South Carolina (1682), Pennsylvania (1700), and Rhode Island (1700). Antimiscegenation laws were also enacted by most colonies, and a Virginia statute of 1669 dictated that henceforth a master might under certain circumstances hold the power of life or death over his slaves. During the last quarter of the century, large numbers of Africans were imported via the Middle Passage into the colonies, particularly into the South Carolina Low Country South Carolina Low Country , where in 1671 the future Carolina governor Sir John Yeamans Yeamans, Sir John established a plantation into which he introduced African slaves. Plantation system;North America





Except for certain rare instances, newly arrived slaves were displayed for auction, inspected, and sold after bidding. They were then taken to wherever they were to dwell and work. Conditions and circumstances varied from master to master and from region to region. In the two main areas of southern colonization, the Chesapeake and the South Carolina Low Country, slaves were engaged almost exclusively in the plantation economy, mainly in tobacco or rice and indigo, respectively. For the “field slaves,” who were certainly in the majority, housing was provided but in simple wooden structures with beaten-earth floors, and work went on from morning to dark (if the moon were shining, it was not unheard of to labor well into the night). Clothing was rough, practical, and basic; shoes might be distributed once a year, if at all.

The “house slaves,” who had the fortune of living near the plantation house and usually working indoors, sheltered from the elements, were nevertheless subject to constant supervision by the master and his family. Life as a slave, then and later, was a life punctuated by constant labor, tight restriction, and the ever-present possibility of physical and emotional abuse. Attempts to achieve literacy were certainly discouraged and in many instances subject to severe, exemplary punishment. While its application varied from master to master, use of the whip, either to punish offenses or to discourage slacking on the job, was standard procedure.

Though pains were usually taken to see that not too many Africans from the same nation were placed together on the same plantation (the rationale was that a common language would make it easier for them to plot revolts and escapes), the influx of slaves was so massive and sudden in Carolina that this proved an impossible goal, and it was there that African cultural remnants (language such as Gullah, steep-roofed structures for slave quarters, foodways, music) endured most tenaciously. The fact that the African population of the Carolina Low Country was so culturally integrated within itself and far outnumbered the white population led of necessity to a much stricter and more oppressive system there than in the Chesapeake region. Everywhere, however, the threat of slave uprisings and the presence of African or African-Native American (so-called maroon) communities, formed by escaped slaves and existing in remote areas, were facts of life in the South that lasted into the years of the American Civil War (1861-1865).


The Middle Passage was a crucial part of the greatest mass movement of humanity in history, the molding of the Atlantic world. The displacement of millions of African people depleted that continent of much of its human resources and made possible its later vulnerability to colonial domination and “underdevelopment.” On the other side of the Atlantic, the institutionalized slave trade arguably determined the course of history in the Americas. Certainly, without the labor supplied by enslaved Africans, the southern North American, Caribbean, and Latin American plantation system could not have existed as it did, and the economic development and subsequent history of the Americas would have been much altered. However, the legacy and issues of racism and exploitation that the trade in human bondage brought in its wake have not been resolved to this day.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craven, Wesley Frank. White, Red, and Black: The Seventeenth Century Virginian. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Describes the advantages and limits of the extant sources and tries to formulate statistical data on what is available regarding race relations in seventeenth century Virginia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Basil. The African Slave Trade: Precolonial History, 1450-1850. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. Focuses on the effects of the slave trade on Africa itself and concludes that the population losses made African states all the more vulnerable to nineteenth century imperial conquest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, David Brion. Slavery in the Colonial Chesapeake. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986. Basic account of the actual, ground-level operation of chattel slavery in the Tidewater Virginia region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eltis, David, Stephen Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Provides documentation for more than twenty-seven thousand slaving voyages between 1519 and 1867, including names of ships, captains, tonnages, fatalities, destinations, and outcomes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. Seminal study that examines the paradox of the establishment of slavery and the simultaneous emergence of constitutional ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Northrup, Daniel, ed. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Collection of documents touching on the various issues relating mainly to the actual trade and the economic factors underpinning it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York: Touchstone Press, 1997. One of the most detailed descriptions of the mechanics of the Middle Passage and its inter-functioning with the New World plantation systems.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Nathaniel Bacon; Aphra Behn; Jacob Leisler; Njinga; John Smith; António Vieira. North America;slavery Slavery;North America Middle Passage

Categories: History