Atlantic Slave Trade: Middle Passage


The Slave Deck of the Bark "Wildfire"She had taken in, on the coast of Africa, three hundred and thirty-six males, and two hundred and twenty-six females, making in all five hundred and sixty-two, and had been out seventeen days. The slaves were all enclosed under grated hatchways, between decks. The space was so low that they sat between each other's legs, and were stowed so close together that there was no possibility of their lying down, or at all changing their position, by night or day. As they belonged to, and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded, like sheep, with the owners' marks, of different forms. These were impressed under their breasts, or on their arms, and, as the mate informed me, with perfect indifference, ‘Queimados pelo ferro quento, -- burnt with red-hot iron.’ Over the hatchway stood a ferocious looking fellow, with a scourge of many twisted thongs in his hand, who was the slave-driver of the ship; and whenever he heard the slightest noise below, he shook it over them, and seemed eager to exercise it. As soon as the poor creatures saw us looking down at them, their dark and melancholy visages brightened up.

They perceived something of sympathy and kindness in our looks, which they had not been accustomed to, and feeling, instinctively, that we were friends, they immediately began to shout and clap their hands. One or two had picked up a few Portuguese words, and cried out,‘Viva ! viva!’ The women were particularly excited. They all held up their arms, and when we bent down and shook hands with them, they could not contain their delight; they endeavored to scramble upon their knees, stretching up to kiss our hands, and we understood that they knew we had come to liberate them. Some, however, hung down their heads, in apparently hopeless dejection; some were greatly emaciated, and some, particularly children, seemed dying. But the circumstance which struck us most forcibly, was how it was possible for such a number of human beings to exist, packed up and wedged together as tight as they could cram, in low cells, three feet high, the greater part of which, except that immediately under the grated hatchway, was shut out from light, or air, and this when the thermometer, exposed to the open sky, was standing, in the shade on our deck, at 89°. The space between decks was divided into two compartments, three feet three inches high; the size of one was sixteen feet by eighteen, and of the other forty by twenty-one; into the first were crammed the women and girls; into the second the men and boys. Two hundred and twenty-six fellow creatures were thus thrust into one space two hundred and eighty-eight feet square, and three hundred and thirty-six into another space eight hundred feet square, giving to the whole an average of twenty-three inches, and to each of the women not more than thirteen inches, although many of them were pregnant. We also found manacles, and fetters of different kinds; but it appears that they had all been taken off before we boarded. The heat of these horrid places was so great, and the odor so offensive, that it was quite impossible to enter there, even had there been room. They were measured, as above, when the slaves left them. The officers insisted that the poor suffering creatures should be admitted on deck, to get air and water. This was opposed by the mate of the slaver, who, from a feeling that they deserved it, declared that they would murder them all. The officers, however, persisted, and the poor beings were all turned up together. It is impossible to conceive the effect of this eruption; five hundred and seven fellow creatures, of all ages and sexes, some children, some adults, some old men and women, all in a state of total nudity, scrambling out together to taste the luxury of a little fresh air and water.

They came swarming up, like bees from the aperture of a hive, till the whole deck was crowded to suffocation, from stem to stern; so that it was impossible to imagine where they could all have come from, or how they could all have been stowed away. On looking into the places where they had been crammed, there were found some children, next to the side of the ship, in the places most remote from light and air; they were lying nearly in a torpid state, after the rest had turned out. The little creatures seemed indifferent as to life or death, and when they were carried on deck, many of them could not stand.

After enjoying for a short time the unusual luxury of air, some water was brought; it was then that the extent of their sufferings was exposed in a fearful manner. They all rushed like maniacs towards it. No entreaties, or threats, or blows could restrain them; they shrieked, and struggled, and fought with one another for a drop of this precious liquid, as if they grew rabid at the sight of it. There is nothing from which slaves, in the mid-passage, suffer so much, as want of water. It is sometimes usual to take out casks filled with sea-water as ballast, and when the slaves are received on board, to start the casks, and refill them with fresh. On one occasion, a ship from Bahia neglected to change the contents of the casks, and on the mid-passage found, to their horror, that they were filled with nothing but salt water. All the slaves on board perished! We could judge of the extent of their sufferings from the afflicting sight we now saw.

When the poor creatures were ordered down again, several of them came and pressed their heads against our knees, with looks of the greatest anguish, at the prospect of returning to the horrid place of suffering below.

From Notices of Brazil (1820) 
quoted in Rufus W. Clark, The African Slave Trade 
Boston: American tract society, [c1860]
, pp. 27-30.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

Standard 2: How the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions

Standard 2D: The student understands the rapid growth of "the peculiar institution" after 1800 and the varied experiences of African Americans under slavery.

7-12: Analyze the impact of the Haitian Revolution and the ending of the Atlantic slave trade. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships] 
5-12: Identify the various ways in which African Americans resisted the conditions of their enslavement and analyze the consequences of violent uprisings. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: [Map of West Africa]
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: Norimb[ergæ] : Homannianorum Heredum, 1743.
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to order reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and other restrictions
    Map Collections: 1500-2004
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C

  2. DESCRIPTION:  Enslaved Africans in Hold of Slave Ship, 1827
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Johann Moritz Rugendas, Voyage Pittoresque dans le Bresil. Traduit de l'Allemand (Paris, 1835); reprinted, Viagem Pitoresca Altraves do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, 1972).
    REPRODUCTIONS: Conditions of Use.
    SOURCE: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record   

  3. DESCRIPTION:  Decks of a Slaving Vessel, 1823-24
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  The Illustrated London News (April 26, 1848), vol. 13, p. 123.
    REPRODUCTIONS: Conditions of Use.
    SOURCE: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record 

  4. DESCRIPTION:  Cross-Section of Slave Ship, 1828-1829
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Robert Walsh, Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829 (Boston and New York, 1831), vol. 2, facing title page
    REPRODUCTIONS: Conditions of Use
    SOURCE: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record   

  5. DESCRIPTION:   Revolt Aboard Slave Ship, 19th cent
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Published in Sabelle Aguet, A Pictorial History of the Slave Trade (Geneva, Editions Minerva, 1971), plate 64, p.71; original source not identified. The same image, slightly cropped, is published in Albert Laporte, Recits de Vieux Marins (Paris, 1883), p. 267
    REPRODUCTIONS: Conditions of Use.
    SOURCE: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record 

  6. DESCRIPTION:  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 (sic) modesty.
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  [London] : Pubd. by S.W Fores, 1792 April 10.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C

  7. DESCRIPTION:  The Slave Deck of the Bark "Wildfire" 
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Published in the June 2, 1860 issue of Harper's Weekly
    SOURCE:  Africans in America
    REPOSITORY:  Harvard College Library

Additional Media Resources

Africans in America

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record   

Additional Instructional Resources

Runaway Slaves: From the Revolution to the New Republic From the UMBC Center for History Education

Freedom for All? The Contradictions of Slavery and Freedom in the Maryland Constitution From the UMBC Center for History Education

The Untold Story: The Black Struggle for Freedom during the Revolutionary War in Maryland From the UMBC Center for History Education

Daily Lives of Slaves - What Really Happened? From the UMBC Center for History Education

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: Examining Primary Sources

The Middle Passage: Voyage into Bondage

Examining the Middle Passage

Secondary Resources

Bailey, Anne C. African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame. Beacon Press, 2005.

Cohn, Raymond L. "Deaths of Slaves in the Middle Passage" The Journal of Economic History (Sep., 1985): 685-692.

Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Garland, Charles and Herbert S. Klein. "The Allotment of Space for Slaves aboard Eighteenth-Century British Slave Ships" The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., (Apr., 1985): 238-248.

Gemery, Henry A. and Jan S. Hogendorn. The Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: Academic Press, 1979.

Klein, Herbert S. and Stuart Schwartz. The Atlantic Slave Trade (New Approaches to the Americas). Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Minchinton, Walter E. "Characteristics of British Slaving Vessels, 1698-1775" Journal of Interdisciplinary History (Summer, 1989): 53-81.

Rodney, Walter. "African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade" The Journal of African History (1966): 431-443.

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: the Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440 - 1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Thomas, Robert Paul. and Richard Nelson Bean. "The Fishers of Men: The Profits of the Slave Trade." The Journal of Economic History  (Dec., 1974): 885-914.

Some journal articles linked to this site require password access due to copyright and other restrictions. Teachers participating in the Teaching American History in Maryland program with a valid University of Maryland (UMBC) Library card can access these materials through ResearchPort.

Copyright and Other Restrictions

Access to materials linked within these document packets is intended for educational and research purposes. The written permission of the copyright owners and/or holders of other rights (such as publicity and privacy rights) is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions. The responsibility for making an independent legal assessment and independently securing any necessary rights rests with persons desiring to use particular items in the context of the intended use.

Password Access to Materials

The use of any user name and password to access materials on this web site constitutes an agreement by the user to abide by any and all copyright restrictions and is an acknowledgement that these materials will be used for personal and educational use only. In most instances, the username aaco and password aaco# will work. Contact if you have any questions or have difficulty accessing files.


Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci Sheads.


Teaching American History | Document Packets Index

  An Archives of Maryland Online Publication • © Copyright 2001-2005 Maryland State Archives
Maryland State Archives • 350 Rowe Boulevard • Annapolis, MD 21401 • 410-260-6400 •