A Journey in Chains
Most Africans began their journey into slavery at the hands of
other Africans. While Europeans owned and operated the slave
ships, the work of kidnapping new victims was generally left
to West Africans. Bands of slavers would roam the African countryside,
preying on villagers who let their guard down.
Olaudah Equiano was abducted when he was 8
One day, when all our people were
gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister
were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our
walls and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us
time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths,
and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our
hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night
came on, when we reached a small house where the robbers halted
for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but
were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by
fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep.
It sometimes took several months to transport
captives to the coast, and they often were sold and resold to
several new owners along the way. Once they reached the coast,
some captives were taken to slave forts or compounds, where they
waited for a slave vessel to arrive. Many of these fortresses
still stand on the coasts of Africa, at places like Ilmina and
Goree Island, as ruined monuments to the cruel economy of years
Once a ship was ready, the Africans were handed
over to their new captors, Europeans and Americans, who would
take them on their journey to the Americas.
The Middle Passage
For the captive Africans aboard a slave ship, the voyage to the
New World was a passage of nearly unimaginable horror. For
most captives, the separation from their villages and families
was still fresh, and now they were thrust into a hostile and
alien world, at the mercy of people who were like none they
had ever seen before. Upon boarding, they were stripped of
their belongings, branded, chained, and sent below decks, where
they would be forced to remain for most of the months-long
The slave deck itself was a living nightmare.
To the slave traders, these human beings were cargo, and slave
ships were especially designed to transport as many captives
as possible, with little regard for either their health or their
humanity. Slave decks were often only a few feet high, and the
African captives were shackled together lying down, side by side,
head to foot, or even closer. Deaths from suffocation, malnutrition,
and disease were routine on the slave deck, as were arbitrary
torture and murder by the crew. The closeness, the filth, and
the fear delivered many into madness, and suicide attempts were
common. Other ships could smell slavers from far away, and Portuguese
sailors called them tumbeiros,
or floating tombs.
Olaudah Equiano described his journey.
The closeness of the place, and the
heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was
so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost
suffocated us….This wretched situation was again aggravated by
the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the
filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell,
and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the
groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost
Those who were not killed by conditions on
board were often permanently disabled by beatings or disease.
Many slave captains threw sick or injured Africans overboard
so that their losses would be covered by insurance.
Though they were shackled, sickened, and outnumbered,
captive Africans frequently fought back against their tormentors.
On more than 300 voyages, the captives on the slave deck attempted
to overthrow the crew, and in several cases they triumphed. In
1839, the victorious Africans on the slave ship Amistad even
succeeded in sailing the ship into port and, eventually returned
home in freedom.
For more information on rebellions and insurrections
on board slave ships, see African American Odyssey: Liberation
to Freedom, and The