What Is the Middle Passage?

The History of the Trade of Enslaved People Across the Atlantic

The Lower deck of a Guinea man in the last century lithograph.

 Bettmann/Getty Images

The “Middle Passage” refers to the horrific journey of enslaved Africans from their home continent to the Americas during the period of this transatlantic trade. Historians believe 15% of all Africans loaded onto these ships did not survive the Middle Passage—most died of illness due to the inhumane, unsanitary conditions in which they were transported. 

Key Takeaways: The Middle Passage

  • The Middle Passage was the second leg of the triangular trade of enslaved people that went from Europe to Africa, Africa to the Americas, and then back to Europe. Millions of Africans were packed tightly onto ships bound for the Americas.
  • Roughly 15% of enslaved people didn't survive the Middle Passage. Their bodies were thrown overboard.
  • The most concentrated period of the triangular trade was between 1700 and 1808, when around two-thirds of the total number of enslaved people embarked on the Middle Passage.

Broad Overview of the Middle Passage

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, 12.4 million Africans were enslaved by Europeans and transported to various countries in the Americas. The Middle Passage was the middle stop of the "triangular trade": European ships would first sail to the western coast of Africa to trade a variety of goods for people who had been captured in war, kidnapped, or sentenced to enslavement as punishment for a crime; they would then transport enslaved people to the Americas and sell them in order to purchase sugar, rum, and other products; the third leg of the journey was back to Europe.

Some historians believe that an additional 15% of the 12.4 million died before even boarding these ships, as they were marched in chains from the point of capture to the western coasts of Africa. Approximately 1.8 million enslaved Africans, never made it to their destination in the Americas, mostly because of the unsanitary conditions in which they were housed during the months-long journey.

Around 40% of the total enslaved population went to Brazil, with 35% going to non-Spanish colonies, and 20% going directly to Spanish colonies. Less than 5%, around 400,000 enslaved people, went directly to North America; most U.S. captives passed first through the Caribbean. All the European powers—Portugal, Spain, England, France, the Netherlands, and even Germany, Sweden and Denmark—participated in the trade. Portugal was the largest transporter of all, but Britain was dominant in the 18th century.

The most concentrated period of the triangular trade was between 1700 and 1808, when around two-thirds of the total number of enslaved people were transported to the Americas. Over 40% were transported in British and American ships from six regions: Senegambia, Sierra Leone/the Windward Coast, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, and West Central Africa (Kongo, Angola). These enslaved Africans were taken primarily to British Caribbean colonies where over 70% of them were purchased (over half in Jamaica), but some also went to the Spanish and French Caribbean.

The Transatlantic Journey

Each ship carried several hundred people, about 15% of whom died during the journey. Their bodies were thrown overboard and often eaten by sharks. Captives were fed twice a day and expected to exercise, often forced to dance while in shackles (and usually shackled to another person), in order to arrive in good condition for sale. They were kept in the hold of the ship for 16 hours a day and brought above deck for 8 hours, weather permitting. Doctors checked their health regularly to make sure they could command high prices once they were sold on the auction blocks in the Americas.

Conditions onboard were also bad for the poorly paid crew members, most of whom were working to pay off debts. Although they inflicted violence upon enslaved people, they in turn were treated cruelly by the captains and subject to whipping. The crew was tasked with cooking, cleaning, and guarding them, including preventing them from jumping overboard. They, like the captives, were subject to dysentery, the leading cause of death on these ships, but they were also exposed to new diseases in Africa, like malaria and yellow fever. The mortality rate among sailors during some periods of this trade was even higher than that of captives, over 21%.

Resistance by Enslaved People

There is evidence that up to 10% of these ships experienced violent resistance or insurrections by enslaved people. Many committed suicide by jumping overboard and others went on hunger strikes. Those who rebelled were punished cruelly, subjected to forced eating or whipped publicly (to set an example for others) with a "cat-o'-nine-tails (a whip of nine knotted cords attached to a handle)". The captain had to be careful about using excessive violence, however, as it had the potential to provoke larger insurrections or more suicides, and because merchants in the Americas wanted them to arrive in good condition.

Impact and End of the Middle Passage

Enslaved people came from many different ethnic groups and spoke diverse languages. However, once they were shackled together on the ships and arrived in the American ports, they were given English (or Spanish or French) names. Their distinct ethnic identities (Igbo, Kongo, Wolof, Dahomey) were erased, as they were transformed into simply "Black" or "enslaved" people.

In the late 18th century, British abolitionists began inspecting the ships and publicizing details of the Middle Passage in order to alert the public to the horrific conditions aboard and gain support for their cause. In 1807 both Britain and the U.S. outlawed the trade of enslaved people (but not enslavement itself), but Africans continued to be imported to Brazil until that country outlawed the trade in 1831 and the Spanish continued importing African captives to Cuba until 1867.

The Middle Passage has been referenced and reimagined in dozens of works of African American literature and film, most recently in 2018 in the third highest-grossing movie of all time, Black Panther.