MIDDLE PASSAGE The actual transatlantic voyage of slavers (slave ships) loaded with human cargo historically has been referred to as the Middle Passage. The term is derived from the fact that the transatlantic trip was the second leg or part of the overall slavetrading journey — from home port to Africa, from Africa to the New World, and from the New World to home port.
At best, the Middle Passage was an incredibly harsh experience for the hapless Africans unfortunate enough to have been sold into slavery in Africa. The voyage itself was time-consuming, ranging from three or four weeks to as long as three months, depending on the winds and currents. The Africans were not considered to be "passengers," but rather cargo. As such, they were packed into the holds of slavers as if they were little more than black sardines. Sexually separated, chained slaves were forced to lie side-by-side in the hold for at least fifteen hours daily. When the typical hold of a slaver (which averaged about five feet in height) was divided into two "levels" or "floors," the space allotment for each individual slave was approximately 6' x 16" x 21/2' (essentially the dimensions of a coffin). Slaves were allowed on deck only to eat, to take part in forced physical exercise ("dancing the slaves," as it was called) and to allow time for the cleaning of the hold. Considering the lack of sanitary facilities aboard, this job (which was rotated among the slaves themselves) was considered to be an especially unattractive feature of the voyage.
Historians are fortunate that several first-hand accounts written by slaves concerning the nature of the Middle Passage have survived. One account, penned by Olaudah Equiana, is especially illuminating: "I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was unable to eat, nor had I even the desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains ... 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... rendering the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable."
It is not surprising that many slaves procured in Africa did not survive the Atlantic voyage. Smallpox, scurvy and suicide all took their toll. A large proportion of those who did survive the Middle Passage, according to historian John Hope Franklin, were unfit for slave-labor upon arrival in the New World. "Many of those that had not died of disease or committed suicide by jumping overboard," Franklin maintains, "were permanently disabled by the ravages of some dread disease or by maiming which often resulted from the struggle against the chains." See also: ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE.