The Middle Passage: A Full Complement of Negroes
For four centuries, slavers sailed along the western African coast to pack the hulls of their ships with “a full complement of negroes.” Millions of captive Africans were loaded onto slave ships as commodities certain to bring a profit. The traumatic journey from western Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas—known as the Middle Passage—was a mixture of captivity and commerce. Enslaved Africans were dispersed throughout the Atlantic World and forced to leave their homeland and loved ones behind.
The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was . . . a slave ship . . . waiting for its cargo.
Olaudah Equiano, 1789
Ship Full of Sorrow
Tens of thousands of slave ships traversed the Atlantic carrying human cargo to an uncertain future. Enslaved people rebelled on one in ten voyages. Rather than endure the horrors of enslavement, many jumped into the shark-infested waters. An elderly enslaved man stated, “the iron entered into our souls,” as he described the rattling shackles that ripped off the skin of captive Africans.
There is no Spaniard who dares to stick his head in the hatch without becoming ill . . . . So great is the stench, the crowding and the misery of the place . . . . Most arrive turned into skeletons.
Alonzo de Sandoval, 1627
The São José
In spring 1794 the São José, a Portuguese slave ship, left Lisbon and made its way to Mozambique. Four hundred enslaved Africans were taken aboard to be sold at market in Maranhão, Brazil. En route to Brazil, the São José crashed 300 feet off the coast of South Africa. The captain and crew tried to save the valuable human cargo. While some enslaved people survived and were later sold at market, at least 200 African souls were lost at sea.
Left Lisbon on 27 April 1794, destined for Mozambique to fetch a cargo of slaves and then set sail for Marronhas in Brazil.
Sailor’s Account of the São José, 1794
Artifacts from the São José Slave Ship, 1794
Timber from the hull of the São José is a haunting reminder of the tens of thousands of slave ships from the Middle Passage that served as coffins for some captive Africans and carried millions more to a lifetime of enslavement.
Iron ballast, from the hull of the São José, was used to counterbalance the lighter weight of the human cargo to maintain the stability of the slave ship. The inventory for the São José indicates that 1,400 iron ballast bars were ordered for the voyage. The ballast stones powerfully symbolize the mournful story of the human cost of the Middle Passage.
Attached to a line run between ship and shore, the pulley block was likely used in the effort to rescue enslaved people in the hull of the ship.
Their singing . . . [was] always in tears, in so much that one captain . . . threatened one of the women with a flogging, because the mournfulness of her song was too painful for his feelings.
William Corbett, 1806
Holding on to Humanity
The weeks aboard ship tested the humanity of everyone held captive. On many mornings, men shackled two-by-two found themselves bound to a corpse. Stored in separate quarters and free to move about, women were constantly subject to rape and other violence. High child mortality rates were attributed to deadly disease and starvation. While many souls were lost during the Middle Passage, those who survived did so through courage, will, and the strength of the human spirit.
Embarked are Blacks 60 males as many large men as children 40 women with 4 or 5 small infants at the breast.
Monsieur La Lande Boulon Menard, 1723
Middle Passage Shackles
Shackles were used on captive African people from the time of capture until they were sold in the Americas. All were shackled at the wrists, including children, who were especially vulnerable to death and disease during the Middle Passage. Men were shackled two-by-two at the ankles. Restraints were inhumane tools used for control and to prevent escape or rebellion.
With . . . apparent eagerness a black woman seized some dirt from off an African yam, and put it into her mouth, seeming to rejoice at the opportunity of possessing some of her native earth.
Alexander Falconbridge, 1788