How did enslaved people make sense of and deal with their treatment during the middle passage?

Enslaved people experienced life in a way that modern day Americans cannot imagine. During transportation to America through the middle passage, Africans experienced beatings, witnessed acts of extreme violence towards other slaves and crew members, and were often killed. Africans feared the possibility white people were cannibals; only taking solace in the fact that “black people would not eat them.”.[1]The fear and lack of trust that Africans felt on their voyages were insurmountable fears. Extreme differences in language, treatment of people, and skin color made it almost impossible for Africans to trust their white captors. Slave traders not only turned humans into commodities, but also stripped them of their identities. At its height, the slave trade was one of the most profitable economic systems.[2]

Africans never fully understood their mistreatment or the violence they witnessed during the middle passage. Instead, Africans tended to remain in a state of “confusion” throughout their capture, transportation, and enslavement.[3]Slaves dealt with their fear and anxiety by skipping meals, attempting to commit suicide, and in rare instances, organizing slave revolts. Suicide attempts occurred at such alarming rates that slave ships placed nets around the bottom of ships in an effort to recapture their victims. Slaves often felt that ending their life was far better than what may happen tothem aboard the slave ship. In fact, “two of the rebels successfully completed their self-destruction by drowning.”.[4]Often, slaves would starve themselves as a means of dealing with the stressors of enslavement and the unknown. Since bigger and stronger slaves were worth more money, the captain and his crew would beat slaves in an effort to scare them into eating. Refusal to eat led to intense flogging and the wish that “death would relieve them” from their worldly struggles.[5]One of the final strategies that Africans used in an attempt to escape the slave trade was attempting to organize slave revolts below decks. Within The Slave Ship, there were no successful attempts of slaves overtaking a ship. This meant that all slave revolts were halted by the captain and his crew. These seizures often resulted in apublic spectacles. In most cases, captains made anexample out of those who led the revolts. The punishments for being caught were extreme, often resulting in mutilation.

The middle passage was a treacherous path for all of those involved, especially the enslaved Africans. Though slaves attempted to make sense of the things they experienced and witnessed aboard slave ships, they never reached full comprehension. Africans attempted to take fate into their own hands, but tragically failed at every turn. After being isolated from their kin, stripped of their identities, and removed from life as a whole, Africans had nowhere to turn except acts to remove themselves from the world.

[1] Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York, New York: Penguin Group Publishing, 2007),128.

[2] Rediker, The Slave Ship, 87.


Rediker, The Slave Ship, 121.

[4] Rediker, The Slave Ship, 121.

[5] Rediker, The Slave Ship, 117.


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