The Slave Trade: Slave Ship Voyages to the West Indies

A plan of the slave ship Brookes, showing how 454 slaves were accommodated on board. This same ship had reportedly carried as many as 609 people

Before the Middle Passage to the West Indies, the typical slave ship spent up to a year off the coast of Africa collecting slaves.

A typical slave ship voyage lasted one to two years. The process involved loading the ship with resources used to trade for the slaves; anchoring off the coast of Africa to barter for slaves; sailing the Middle Passage across the Atlantic; and then auctioning the slaves in the Caribbean or North American colonies.

Sailing on a slave ship meant accepting the role of guard on a floating prison for its captain and crew. It involved health risks, physical discomfort, and high mortality rates for all parties aboard, especially the slaves imprisoned below decks.

Slave Trafficking in Africa

Within Africa, competing nations and tribes used the European slave trade as a means to rid themselves of enemies permanently. Initially, the trade had followed land routes to Europe; but when the Portuguese opened up the Atlantic slave trade a whole new class of slave trading middlemen emerged. While the Europeans erected numerous forts along the western coast of Africa, these forts were supplied with slaves by African slave dealers in the interior.

An enslaved African could be a prisoner of war, a troublesome tribal member, or simply the victim of malice or spite. All were kidnapped in one form or other, whether previously purchased, tricked, or physically attacked. Because they were intended to be heavy laborers, most came from the lower social classes. It was common for European slave traders to check the hands of enslaved Africans and refuse to purchase “smooth negroes” unused to physical labor. One notable exception was Job Ben Solomon, one of the few enslaved Africans to make the Middle Passage and later be returned to his family.

The majority of African slaves were claimed as prisoners of war and herded to the coast by African slave traders in coffles. This was an arduous journey where they were forced to walk long distances carrying heavy baggage while tied together and heavily guarded. Once on the coast, slaves were housed in the forts to await European slave ships. Many of these forts, including Cape Coast Castle, are still in existence today.

The Slave Ship off the West Coast of Africa

Each European nation had its series of forts along the African coast where they conducted slave trading business. The slave ship captains anchored their ships off the coast following protocols designed to prove their peaceful intentions, and then came ashore in canoes to meet with the fort representatives and negotiate. In the meantime, the crew prepared the slave ship for the incoming slaves by erecting a shaded structure on deck and barricades to prevent any from jumping overboard.

Once the enslaved were brought aboard, they were shackled and guarded to prevent escape. Most firsthand accounts note the awe demonstrated by Africans upon their first glimpses of the slave ships. In their shock over these massive ships, many failed to realize the immediate danger.

At each stop along the coast, more enslaved African slaves were added to the ship. The longer captains remained on the coast, the higher the morality rate for their slaves and crew, but most wanted as many slaves as possible. It was not uncommon for captains to spend a year or more on the coast, risking ill-health, slave insurrections, and even mutiny. The mortality rate along the coast was so high that sharks followed the slave ships to feast upon the corpses regularly thrown overboard.

Enslaved Africans and the Middle Passage

During the Middle Passage, male and female slaves were separated. In general, male slaves were shackled and guarded more heavily than female slaves. Small children slaves sometimes slept in the captain’s or mates’ quarters to leave more space for adult slaves below. Diet was poor and might include a mash of horse beans, corn, and rice called “dab-a-dab”. Any slave who refused to eat might find himself the victim of the speculum oris, a metal tool used to force feed slaves.

During the voyage, slaves were danced for exercise in an attempt to keep them healthy. However, the “dancing” typically involved the torment of the enslaved with whips like the dreaded cat-o-nine-tails to encourage their movement. Any perceived threat from the enslaved resulted in swift and severe punishment, particularly when on deck. A common device of torture on board the slave ship was thumb screws which could cause excruciating pain without obvious physical damage that would later impede the slave’s value at auction.

In his book, The Slave Ship: A Human History, Marcus Rediker describes a “comparatively healthy voyage” as having a five to seven percent mortality rate for the enslaved. The most common causes of death included dysentery and various febrile illnesses.


  1. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-67001823-9
  2. St. Clair, William. The Door of No Return: The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade. New York, 2007. ISBN-10: 1-933346-05-1
  3. Walvin, James. Atlas of Slavery. United Kingdom, 2006. ISBN:0-582-43780-6