10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship

D.G. Hewitt - July 11, 2018

It was known as the ‘Middle Passage’ of the slave journey and it was truly brutal and dehumanizing. After being ‘collected’ from holdings along the West Africa coast, slaves would be loaded onto boats and then carried across the Atlantic Ocean. Once on the other side of the world, thousands of miles from their homelands and their loved ones, they would be put to work, most of them to be kept enslaved for the rest of their lives.

The hundreds of thousands of slaves forced against their will to make the journey had no idea what to expect. Many of them had been captured in the middle of the African continent and had never even seen the ocean before. Certainly, few had seen a white man or a huge cargo ship before. None had any idea of the fate which awaited them – nor could they imagine how hellish the journey to a faraway land would be.

In the vast majority of cases, the slaves themselves were unable to tell their own stories. Even if they could read and write, they didn’t have the opportunity to make a record of their experiences. Most of the men who crewed the slave ships were illiterate too, meaning we don’t have their accounts of what life was like on board the cruel vessels. But a handful of slaves did live to tell their stories, plus captains of slave ships and then, in later years, abolitionists campaigning against the inhumanity, also made historical records. Thanks to them, we know what life was like on slave ships – and it’s every bit as bad as you could imagine…

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
The Diligent was one of the many ships converted to carry slaves across the Atlantic. Slave.com

Setting sail on the ships from hell

In all, it’s estimated that as many as 6 million Africans were transported against their will across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries. The vast majority of them, around 42% were sent to the Caribbean, while 38% were sent to Brazil and around 5% to North America. This was a huge journey. While the passage from Angola to Brazil could be done in as little as 35 days, sailing from the west coast of Africa to North America required traveling more than 4,000 miles over the rough Atlantic. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this journey was mainly done by Portuguese ships, with the one-way passage taking three or sometimes four months depending on the weather conditions.

By the turn of the 18th century, the slave trade had grown to become a major business. This meant that bigger ships were being used and these were much faster than the vessels that had previously been used. For the captains, time was money. Being at sea for more days than was necessary meant that it was more likely some of his human cargo would die, cutting his profits. So, for this reason, every effort was made to get across the Atlantic as quickly as possible.

Slave ships were, on the main, large cargo ships that were specifically converted for the inhumane trade. Compartments were ripped out and the hulls were divided up into large compartments, each big enough to hold up to 100 slaves. These vessels became known among sailors as ‘Guineamen’, thanks to the fact they picked up slaves on the Guinea coastline in West Africa. It was onto these ships that slaves were loaded, all of them in chains and none of them knowing where they were destined (many even feared that they were being taken away to be eaten by white men, the former slave Olaudah Equiano wrote). The Guineamen became notorious for their cruel crews and insanitary conditions – and for good reason for life on board these slaves, ships really was a living hell…

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
Ships carried as many as 600 slaves in horrific conditions. Atlantic Black Star.

Slaves were packed into the hull by the hundred

The slave trade was a business, albeit a supremely cruel one. Slaves were seen as little more than cargo by the owners of the slave ships, so, quite simply, the more they carried, the more money they stood to earn. This meant that most slave ships were not only packed to capacity, they were packed way beyond capacity. Over-crowding was commonplace and, for many years during the height of the transatlantic slave trade, there was simply nothing stopping the owners of the ships from setting sail with as many slaves as they could carry, both above and below deck.

The majority of slaves were kept below deck in cramped, inhumane conditions. As the chilling blueprints of ships revealed, slaves were often chained lying down, side-by-side on the floor. This meant hundreds could be lain side-by-side and head-to-toe. The unfortunate men and women had no more than a few inches to move. Some lucky ones might be able to sit up, but most were forced to lie down for almost the entirety of the two-month journey. In the best recorded cases, an individual would get a space around four feet wide and five high. Suffice to say, there were no proper toilet facilities, the slaves were simply left in their own filth and hosed down occasionally up on deck.

The Regulation Act of 1788, also known as the Slave Trade Act of Dolben’s Act after the man who managed to get it passed through the British Parliament, was designed to ease overcrowding on slave ships. It stipulated the number of slaves a ship could transport according to how heavy the vessel was. Notably, vessels such as the Brookes would not only be allowed to carry 400 slaves – prior to the law, the ship carried as many as 750, testament to just how densely packed-in the slaves were. Unsurprisingly, however, some unscrupulous captains broke these rules and continued to pack as many slaves below deck as they could. Ships carrying on the trade after the British Empire outlawed slavery were especially likely to break the law and subject their slave passengers to the worst conditions imaginable.

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
Disease was rife below deck, and slaves who died were just thrown overboard. Wikipedia.

Conditions were dirty, smelly and deadly

The cramped conditions below deck were not just uncomfortable and dehumanizing for the slaves, they were deadly too. In such confined spaces, disease was rife and spread quickly. Below deck, the sights, sounds and perhaps above all, the smell, would have been simply overwhelming. Understandably, ship captains tried to stay as far away from the slaves’ quarters as possible, leaving the lowest members of the crew to look after them.

Not surprisingly, the leading cause of death among slaves was dysentery. Indeed, it was so common it even had its own name among the crews, being known as “the Flux”. This was caused by the unsanitary conditions below deck, especially by the lack of proper toilet facilities. While a ship’s crew would be required to clean the slaves on a regular basis, dysentery outbreaks were only too common and would spread quickly and easily, killing even the strongest of slaves in a couple of days. As well as urine and faeces everywhere, the decks would also be covered in vomit. Almost none of the enslaved men and women had ever been to sea before and so, in the rough waters of the Atlantic, seasickness was very common, only adding to the unsanitary conditions.

Almost as serious was smallpox. Again, the cramped conditions meant that a single case could spread rapidly, killing dozens of slaves and even crew members. In bad weather, crews kept slaves below the deck for days at a time for fear of losing any of their human cargo overboard. This placed them at heightened risk of contracting the Pox or any other disease passing through the slaves.

The records from the slave trade show that, up until the 1750s, around one in five of the African slaves being carried on these ships died mid-journey. By 1800, this ratio had fallen to around one in 18, a significant improvement. This was due mainly to the British and French, who, towards the end of the 18th century passed laws aimed at improving conditions on the slave ships. One such law required ships to have a ‘surgeon’ onboard to look after the slaves’ health. In many cases, these were men with little or no medical training or knowledge, and they could be extremely cruel themselves. Nevertheless, they were paid ‘head money’ to keep their charges alive, and the greed rather than the compassion or skills of the surgeons meant many more slaves made it across the Atlantic.

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
The crew of slave ships treated their captive terribly, but tried to keep them alive. Wikimedia Commons.

Discipline was very harsh and very cruel

The diaries of the trader John Newton help show the fear many crew members had about being attacked by the slaves. In one instance, he writes that “we were alarmed with a report that some of the men slaves had found a means to poison the water… which they had the credulity to suppose must inevitably kill all who drank it”. While this turned out to be a false alarm, the fear remained, with Newton noting that the “intentions” of the slaves they held captive were always clear.

Such fears were by no means ill-founded. Indeed, given the mental and physical abuse they suffered, it was inevitable that some slaves would try and fight back, however futile such a gesture might have been. Newton again noted instances of male slaves secreting makeshift weapons in preparation for an “insurrection”, with such plotting clamped down on in the most brutal way possible. Even the smallest act of resistance could be met with violence, though the punishments meted out by the crews were designed to hurt the slaves but not kill them – after all, a dead slave would cost them money.

One of the most common forms of punishments used on board the slave ships was subjecting a man, woman or even a child to the thumbscrews. This simple but brutally effective method saw the victim’s thumbs, fingers or toes placed into a crude vice and slowly but steadily crushed. The pain was intense, especially if sharp points were embedded in the vide to add to the agony. By the year 1800, these had become a quintessential tool of the slave trade. Indeed, so widespread was their use that Thomas Clarkson, an English abolitionist and a leading campaigner against the slave trade, would carry a pair of thumbscrews with him at all times. He would use these, as well as other small instruments of torture, to illustrate the cruelty of the trade and to win support for his cause.

Crude whips and other instruments for flogging were also used to maintain discipline on slave shops. In 1827, the Revered Robert Walsh joined the British Navy in patrolling the waters of the Atlantic in search of ships breaking the law that had by then made the slave trade illegal. He noted with horror the way in which the slaves on the ship were kept down. He wrote: “Over the hatchway stood a ferocious-looking fellow with a scourge of many twisted thongs in his hand, who was the slave driver of the ship, and whenever he heard the slightest noise below, he shook it over them and seemed eager to exercise it.” Reverend Walsh confiscated the whip and kept it for himself, not as a sick memento but rather as a symbol of the unquestionable cruelty of the slave trade.

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
Slave ships recruited their crews from the most desperate in society, and it showed. National Endowment for the Humanities.

The crews could be cruel – but they were often desperate too

The slave trade was a cruel business, and, as you might expect, working conditions were extremely tough. This meant that it attracted the very lowest rank of sailors, and many only signed up to work on a slave ship out of sheer desperation or because they were coaxed or coerced into it, for example because they owed money and worked to pay off their debts. Sailors who had been in prison and who could find no other work also ended up crewing slave ships – and many of these had a propensity to violence they would put to good use on the long journey across the Atlantic.

It would be wrong to compare the experiences of slaves and crew members. But, compared to crew on other ships, those working on slave ships had a very rough deal indeed. Since the hull of a slave ship was filled with as many slaves as possible, crew were usually forced to sleep on deck. This left them open to the elements, either storms and rain and cold winds or long hours of harsh sunlight. Disease was common among the crew, with many succumbing to malaria or yellow fever. What’s more, crew would often be attacked by revolting slaves, and usually killed in the most violent way imaginable. Or, if they failed in their duties, sailors could be flogged themselves, and might even be beaten to death should their negligence lead to the captain losing one or more slaves.

Indeed, the records show that around a fifth of all crew members died along the way. Even those who made it to the Americas without dying or disease or being beaten to death by rebelling slaves were still vulnerable. Some captains were rumoured to throw their crew overboard or poison them in order to avoid paying them when they landed back in Europe. Others simply refused to pay up at all, cheating their crews out of their wages. Given the nature of the industry, cheated sailors would usually have no way of taking action against unscrupulous captains or ship owners and simply had to accept their losses and walk away.

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
On numerous occasions, slaves managed to break free of their chains and take control of a ship. The Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Some slaves managed to take over the ships

To see the men, women and children taken from Africa by slavers are merely passive victims is to do them a grave disservice. Certainly, many were largely helpless: they were shackled for almost every part of the long, gruesome journey, with not just their bodies but their minds and spirits broken, too. However, not all slaves were submissive. Instances of revolt were actually quite commonplace, especially while the ships were out at sea. Indeed, according to some estimates, as many as 15 to 20 per cent of all of the ships which left Africa with slaves on board never made it to the clients awaiting them in the “new world”.

Though they might have had the upper hand, the slave ships’ crews were always outnumbered. What’s more, many of the slaves were chosen for their youth and physical strength – many had, after all, been captured warriors – and so, if a fight did break out, the crews could soon find themselves in serious trouble. This was certainly the case in October of 1841. Then, the Creole, which was carrying around 135 African slaves from Richmond, Virginia, to New Orleans, was taken over. Led by Madison Washington, a slave who had previously escaped but who had been recaptured when he went looking for his enslaved wife, a group of 14 men managed to escape their shackles, pick up makeshift weapons and take control of the ship. Some of the crew were killed in the bloody fighting, though others were allowed to live. Captain took over as captain and sailed the ship into British territory. Since by that point the British Empire had outlawed slavery, once they arrived, they were immediately granted their freedom.

There were countless other instances of slaves revolting and taking control of the slave ships, though many stories have been lost to history. In 1764, for example, a ship belonging to the New London company and under the command of a certain Captain George Faggot was anchored off the coast of Senegal for the night. It had just picked up African slaves from Goree Island and the captain was waiting for first light to start his Atlantic crossing. Under the cover of darkness, however, some of the slaves managed to free themselves and, using nothing more than planks of wood, attacked the captain and his crew, earning their freedom. The freed slaves abandoned the ship and made their own way to shore.

However, the most famous slave ship revolt happened in January of 1839, on board the Spanish schooner Amistad. The ship had set sail from La Habana, Cuba, bound for plantations in the southern United States. Soon after leaving port, however, the slaves managed to break free and revolt. Led by a former sugar farmer called Mende who had been captured and enslaved in Sierra Leone, the men killed the captain and several Spanish sailors threw themselves overboard. This meant the men, though now free from their shackles, had no way of navigating the ship. They eventually drifted along the coast of America and were apprehended by the US Navy off the coast of Connecticut. Both the owners of the Amistad and the Spanish government claimed the men as their private property. However, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that they were free men – an historic decision and one that became an important moment and symbol for the abolitionist cause.

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
While male slaves were kept below, women often enjoyed a little more freedom up on deck. Smithsonian.

Women and children were kept separate from male slaves

While being kept on deck or in separate quarters would sometimes give women and children at least a bit of room to move around, it also had its downside. On deck in particular, they were left vulnerable to the whims of the crew. Abuse and exploitation was rife, especially the sexual abuse of women. Ships captains would, in general, try and prevent their crew from being intimate with the slaves. However, this was mainly for reasons of discipline among the crew than out of any concern for the slaves’ wellbeing.

In one diary entry, slave ship captain John Newton recalled: “Bought a slave girl (Number 92). In the afternoon, while we were off the deck, William Cooney seduced a woman slave down into the room and lay with her brutelike in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons. I hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep them quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman, I shall impute him, for she was big with child. Her number is 83…”

In some cases, women slaves would come ashore in America carrying the children of the crew members who had raped them. However, while brutal rapes and other forms of abuse were only too common aboard the slave ships, so too were small acts of resistance. Many female slaves fought back against their abusers, while some performed abortion and infanticide as small acts of resistance. Others used sex to their advantage, offering favours to crew members in return for better treatment and extra freedom – sometimes using this freedom to help the male slaves rise up and revolt. Indeed, according to some histories of the ‘middle passage’, women were instrumental in organising many slave ship uprisings. Since they were allowed to move (relatively) freely on deck, they could meet and talk, with the crew usually underestimating them out of sheer prejudice.

Children of all ages would join their mothers in the cramped quarters of a slave ship. Many simply never made it. Young children and nursing infants were particularly vulnerable to the many diseases that ravaged the slave ships. Combined with the weakness that came with meagre food rations and many children simply wasted away, their emaciated bodies thrown overboard as their anguished mothers could only watch on.

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
Slaves were kept fed and relatively healthy – though this could backfire on the crew. Afro Punk.

Slaves didn’t starve, but they didn’t eat well

The slaves carried in their thousands on board the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic were to be sold to plantation owners in America. This meant that they had to arrive healthy, strong and ready to get to work. Or, at least as healthy and strong as could be expected after a harrowing journey. It was for this reason that the slaves were fed daily. The food was, generally speaking, nutritious, even if it was far from tasty.

Beans, dry bread and salted meats were all staples on board the slave ships, plus the crew would also be required to keep the slaves well-hydrated. Losing a slave to thirst or hunger could lead to a crew member being flogged themselves. Ship captains would try and find a balance between keeping their precious human cargo alive and healthy and saving as much money as possible on supplies. For this reason, slaves were often fed the bare minimum. On a French-owned boat, this would usually be a simple stew of oats and maybe even some dried turtle meat, while British crews tended to give their captors small, fatty meals as well as generous rations of water.

However, slaves would often be simply too sick to eat. Or, in many cases, they would refuse the food offered to them. Going in hunger strike was often the only act of resistance open to a slave and many saw being in control of their own bodies as a small victory against their captors. To get around this, crew members would use a special tool called a ‘speculum oris’. This long, thin piece of metal would open the throat up, allowing them to get thin, semi-nutritious gruel down a slave’s throat while other men held him down and still.

Olaudah Equiano, who provided one of the most harrowing first-hand testimonies from the height of the slave trade, revealed that forced feeding was commonplace on slave ships. Indeed, when he himself wanted just to be left to die, he was forced to eat by his captors. He recalled: “I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.”

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
If rebellions failed, slaves would sometimes throw themselves into the ocean in despair. Missed History.

Slaves often went overboard – but usually due to despair

On November 29, 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong realised their supplies of drinking water were running perilously low. The ship, owned by a syndicate based in Liverpool, was taking around 400 slaves from Africa across the Atlantic. By the time it reached the coast of Jamaica, the situation was desperate. However, an easy solution was reached: the crew simply unchained 140 slaves and threw them overboard. The dead included 54 women and children. After all, if the slaves – their property – died at sea rather than on land or from ‘natural causes’, the ship’s owners could claim them on their insurance policy.

The company duly filed its insurance claim for the value of around 140 slaves. The court case caused outrage, and indeed it was instrumental in winning support for what became the Slave Trade Act of 1788, the first British legislation aimed at regulating the cruel trade. And, while, the insurers refused to pay out and the judge backed their stance, he still noted that there were circumstances in which it was acceptable for slave ship captains to order slaves be thrown overboard to their certain deaths.

For reasons of simple economics rather than humanity, captains were reluctant to throw slaves overboard during the ‘middle passage’. Of course, slaves who died during the journey were thrown over the side almost as soon as they were found. However, only in extreme cases did living slaves meet the same fate. Captains were under pressure to arrive with as many ‘heads’ as possible and so would usually resort to other measures, including torture and other extreme punishments, if they caught a slave trying to escape or incite a rebellion.

That’s not to say that hardly any slaves ended up in the cold waters of the Atlantic. Tragically, many did indeed drown. However, in many cases, this was an act of desperation and defiance, with both slave men and women preferring to kill themselves than await their fate in the Americas. Slave ship captain John Newton recalled: “When we were putting the slaves down in the evening, one that was sick jumped overboard. Got him in again but he died immediately, between his weakness and the salt water he swallowed.”

Most large slave ships had their crew on stand-by to ‘rescue’ slaves who threw themselves overboard and some even fitted special ‘suicide nets’ to prevent jumpers – again, motivated by greed rather than any sense of humanity. To get around this, some slaves even asked their fellow captives to strange them. In cases of suicide, some crews would decapitate the corpses of slaves, telling the remaining captives that they too would go to the afterlife with no head if they chose the ‘easy way out’.

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
The journey across the Atlantic was brutal, and it was just the start of a grim life for slaves. Schools Wikia.

The end of the voyage was just the start of the slaves’ new life…

After many weeks at sea, the captains and crews of slave ships were usually heartened to see the coast of America. Indeed, some histories of the ‘middle passage’ reveal that, in some cases, conditions on the slave ships improved markedly during the final stage of the journey, with the slaves treated better for their last few days on board.

But, of course, if slave ship captains did order their crews to treat the slaves better, it was not out of compassion or remorse for the harsh treatment they were forced to endure earlier in the journey. Rather, the captains were businessmen and under pressure to deliver slaves who looked strong and healthy. After all, some would be sold at auction and others would be put to work on the plantations almost right away. So, in the final few days of the voyage, food rations would be increased significantly. The shackles might even be loosened or taken off completely – again, with the slave markets in mind, with the captains wanting their ‘cargo’ to look as fresh and injury-free as possible.

While there are some accounts of ‘parties’ aboard slave ships as they got close to their final destination, this would have been yet another act of humiliation for the slaves. Men, and especially women, would be forced to dress up in costumes and dance on the deck for the amusement of the captain and his crew, with a sailor armed with a whip watching over them to ensure they danced with sufficient enthusiasm.

Once they landed, the horrors were often only just beginning for the slaves. Many had no idea what fate awaited them – indeed, according to Equiano, some feared they were to be eaten. He recalls: “They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much; and sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages. We were conducted immediately to the merchant’s yard, where we were all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold.” From there, men, women and children were purchased just like cattle and sent off to a life in servitude.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Extracts from John Newton’s journal.” The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.

“Life on board slave ships.” Black History Month.

“Women’s Resistance in the Middle Passage: A Story Lost at Sea.” Molly Morgan, Albany University.

“A History of Africa: The Middle Passage.” BBC World Service.

“5 Slave Ship Uprisings Other Than Amistad.” Atlanta Black Star, February 2014.

“The Amistad revolt.” Cornell University Law Department.

“Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829.” Eyewitness to History.