JAMES A. RAWLEY The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A History (1981)

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From Chapter 12, “The Middle Passage”:

Men slaves, but not women or children, were placed in shackles as soon as they were put aboard ship. They were bound together in pairs. Left leg to right leg, left wrist to right wrist. Some masters removed the shackles once out to sea, others only during the day, and some not until the destination had been attained. Shipboard security varied with the origins of slaves. Captain James Fraser said he seldom confined Angola slaves, “being very peaceable,” took off the handcuffs of Windward and Gold Coast slaves as soon as the ship was out of sight of land, and soon after that the leg irons, but Bonny slaves, whom he thought vicious, were kept under stricter confinement.

Violently removed from their customary way of life, cramped in narrow, floating quarters, dominated by white-skinned men, despondent and often in trauma, Africans were exposed to acts of brutality, incited to revolt on shipboard and driven to taking their own lives. On the Middle Passage there was little check to sadism and lust. Perhaps the most infamous atrocity in the annals of the slave trade was committed by Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong. In 1781 he loaded his ship at Saint Thomas on the African coast with a cargo of four hundred slaves and proceeded toward Jamaica, 6 September. By 29 November he had lost seven white people, over sixty slaves, and had many more who were sick. Discovering that he had left only two hundred gallons of fresh water, he ascertained that, if the slaves died a natural death, it would be the loss of the shipowners, but if slaves were thrown alive into the sea, it would be the loss of the insurers. He designated sick and weak slaves, and on that day fifty-four were thrown into the sea. On 1 December forty-two more were thrown overboard; on that day a heavy rain enabled the ship to collect in casks enough water for eleven day’s full allowance. Even so, twenty-six more slaves, their hands bound, were thrown into the sea, and ten more, about to be bound for disposal, jumped into the sea.

Reprinted from THE TRANS-ATILANTIC SLAVE TRADE: A History by James A. Rawley, by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright (c) 1981 by James A. Rawley.

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