The Stark Reality of the Middle Passage -By Mallard Merriman
Many of you will turn the page rather than read any further. What follows will be a very clear description of the absolute horror of the conditions under which the ancestors of African people in the Western Hemisphere endured at the hands of slavers on the filthy, rat- and bug-infested, disgusting, stank floating-toilets-without-ventilation commonly known as slave ships. Most of you will condemn this so-called "trade" in human cargo. Some of you who have the stomach to continue reading will throw up. Others may cry. Those of you, who have ancestors that partook in this business, no matter how indirectly, should really take a minute and understand what black people are talking about. To date, no one has ever as much as said, "we are sorry for what we did." The facts are that it was this trade that gave America the grubstake to build a country. It was the unending hard work and misery suffered by Africans that made America possible. So even if you don't have ancestors involved in slavery you need to face the fact that all of those who are white in America have been beneficiaries of privileges that give you a special leg up. Part of your "privilege" comes from not carrying the burden of being rooted in the horror described below.
The passage below comes from "Eyewitness Accounts of Slavery in the Danish West Indies " by Paiewonsky. This is a difficult book to find but it is well worth the look if you are a serious researcher. It has some of the clearest descriptions of the reality of this awful business I've ever seen. These are eyewitness descriptions. No speculation. No hearsay. Reality as it was.
Excerpted from-- "Eyewitness Accounts of Slavery in the Danish West Indies " by Paiewonsky, Chapter III, Horrors of the Middle Passage:
The mortality rate of slave cargoes was directly related to the care and cleanliness of quarters in which the bulk of the slaves were stored. So the proper stowage of slaves, particularly at night, was of vital importance to a successful crossing from the Guinea Coast to the West Indies and America.
On a well run slave ship, the process of stowing the slaves for the night began at sundown. One of the best descriptions of the process is to be found in the account of Capt. Theodore Canot as told to Brantz Mayer:
"The second mate and boatswain descend into the hold, whip in hand, and range the slaves in their regular places; those on the right side of the vessel f acing forward and lying in each other's laps, while those on the left are similarly stowed with their faces towards the stern. In this way each Negro lies on his right side, which is considered preferable for the action of the heart.
"In allotting places, particular attention is paid to size, the taller being selected for the greatest breath of the vessel, while the shorter and younger are lodged near the bows."
The Danes always claimed that organization and treatment aboard the Danish ships were better than on the British ones. Treatment on the latter was supposed to be the worst possible, not only because of the tendency of the British to overcrowd their ships but because of the notorious brutality of the British captains, officers and crews.
The end result, mortality-wise, depended almost entirely on the organization and management aboard individual slave ships regardless of which national flag was flown. Statistics in the Danish State Archives demonstrate this clearly. There are extremes represented by the Danish slaver Acras with a death percentage of 43.3 percent, while the Danish slaver Ada reported less than I percent.
Close to the end of the monopoly period of the Danish West India and Guinea Company, precise records were kept of the movement of slaves to St. Croix on Danish vessels. The total was 6513. The death rate was 1056.
On slave ships that were poorly organized and overcrowded, Negroes were jammed into the holds with little regard for stowage. "They were literally piled one on top of another and the unsteady motion of the ship, combined with foul air and great heat made the place simply horrible......
Invariably, epidemics broke out under such conditions. According to the British ship doctor, Alexander Falconbridge:
"When the sea was rough and the rain heavy, it became necessary to close the air vents. Fresh air being thus excluded, the Negroes' storage area grew intolerably hot. The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies and by being repeatedly breathed, soon produced fevers and fluxes which generally carried off great numbers of them....
"Frequently, I went down among them till the hold became so unbearably hot that I could not stay. Excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered the situation intolerable. The floor of the hold was so covered with blood and mucus, which proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughterhouse.
"It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture a situation more dreadful or disgusting. Numbers of the slaves having fainted, they were carried on deck where several of them died and the rest) with great difficulty, were restored....
"Upon going down in the mornings to examine the condition of the slaves, I frequently found several dead, and among the men, sometimes a dead and living Negro fastened by their irons together. When this was the case, they were brought upon the deck and laid on the grating when the living Negro was disengaged and the dead one thrown overboard.
"An exertion of the greatest skill and attention could afford the diseased Negroes little relief so long as the causes of the diseases, namely, the breathing of a putrid atmosphere and wallowing in their own excrements, remain. When once the fever and flux get to any height at sea, a cure is scarcely ever effected. . . . "
Note: 'flux" is the early name for amoebic dysentery, an ulcerative inflammation of the colon. It may reach the liver by the portal bloodstream, producing abscesses on that organ. Today we know that this acute form of dysentery is caused not by 'foul air" and "excessive heat" but by the organism Entamoeba histolyticajound in bad water and rotted food. I.P
"By constantly lying in the blood and mucus flowing from those afflicted with the flux, others contracted it,," continued Falconbridge. "Few were able to withstand the fatal effects of it. The utmost skill of the surgeon was here ineffectual."
From the very beginning of the slave movement from Africa to the West Indies and America, mention is made of the ruinous effects of the flux on slave cargoes and ships 'crews. Whether it be the 16th, 17th@ 18th,, or 19th centuries, the record is there showing a constant dread of the flux and its devastating effects.
Sir John Hawkins, the great sea captain and first Englishman to engage in the slave trade between the Guinea Coast and America in the year 1563, limited the number of his crew "for fear of the flux and other inconveniences whereunto men in long voyages are commonly subjected to. . .. "
Another quote, typical of the 18th century, taken from a narrative: The Journal of Capt. Thomas Phillips (printed in London, 1764) declared:
"This distemper which my men as well as the blacks mostly died of, was the white flux,, which was so violent and inveterate that no medicine would in the least check it; so that when any of our men were seized by it, we esteemed him a dead man, as he generally proved. . . . "
So severely were Negroes afflicted with the flux at times, declared Falconbridge, that he had seen many of them, after being landed, obliged by the pain and virulence of the complaint to stop almost every minute to seek relief.
Falconbridge described in detail one of the deceptions practiced by a ship's captain:
"A Liverpool captain boasted of his having cheated some Jews by the following stratagem: A lot of slaves afflicted with the flux being landed for sale, he directed his ship's surgeon to stop the extremity of each of them with oakum. Thus prepared, they were taken to the place of sale, where being unable to stand but for a very short time, they were permitted to sit.
"The Jews, when they examined them, obliged them to stand in order to see if there be any discharge, and when there was no appearance of such, they considered it a symptom of recovery. A bargain was struck and the slaves were bought. But it was not long before discovery of the cheat followed, for the excruciating pain which the prevention of the discharge occasioned, could hardly be borne by the sick ones. The obstructions were removed and the deluded buyers were speedily convinced of the imposition...."
Falconbridge did not mention if this incident occurred in St. Thomas, but it is most probable that it did [happen].
Sign Our Guestbook!
View Guestbook Back to our HOME PAGE
Back to our HOME PAGE
Visitors have stopped in! Come back soon... We are adding new features every few days.