Slavery ships’ abominable conditions

A schematic drawing of the slave ship Brooks (also known as the Brookes) portrays the inhumane living conditions that enslaved Africans endured during the Middle Passage. Image courtesy

In the early days of slavery, Britain and other European countries sent slave ships to West Africa to kidnap Africans and sell them to Americans. The first slaves were brought to the USA in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 to aid in production of crops such as tobacco.

Over the years, millions of free West Africans were taken against their will from their homes and placed on ships that took them on a route known as the Middle Passage. It was the middle leg of the “triangle trade” from Europe to Africa to America and back again. The Europeans were paid in goods by the Americans. The treatment of the kidnapped Africans by the British, who were considered a civilized nation, was abominable.

In 1858 James Buchanan; 15th President of the USA, sent J.B. Danforth, who had an interest in the Argus, to West Africa to learn about “the abominable traffic in human beings,” according to a history of Rock Island. Danforth was a purser in the United States Navy. (I could find no account of his journey however; the “Full text of the African repository” has information on that time period.)

Apparently the way the kidnapped Africans were treated did not change much over the years. Alexander Falconbridge was a doctor on British slave ships for four voyages (1780-1787).  His “An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa,” is on the Iowa Public Television website in the USA.

At one point fairs were held in Africa every six weeks to sell Africans to slave traders. Several thousand Africans from babies to 62-year-olds were kidnapped from all parts of the country and sold into slavery. In some cases blacks themselves captured and sold other blacks.

When European purchasers looked over the blacks for sale, according to Falconbridge’s account, they considered their age, health, deformity or anything that would render them incapable of much labor. The males purchased were brought aboard the ship and fastened together, two and two, by handcuffs on their wrists. This was not done to the women. “The traders frequently beat those Negros which are rejected by the captains,” said Falconbridge.

Artist rendition of unshackled African slaves aboard a slave ship courtesy

Large buckets of conical shape were placed in areas of the ship for human waste. “It often happens that those who are placed at a distance from the buckets in endeavoring to get to them tumble over their companions,” wrote Falconbridge.

If they couldn’t get to the buckets especially since two men were connected to one another,  they returned to their spot where their waste was deposited. This caused boils and disease. (Not every slave ship had the same procedures.)

The area on the ships where Africans were staying were not high enough for them to stand up straight.  And they only had enough room to sleep on their sides.

“The diet of the Negros consists chiefly of horse beans boiled to the consistency of a pulp, of boiled yams and rice and sometimes a small quantity of beef or pork,” wrote Falconbridge. “Upon the Negroes refusing to take sustenance, I have seen coals of fire, glowing hot, and put on a shovel and placed so near their lips as to scorch and burn them.”

Falconbridge describes the terrible conditions for the sick. “They were under the half deck on bare planks and they were obliged to lie one upon another,” he said.  Some were lying in blood and mucus flowing from other sick ones. They often lost their skin and even their flesh was entirely rubbed off.

This situation in the sick area of the slavery ship went on for weeks. Many did not live that long. Doctors were ineffectual. “If plasters are applied they are very soon displaced by the friction of the ship and when bandages are used the Negroes soon take them off and appropriate them to other purposes.” In addition to all this, the heat was stifling. The smell was intolerable to the doctor. “During the voyages I made, I was frequently witness to the fatal effects of this exclusion of fresh air.” On one of his voyages the portholes were shut and the grating covered during rain. Several slaves fainted.

The United States banned further imports of slaves from Africa in 1808.  But slavery remained legal until the end of the American Civil War. Some traders, however, such as Lafitte & Co., of North Carolina, proclaimed they were bringing a cargo of free Negroes, African emigrants seeking a passage to the USA. That made no sense. They would have no way of paying for their passage. In addition, most slave-holding states had laws against bringing in free blacks. The country at the time was endeavoring to find a way to remove blacks from both slave-holding and non-slaveholding states.

“Slavery and bias in historic West Africa: A case of he said, he said,” is a lesson plan for teachers found at and used in some states in the USA.

Students and readers are advised to study different source documents concerning West African history and work to discover the differences and similarities between the documents.

Find out more about Slave Ships and the Middle Passage that perpetrated slavery between 1500 and 1866 within which nearly 12.5 million enslaved Africans were transported from Africa to the Americas.

Source: Marlene Gantt of Port Byron, a retired school teacher.

About Oral Ofori

Oral Ofori is Founder and Publisher at, a digital storyteller and producer, and also an information and research consultant.

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