The Middle Passage — the Brutal Voyage Across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas

1520s–1850s

The Middle Passage was a route in the Triangular Trade System that started in Northwest Africa, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and ended in the Americas. The Middle Passage is most well-known for its use in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the terrible suffering it imposed on imprisoned Africans who were sold into slavery.

Middle Passage, Captive Africans, Illustration, NYPL

This illustration depicts captive Africans in the hold of the ship Gloria during a journey across the Middle Passage. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

What was the Middle Passage?

The Middle Passage was part of the Triangular Trade System, which facilitated the movement of commodities — knives, guns, ammunition, cotton cloth, tools, and other manufactured goods — from Europe to Africa, transporting Africans to serve as laborers in the Americas and West Indies, and conveying various goods, primarily raw materials, generated on the plantations — sugar, rice, tobacco, indigo, rum, and cotton — back to Europe. 

Within the Triangular Trade System, the Middle Passage was the route that transported Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the West Indies, where they were sold into slavery, often to work on large tobacco and sugar plantations. It was also the middle route of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

As part of the Mercantile System, the Middle Passage was an approved route English ships were allowed to use to transport goods and products. Africans were collected in Africa, carried across the ocean, and landed in various port cities in the Americas.

From about 1518 to the mid-19th century, hundreds of thousands of Africans — men, women, and children — were loaded onto ships and traveled across the Middle Passage on voyages lasting 3 weeks to 6 months, depending on the weather.

The conditions on the ships were horrible, as Africans were usually confined below deck in cramped quarters. Many were marked with brands and men were chained together. Many Africans died during the journey and many more suffered from illness or harsh treatment from the crewmembers.

The first Africans arrived in Jamestown on a ship in 1619, where they became Indentured Servants. At that time, Indentured Servants accounted for a significant portion of the workforce in the English Colonies. Over time, plantation owners transitioned to enslavement, due to incentives provided by the Headright System and the fact they had complete control over slaves — including their children.

From 1619 to 1860, it is believed roughly 475,000 Africans were abducted and sent to North America, where they landed in a port and were auctioned off as slaves. It is believed that 18-20 percent of the slaves that crossed the Middle Passage died during the journey.

Slave Auction, New Amsterdam
This illustration by Howard Pyle depicts the first slave auction in New Amsterdam (New York City). Image Source: Wikipedia.

Facts About the Middle Passage

1. Some historians view the Transatlantic Slave Trade as the largest movement of people from one location to another in history, as somewhere between 10 and 15 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Middle Passage from the early 1500s to the latter half of the 19th Century.

2. It is estimated that as many as 2 million Africans died crossing the Middle Passage, and thousands more died after they arrived in the Americas, as they were transported to plantations.

3. The high death rate was due to cramped conditions, which allowed diseases like measles and smallpox to quickly spread. Unsanitary conditions led to contaminated drinking water, leading to dysentery, diarrhea, and dehydration. Many arrived at their destination covered in sores and suffering from fever.

4. Once Africans embarked on the Middle Passage, they were cut off Africans from their culture and history. This led to the establishment of unique cultures that paid tribute to their African heritage, while adapting to the harsh realities of plantation life, including the Gullah Culture in South Carolina and Georgia.

5. The Middle Passage usually took more than seven weeks, with the length of the voyage depending on the weather over the Atlantic Ocean. Over time, advances in technology reduced the travel time but did not improve the conditions Africans were subjected to.

6. Africans were placed below deck, with males and females separated. Males were placed toward the bow (front) and females toward the stern (back). Males were usually bound in chains and forced to lie on the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder. Females were typically unchained.

7. During the voyage across the Middle Passage, Africans were usually fed only once or twice a day. Some refused to eat, as a form of protest against their abduction. If they refused, they were often force-fed by their captors.

8. There were Middle Passage destination ports in all regions of the American Colonies. Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina holds the unfortunate distinction of being the port where the highest number of Africans entered the American Colonies.

9. Boston and Newport were the primary destinations for ships that sailed the Middle Passage to New England.

10. After arriving in the New World, some Africans escaped from their captors. They formed “Maroon Colonies” in remote regions of the American Colonies, including South Carolina and Florida.

11. The Middle Passage was the middle portion of the complex Transatlantic Trade System that started in Africa and ended in the Americas.

Sugar Plantation, West Indies, Illustration
This illustration depicts a Sugar Plantation in the West Indies. Image Source: Library of Congress.

What was it like on the Middle Passage?

Olaudah Equiano, a writer and Abolitionist who was also known as Gustavus Vassa, was taken from his village in Nigeria when he was a boy. He crossed the Middle Passage to the Caribbean, where he was sold to an officer in the British Royal Navy. 

In his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, he recalled the experience:

“When I looked ‘round the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate and quite overpowered with sorrow and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted…I asked if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair?”

“The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocating us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”

The “necessary tubs” Equiano refers to are buckets used as toilets.

Middle Passage Ports of Destination in the New England Colonies

New Hampshire — Portsmouth

It is believed the presence of Africans in New Hampshire can be traced to 1645 when a “Mr. Williams” of Piscataqua bought a man from Guinea who was kidnapped from Africa. As the Transatlantic Slave Trade grew, Portsmouth became a major port of arrival for ships carrying captive Africans.

A historical marker in Portsmouth marks the African Burying Ground and says:

“Throughout the Colonial Era, New Hampshire’s affluent port town had the largest number of slaves in the colony, up to 4 percent of the population recorded in the census of 1767. By 1810, few if any people of African ancestry were still enslaved in Portsmouth.”

It is important to note that from its founding to 1741, New Hampshire was usually under the legal jurisdiction of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts — Boston and Salem

Boston and Salem were both destinations for ships crossing the Middle Passage, however, one of the earliest instances of involvement in the slave trade took place in 1637.

That year, the ship Desire sailed out of Salem, carrying Pequot People who were captured during the Pequot War. The ship sailed to the Caribbean, where the Pequots were sold into slavery to work on Sugar Plantations.

On the return trip, the Desire carried Africans, who were sold in Boston when the ship docked in February 1638.

Soon after, Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the Body of Liberties (1641), which legalized slavery for “captives taken in just wars” and “strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us.”

Rhode Island — Newport, Bristol, and Providence

Following the Pequot War and King Philip’s War, many Native American Indians living in the area were taken as prisoners and many were transported to the Caribbean where they were sold as slaves.

Some of their land was claimed by Plymouth Colony as spoils of war and Plymouth sold it to a group that founded the town of Bristol. From 1700 to 1808, Newport, Bristol, and Providence became major destination ports for ships sailing the Middle Passage. 

The first known slave ship arrived in Newport in 1696. The Seaflower carried 47 captive Africans. In 1700, three ships left Newport and sailed to Africa where they purchased Africans and then sold them in Barbados.

One of the most well-known slave owners was James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island. A merchant and politician, DeWolf and members of his family brought an estimated 12,000 enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage to Rhode Island.

Connecticut — New London and Middletown

In 1761, a schooner named Speedwell arrived in New London, Connecticut, carrying 74 captive Africans. Unfortunately, another 21 died on the journey. When the Speedwell left New London, it traveled to Middletown.

A historical marker in New London says:

“Although this is the only documented voyage of a ship arriving in New London directly from Africa with enslaved Africans, slave traders often sailed from New London to Africa and the West Indies to purchase enslaved Africans and sell them throughout the Americas…the sale of enslaved Africans is only one part of a larger story of how slavery drove New London’s eighteenth-century economy. The food, livestock and lumber that flowed through New London to the West Indies supported the sugar plantations where enslaved Africans toiled.”

Middle Passage Ports of Destination in the Middle Colonies

New York — New Amsterdam and New York City

The Province of New York was originally the Dutch colony of New Netherland. A group of settlers arrived in 1626 and founded New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, which is the location of present-day New York City. That same year, 11 Africans arrived on a ship. They were from Congo, Angola, and the island of Sao Tome, and they worked in farming, construction, and the Fur Trade.

The city became a major destination for ships on the Middle Passage and it is estimated that by the 1630s roughly one-third of the city’s population were enslaved Africans. After the colony transferred to English control, the African population continued to rise.

A slave market was opened in 1711 along the bank of the East River, on Wall Street. It operated for more than 50 years, closing in 1762. However, the slave trade in New York City continued.

Oppression of the African population contributed to the New York Slave Revolt (1712) and the New York Slave Conspiracy (1741).

New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741, Slaves on Trial
Africans on trial in 1741. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

New Jersey — Camden and Perth Amboy

The institution of slavery spread from New Amsterdam, across the Hudson River, into present-day New Jersey. In 1630, 50 Africans were enslaved on a farm, making them the first blacks in what became the Province of New Jersey. 

In 1664, the Lords Proprietors implemented the Headright System, offering land to anyone who paid to have slaves brought into the colony. The purpose was to increase the population and the workforce.

By 1760, there were at least three ports in Camden serving as destinations for ships sailing the Middle Passage. Perth Amboy was also a well-known port.

Pennsylvania — Philadelphia

Captive Africans arrived in the area as early as 1639, in present-day Philadelphia, which was part of New Sweden and later New Netherland. 

After New Netherland transitioned to English control, King Charles II granted the territory of present-day Pennsylvania to William Penn. 

The colony was initially a haven for Quakers, who opposed slavery. However, Penn and others still owned slaves and Philadelphia was a major port destination for the Middle Passage. The first ship carrying captive Africans arrived in 1684. That ship, the Isabella, carried around 150 captive Africans. It is believed to be the first shipment of slaves that arrived after Penn’s colony was established.

By 1688, the first anti-slavery protests were held when Dutch Quakers and German Mennonites living in Germantown issued a petition asking their slave-holding neighbors, who were also Quakers, to free their slaves and abolish the practice.

Delaware — Lewes and Wilmington

Delaware started as part of New Sweden. The first African in the territory was a man named Anthony, who arrived in New Sweden on the Fogel Grip in 1639. Known as “Black Anthony,” he was either kidnapped by the crew or stowed away on the ship, but he was delivered to Fort Christina. Nine years later, he was a free man, working as as special assistant to Governor Johan Printz.

After the colony was transferred to the English, it was known as the Lower Counties on the Delaware. By 1721, an estimated 500 enslaved Africans were living in the colony.

Lewes and Wilmington served as destinations for Middle Passage ships.

Middle Passage Ports of Destination in the Chesapeake Colonies

Maryland — Annapolis

The first colonists from Europe who arrived in Maryland brought enslaved Africans with them. Maryland charged lower taxes on imported slaves, making ports in the colony attractive destinations for ships on the Middle Passage.

It is believed the first slave ship arrived in Annapolis on September 29, 1757, carrying 90 captive Africans. 10 years later, another slave ship arrived. Its story is told on a historic marker at the port of Annapolis that says:

“Most notable is the arrival of the Lord Ligonier, a British ship constructed in New England and captained by Thomas Davis, that embarked from Senegambia and the Guinea Coast with 140 captive Africans. A total of 96 captive Africans survived and were delivered to Annapolis in 1767. On this ship was the ancestor of the late Alex Haley, known to the world as “Kunta Kinte.” 

His journey and his life as a person held in bondage are chronicled in Haley’s award-winning novel and mini-series, Roots.

Captive Africans like Kunta Kinte were sold into chattel slavery for a lifetime but continued to seek physical and spiritual liberty for themselves and their families.”

Additional ports in Maryland served as destinations for Middle Passage ships, including Leonardtown, London Towne, Oxford, Port Tobacco, Selby’s Landing, and Sotterly.

Virginia — Jamestown

In 1619, the first documented Africans in the American Colonies arrived near Jamestown, Virginia on a ship called the White Lion. It was an English ship, sailing as a privateer for the Dutch, and took the Africans from a Portuguese ship. The ship docked at Point Comfort and traded the Africans for food. This incident is largely seen as the beginning of America’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

That same year, the Virginia Company devised and implemented the Headright System, which encouraged landowners to bring colonists into Virginia. Following Bacon’s Rebellion, the wealthy planters shifted from indentured servitude to enslavement. In doing so, they reaped the benefits of the Headright System and retained control of the workforce.

Virginia’s economy was largely based on tobacco farming and required a large workforce. By the start of the 18th Century, slaves accounted for a large portion of the population.

Along with Jamestown, Middle Passage destinations included Point Comfort, Yorktown, Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Leedstown.

Only South Carolina imported more captive Africans than Virginia. Following the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Virginia was a leader in the Domestic Slave Trade.

Middle Passage Ports of Destination in the Southern Colonies

North Carolina and South Carolina were originally one colony — Carolina — which was founded by the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. Four of the Lords Proprietors were members of the Royal African Company, a slave trading company, and then encouraged the importation of African slaves.

In 1712, Carolina was divided into two regions. South Carolina became a Royal Colony in 1719, followed by North Carolina in 1729.

North Carolina — Wilmington

The primary Middle Passage port in North Carolina was Wilmington, however, other Middle Passage destinations in North Carolina were Roanoke, New Bern, Brunswick, and Beaufort.

South Carolina — Sullivan’s Island

Sullivan’s Island sits at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. It holds the unfortunate distinction of being the most popular entry point for captive Africans in America. It is estimated that 260,000 Africans were transported across the Middle Passage to Sullivan’s Island.

Slave Auction, South Carolina
This illustration depicts a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Upon their arrival, any Africans who were sick were placed in “Pest Houses,” which were small houses, usually 30 feet long and 10 feet wide. They would stay there until they were deemed healthy enough to be sent to the slave auction in Charleston.

A historical marker on Sullivan’s Island says:

“…this historical marker acknowledges Sullivan’s Island as the arrival point for tens of thousands of Africans torn from their homes in West Africa and sold into slavery between 1700 and 1775. About 40 percent of African-Americans alive today can trace their ancestral roots to West Africa through the Sullivan’s Island/Charleston gateway.”

Georgia — Savannah

Georgia was founded in 1733 to be a buffer region between South Carolina and Spanish Florida. At the start, slavery was illegal, however, land owners still had slaves and the practice was legalized in 1751. At that point, Savannah became a major destination port for the Middle Passage. Captive Africans were often held on Tybee Island before they were transported to Savannah to be sold at slave auctions.

Sugar Cane Plantation, Enslaved Workers, Sugar Act Image
Enslaved Africans working on a Sugar Cane Plantation. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Legacy of the Middle Passage

There are several ongoing projects working to document the Middle Passage.

The Middle Passage Project

The Middle Passage Project is working to install markers that accurately commemorate the arrival and lives of Africans who were forced to cross the Middle Passage. The project intends to remember the contributions of those Africans and their ancestors. It is part of a national effort to research and identify the 48 ports that were destinations for ships sailing the Middle Passage as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The Slave Voyages Consortium

The Slave Voyages Consortium offers a collaborative website that compiles and makes publicly accessible records of the largest slave trades in history. Users can search records to learn about the broad origins and forced relocations of more than 12 million African people who were sent across the Atlantic in slave ships, and hundreds of thousands more who were trafficked within the Americas.

Middle Passage APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Colonial Era, the New England Colonies, the Middle Colonies, and the Southern Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Middle Passage APUSH Definition

The Middle Passage was a frightening and dehumanizing voyage that was part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Triangular Trade System. It referred to the perilous journey that African captives endured, crossing over the Atlantic Ocean from West Africa to the Americas. Packed tightly in the cargo holds of slave ships, Africans suffered extreme hardships, including overcrowding, disease, and cruelty. The Middle Passage played a crucial role in supplying enslaved labor to American Colonial economies, leaving a tragic legacy of exploitation and suffering.

Middle Passage Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Heimler’s History discusses the Transatlantic Slave Trade, including the Middle Passage.