Teaching American History Project Lesson
  Tawnya Gamble

Conditions of the Middle Passage as Experienced by Captive Africans
A Unit of Study for Grades 9, 10, or 11

Tawnya Gamble

Wooster High School, Washoe County School District

A unit on the Middle Passage is an important lesson for students.  It is something that is often not taught in great detail because “slavery” becomes the dominant subject.  Often times this occurs because as teachers we often pick what we already know so we do not have to do extra work.  Slavery and the treatment of Africans is something that should never be repeated or forgotten.  The conditions these people endured during the Middle Passage are horrific.  Students should learn of these conditions to see the wrong in them.  The Middle Passage and the Slave Trade are the roots of the slavery that occurred in the United States.  By looking at the Middle Passage and the reasons behind it students can answer the questions of why and how slavery was implemented into society.  The reasons of why can be answered with the economic aspect.  The “how?” questions can be answered by looking at Africa prior to the Slave Trade and at the Middle Passage for a starting point of the ill treatment. 

The conditions of the Middle Passage are often forgotten because it was often a short period of the long and difficult lives some African slaves lived.  For those that survived, however, it was a long horrendous journey to an unknown land where an unknown future awaited them.  Slaves could not just be created out of an already established “free society,” therefore, they had to be imported from someplace else.  The transportation of slaves was a major part of international economics.  If students can better comprehend the roots behind slavery, the horrendous mistreatment of African people then, hopefully, they can end the long road racism has paved in this country.  Giving them the African perspective will open their eyes to a point-of-view they may have never thought of.  The connection from then to now could be made clear.  Most importantly, students will be able to see that a supposed “superior” race treated other human beings like objects and that is wrong.  Students will take away from this lesson, if nothing else, the knowledge that no human being should ever have to endure what the African slaves endured and why the racial issues of today exist as they do.  


Nevada Content Standards:

Economic Content Standard 3.12.1
Economic Content Standard 3.12.2
Economic Content Standard 7.12.6
Economic Content Standard 9.12.2
Economic Content Standard 9.12.5

Civics Content Standard
Civics Content Standard 4.12.5
Civics Content Standard 5.12.1

Geography Content Standard 2.12.1
Geography Content Standard 2.12.2
Geography Content Standard 2.12.3
Geography Content Standard 2.12.4
Geography Content Standard 4.12.2
Geography Content Standard 4.12.3
Geography Content Standard 4.12.9
Geography Content Standard 6.12.1

History Content Standard 1.12.2
History Content Standard 2.12.1
History Content Standard 2.12.2
History Content Standard 2.12.3
History Content Standard 4.12.5
History Content Standard 5.12.12
History Content Standard 5.12.13


Objectives of the Unit
  1. Students will be able to explain the social, economic, historical and geographic affects of the Middle Passage.
  2. Students will be able to analyze the economics of the Slave Trade.
  3. Students will be able to describe the conditions of the Middle Passage as endured by slaves.
  4. Students will be able to recall the different perspectives of those involved in the Slave Trade.
  5. Students will be able to connect the affects of the Middle Passage, the Slave Trade and slavery to current events of today.
  6. Students will be able to analyze causes/effects of the Middle Passage, the Slave Trade and slavery


Chronological Unit Outline

(Prior to Middle Passage Unit)

  1. Early African Civilizations
    1. Map of Africa and civilizations
    2. Relations, accomplishments, background of early civilizations.

      (Middle Passage Unit)

  1. The Slave Trade
    1. Map of Trade – global orientation
    2. Products of Trade
    3. Economics of Slave Trade
      1. Importance of Trade to areas of world
      2. Why Africa?
        1. Roots of slavery – why needed around the world
  2. The Middle Passage
    1. Definitions of Middle Passage – past vs. present
    2. Slave Capture – how and conditions prior to transport
    3. The ships and the voyage
    4. Treatment of slaves
    5. Statistics
  3. Results
    1. Changes in African societies – post Slave Trade
    2. Attitudes towards Africans, African-Americans due to Slave Trade, Middle Passage and slavery – i.e. Racism
    3. Connect with current issues – white as superior even today
  4. Springboard into political turmoil in Africa from this period on. 

Unit on Africa will end with South Africa, the turmoil and continued racism there. 


Teaching Strategies

Direct Instruction: 
 -Notes to get definitions, dates and statistics

Primary Sources: 
 -Art from the period ~ analyze how whites, Africans, Europeans etc. are depicted
 -Poetry ~ Analyze meanings and what they reveal. 
  ~ “Who done it?” activity – guess who the author might be and what it is   
 -Pictures ~ analyze slave ship pictures, shackles, whips, chains, weapons etc.
 -Slave accounts vs. crew/white man accounts ~ what is different, same etc.
 -Movies ~ analyze excerpts from “The Middle Passage”, Roots, Amistad – look  
   at differences, similarities and discuss

 -Activity where students must lie down shoulder to shoulder with string around feet and hands to get effect of slave ship and quarters - each student given different ailment, problem, sex, age and language

 -Global Map (refresh) location of South America, North America, Europe & Africa
 -Map out slave trade
 -Map out Middle Passage – consider distance, time, technology, weather, etc.

-From African point-of-view ~ Anti-Middle Passage poster - must convince other Africans nations to resist trade and stop Slave Trade/Middle Passage using issues of the time.

 -Racism – how slavery planted the roots of racism today.
 -Racism today – current issues - begin with their own personal definition of 
  racism – talk about different forms -Will it end?


            The decision of using Africans as slaves and the issues of trade on an international spectrum are extremely important when looking at the subject of slavery.  The Middle Passage is an important link in the Slave Trade that marked the beginning of a new and often horrendous life for many African people.  It reveals the story of the savage treatment of the so-called “savages” that were captured from Africa. 

            The Middle Passage is the term used to describe the trip across the Atlantic made by captive Africans.  The definition of “Middle Passage” has changed over time.  When the Slave Trade began it was used to describe the second leg of a slave ship’s journey.  The second leg was “…the leg that carried slave cargoes to the Americas (McMillan, preface).”  Over time, the use of the term has changed to describe the slaves’ journey across the Atlantic and the horrible conditions and treatment they endured during their forced migration to the Americas. 

            For many, the Middle Passage marked only the beginning of a life of ill treatment, torture and horrible living conditions.  For some, the journey marked the end of their lives.  Treated as cargo, many Africans experienced conditions that are hard to believe.  The “superior” Europeans that considered Africans, savage and inferior, put these conditions upon them.  When looking how the Europeans treated the African captives, however, it makes the Europeans look savage and inferior. 

            Before looking at the conditions of the Middle Passage, it is important to understand the economics of the Slave Trade.  The Slave Trade must be looked at from an economic standpoint because it is for economic reasons that many countries and people got involved in the trade.  The Slave Trade began in the mid 1440’s.  It was
“…launched for the specific purposes of providing labor to European colonies in Central and South America and the Caribbean. (McMillan, 9).”
As it began, the Slave Trade was a huge business that employed thousands of people both directly and indirectly.  Countries all around the globe benefited from the trade in many ways.  Many received supplies, many received money from the trade and, of course, some received slaves, which meant they did not have to pay individuals for labor.  At the time, it was an important aspect of world trade and international economics. 
            Some African nations, which benefited from the trade, provided slaves.  Without the cooperation of some African nations, the Slave Trade would have not been so successful.  Slaves were provided by some African nations who benefited from the trade.  African nations exchanged with the Europeans for goods that were valuable to that state.
                        “…slaves were exchanged for goods of value to the state.
                        Weapons of war, metal goods, and luxurious textiles were
                        all of value because they could be used to coerce or
                        reward (Inikori, 32).”
The Africans traded by other Africans were often enemies from another African nations.  Other Africans as well as slaves with in that nation traded POW’s or criminals.  Africans, however, did not treat their slaves as the Europeans treated their slaves.  The inhumane and savage treatment of slaves seems to be a characteristic of the white man. 
                        “Although commercial profit may have played a substantial
                        role, the various decisions of African rulers to participate in
                        the trade were far more complex.  They were rooted in a           
                        complicated series local situations in which financial, military,
                        and political considerations conspired to make the capture and
                        export of people a logical solution (McMillan, 51).”
            Slaves were acquired in a few different ways.  Sometimes the capturers would simply hide out and wait for a passer-by.  Some traded for goods, as mentioned above, and other Africans who would receive pay captured some.  However acquired, their fate would depend on physical and mental toughness.  In order to survive what lay ahead these two qualities were essential for survival. 

            Beginning in Africa, slaves were captured or traded and eventually transported to either North or South America or Europe.  McMillan, in Captive Passage, estimates anywhere from 11 to 13 million Africans reached the colonial shores of North or South America.  This does not include, however, those who died prior to shipment or during the Middle Passage.  That is why it is important to look at the conditions of the Middle Passage and why many slaves did not survive and the conditions those that survived endured (McMillan,10). 

            The story of the Middle Passage has been recalled in historical accounts, novels, poems, art, plays and today even the movies.  It is a story that is unfathomable to many today.  The horrific occurrences are hard to believe but are very true.  Another estimation by McMillan in Captive Passage states “… about 40 percent of each cargo died during the sixteenth century, 15 percent during the seventeenth century and between 5 and 10 percent in later years (McMillan, 11).”  These estimates take into account the mortality rates during the Middle Passage only.  It is very hard to determine exact numbers because of the lack of records. 

            Often, captured Africans had to wait on the African coast before departure.  The amount of time one might spend here depended upon how many slaves were already captured and how many more were needed to make a “full load”.  Many ships would not leave before it had enough slaves to fill it.  Many Africans died during the waiting period due to the conditions on the coast.  The captive quarters were often damp and the injured or ill were not taken care of.  Many of the captured were injured during the capturing process and their open wounds and injuries went unattended.  Another major point to be made is that communication between fellow captives was almost non-existent.  Quite often the fellow prisoners came from different African nations that spoke different languages.  Therefore, they could not even turn to one another for comfort or companionship.  The prisoners were virtually alone in a scary, unknown world awaiting an unknown future.  They had been taken from their families, homes and knew nothing of why or where they were going.  It is hard to imagine the emotional anguish this would cause.
                        “The depth of the emotional turmoil caused by their seizure,
                        enslavement and impending transportation across the sea can
                        only be imagined (McMillan, 51).”
Many Africans believed they were going to be eaten by the Europeans.  This was a rumor that traveled among the captive slaves.
                        “There were also rumors circulating among white slave traders
                        about a grisly incident that took place in 1724 on an English
                        slave ship commanded by Captain John Harding.  Believing
                        that the slaves onboard his ship were plotting a revolt, Harding
                        ordered the arrest of the man whom he believed to be the ring
                        leader.  In front of the other captives, the man’s throat was slit
                        and his heart and liver were cut out.  Then Captain Harding
                        ordered the bloody heart and liver to be cut into three hundred
                        pieces, and he forced each of the horrified captives to eat a piece
                        by threatening to do the same thing to them if they refused.  The
                        the experience so traumatized and disgusted the captives that
                        many of them refused all food after that and gradually starved
                        to death (Harms, 299).”

            Slave ship sizes varied along with the space each slave was allotted on the ship.  Ships were divided into deck platforms upon which slaves would be “herded” onto.  Each deck would be anywhere from 3 to 5 feet apart from each other.  This would not be enough room for the average slave to stand up in.  Standing up below deck was impossible anyway because each slave was chained together by both his/her hands and feet.  Some ships allotted each person 5 to 7 square feet of room to lie in for 3 to 4 months.  “Tight packing” was a method used to pack as many slaves into a ship as possible.  This meant the slaves would be forced to lie on their side for the entire journey across the Atlantic.  Tight packing was not a method often used because the mortality rate among slaves was much higher at the end of the journey.
            The Middle Passage could have possibly been less difficult to endure had it not been for its tremendous length.  The journey across the Atlantic took anywhere from 3 to 4 months.  Slaves were confined below the deck for this period of time with little relief.  There was no place for them to go to the bathroom or even a chance to be unchained from the person next to them.  Captives were whipped or beaten for acting out, not eating and sometimes just because.  Many became extremely depressed from the living conditions they faced everyday.  Illness and disease were rampant down below the deck and the terrible stench made it difficult to breath (McMillan, 53).  As Olaudah Equino recalls:
                        “…but still I feared I should be put to death, the white people
                        looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had
                        never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty;
                        and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of
                        the whites themselves (Equiano, 55).” 
Slaves were ordered above deck every so often to “exercise.”  The “exercise” was a dance that was enforced by whipping.  Those not participating were whipped until they did.  The dancing was humiliating and painful to all that hadn’t moved in weeks.  A poem written in 1790 illustrates this humiliation:
                        “At the savage Captain’s beck,
                        Now like brutes they make us prance:
                        Smack the Cat about the Deck,
                        And in scorn they bid us dance (Lecointe-Marsillac, 47-48).”
It was at this point, above deck, that many decided to take their own lives.  Some slaves were driven to throw themselves overboard to escape the horrible circumstances of the slave ship.  Captives who died during the trip were also thrown overboard like supplies that went bad.   
                        “…and that most of the struggled to their feet, and in spite
                        of cramps and weakness, staggered to the rail and plunged
                        over, that they might show the others how to die (Spears, 73).” 
            Death of slaves on board was very common.  There are several reasons slaves died during the Middle Passage.  Starvation and malnutrition were common slave ships.  Sometimes captains underestimated the amount of food needed or the journey took longer than expected and therefore the slaves went hungry.  Some slaves refused to eat in hopes to die (McMillan, 60). 

            Disease and sickness also affected slave survival rates.  Many of the diseases came from the Europeans and very few doctors could treat the slaves.  Ship doctors rarely understood the causes of diseases that the captives suffered from.  If the illness or disease was treatable, appropriate medical care was difficult given the situation and numbers.  Some of the illnesses could be blamed on changes in diet and  contaminated water.  Dysentery, dehydration, and scurvy were direct results of those changes.  Other “fevers” such as malaria and small pox were major killers during the voyage.  An account of the slave ship, the “Regard,” records losing 142 slaves to small pox in 1706.  The “Indian Queen” lost 140 slaves in 1716 to small pox and 45 slaves had advance signs of the disease while 43 more showed early stages of the disease upon docking (McMillan, 70).

            Men, women and children alike endured all of the conditions mentioned.  No one person was given a better chance of survival over the journey.  Women however, faced other burdens during the voyage that men and children were not exposed to.  Sexual abuse and rape from ship crewmembers was very common.  Some women were captured during pregnancy and forced to give birth aboard the ship.  Other women had to make the journey across the Atlantic pregnant and gave birth soon after arriving in the colonies.  Numbers on this subject are unknown but it has been documented that it did occur (McMillan, 56). 

            There are many statistics regarding death and survival rates of captives during the Middle Passage.  Many statistics conflict and differ as records of the period are few.  It is very difficult to assume an exact number of deaths because conditions from ship to ship and slave to slave varied.  It is more important perhaps, to remember the conditions these people experienced rather than how many survived it.  Statistics do not paint the vivid picture of individual suffering that took place from the time of capture and throughout the journey.  The emotional and physical distress each person endured is what becomes most important.  The numbers may be large or small but looking through the eyes of the people that experienced the journey makes it more astounding.  The idea that humans could treat other human beings in this manner is what should be remembered.
                        “Yet the story of the transatlantic trade is also the story of
                        how people stripped all human rights managed to resist the
                        psychic and cultural ravages of enslavement.  Instead they
                        endured , and then moved beyond simple endurance to forge
                        new cultures, establish religions, and evolve rich art forms.  In
                        ways dramatic or more subtle, the larger societies in which
                        slaves lived and worked became infused with African
                        heritage (McMillan, preface).”
The slave trade had huge effect on both the colonies and Africa.  The horrific treatment of slaves did not end with the Middle Passage.  It continued on into many of their lives as slaves thereafter.  The colonies benefited from the Slave Trade obviously with the implementation of slaves throughout the workforce.  The effects on Africa were much different.  The Africans captured as slaves were quite often the strongest most capable members of the African societies from which they came.  Some African states would be missing an entire generation.  Fighting among tribes was an ancient tradition but with the onset of slavery, fighting and hatred among them became more extreme.  The Slave Trade also started an institution still alive today on a worldwide basis, racism.  Racism against blacks in the Americas is a direct result of Slave Trade (Reynolds, 31-32).  The ill treatment of an entire race that began on their land, continued across an entire ocean, and still remains over 500 years later, began due to the all-important dollar.


  1. Beverly McMillan, ed.  Captive Passage.  (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).  pp.  9,10,11,51,53,54,56,60,69,70.
  2. Joseph E. Inikori, Stanley L. Engerman, eds.  The Atlantic Slave Trade:  Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe.  (Duke University Press, 1992).  Page:  32.
  3. Robert Harms,  The Diligent:  A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade.  (Basic Books, 2002).  pp. 299

*Quote from:  Lecointe-Marsillac, Le More-lack (London, 1789), pp. 47-48.

  1. Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.  (St. Martin’s Press, 1995).  pp. 55
  2. John R. Spears.  The American Slave Trade.  (Kennikat Press, 1967).  pp.  73.
  3. Reynolds, Edward.  World History:  Perspectives on the Past:  Focus on Africa,  (D.C. Heath & Co., 1997).


Annotated Reading

Reading List for Teachers:

Equiano, Olaudah.  The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself.  Boston:  Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995.  Autobiography of a slave that tells the amazing story of his life.  Beginning in Africa, his story follows his life as a free man in Africa to a slave in America.  It is a great primary source for both teachers and students.

Henry A. Gemery, Jan S. Hogendorn.  The Uncommon Market:  Essays in the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade.  (New York:  Academic Press, 1979).  Gives the economic history of the Slave Trade.  Looks at the Slave Trade from the perspective of Africans, Europeans, and Americans.  This book will give teachers the economic background and reasons for the Slave Trade.

Robert Harms.  The Diligent:  A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade.  (New York:  Basic Books, 2002).  The story of a slave ship, the Diligent, as it makes its way the Slave Trade.  The book has excellent illustrations, figures and is a great story.  Teachers can use this book for background or read excerpts to students. 

Joseph E. Harris, editor.  Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora.  ( Washington, D.C.:  Howard University Press, 1993.)  Harris goes into great detail about the existence of Africans throughout the world.  It discusses the history of African slavery throughout the world and discusses in great detail the Slave Trade and the Middle Passage.

Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman, editors.  The Atlantic Slave Trade:  Effects on Economics, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas and Europe.  (Durham and London:  Duke University Press, 1992).  This book gives different perspectives of the Slave Trade.  It discusses everyone involved and what was gained and lost in the trade by all.  It discusses the Middle Passage and conditions on the ships and endured by slaves.  It would be a great background book for teachers.

Julius Lester.  To Be a Slave.  (New York:  Dial Press, 1968).  A great book for a primary source.  It gives many accounts from slaves beginning with their capture and through their lives as slaves in America.  It gives poems and songs with explanations along side every excerpt.  Excellently written and illustrated, this book would be excellent for students and teachers.

Beverly McMillan, editor.  Captive Passage.  (Newport News, Virginia:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).  This is an excellent resource for both teachers and students alike.  It contains the story of the Middle Passage with excellent pictures, artwork and stories.  This would give any teacher quick background information along with pictures and art to show student to analyze.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Middle Passage for quick review or detailed background information.

Reynolds, Edward.  World History:  Perspectives on the Past:  Focus on Africa,  (Lexington:  D.C. Heath & Co., 1997).  This guidebook goes along with the world history textbook used at the high school level.  It is very informative but does not cover any one subject in-depth.  It could be used as a good refresher or overview of Africa and its history.  

John R. Spears.  The America Slave Trade:  An Account of its Origin, Growth and Suppression.  (Port Washington, New York:  Kennikat Press, Inc,  1967).  This book gives the history of the Slave Trade from the American perspective.  From the introduction:  “This book has been written almost wholly from public documents, biographies, stories of travelers, and other sources of original information.”  It covers many perspectives and is an easy read through a lot of history.

Marion L. Starkey.  Striving to Make It My Home:  The Story of Americans from Africa.  (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co.,  1964.  A history of Africans in America.  This book is easy to read and will help with background information on the Middle Passage, the Slave Trade and slavery as an institution.  It goes into great detail the conditions put upon African captives and slaves.


Reading List for Students:

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself.  (Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995).  Autobiography of a slave that tells the amazing story of his life.  Beginning in Africa, his story follows his life as a free man in Africa to a slave in America.  It is a great primary source for both teachers and students.

John W. Blassingame.  Slave Testimony.  (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press,  1977).  This books gives many slave testimonies.  This is an excellent primary sources document for students to analyze.

Tom Feelings.  The Middle Passage:  White Ships, Black Cargo.  (New York:  Dial Books, 1995).  This is a children’s book with no writing, only illustrations.  It illustrates the story of the Middle Passage beginning with life in Africa prior to capture.  It is very emotionally illustrated and includes pictures of the conditions.  It may be something fun to show students to analyze and predict what is being illustrated and why.