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Middle Passage facts for kids

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Kenneth Lu - Slave ship model ( (4811223749)
Slave ship model displayed at the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution)

The Middle Passage was the part of the Atlantic slave trade where African slaves were brought to the Americas on slave ships. Millions of African people were shipped to the Americas over the Middle Passage.

Enslaved people were treated so badly on the slave ships that about 15% of them died during the Middle Passage. Even more were killed before they left Africa, when slave traders were trying to kidnap them and force them onto the slave ships. Historians think that up to two million African people died during the Middle Passage. However, somewhere between 9.4 million and 12 million African people survived the Middle Passage, and arrived in the Americas as slaves.

The triangular trade

The Transatlantic Trading of Enslaved Human Beings from African Heritage had three different parts. Because of this, it was called "the triangular trade." The Middle Passage got its name because it was the middle part of the triangular trade. The three parts of the Atlantic slave trade were:

(1) Europe to Africa

Ships brought weapons, gunpowder, cloth, rum, and manufactured goods from Europe to Africa. In Africa, these things were traded for African people who had been bought as slaves or kidnapped.

(2) Africa to the Americas (the Middle Passage)

Enslaved African people were brought to the Americas on slave ships. There they were sold as slaves, or traded for raw materials like sugar, tobacco, and cotton, which other enslaved people had made.

(3) The Americas to Europe

These raw materials would be sent to Europe, where they were used to make things. Then the triangular trade would start all over again. For example, cotton would be used to make cloth. That cloth could then be sent to Africa to trade for more enslaved people.

The enslaved peoples' journey

Slave ship diagram
Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade, called the "Brookes" slave ship. (From an Abstract of Evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1790 and 1791.)

After being kidnapped, enslaved African people were usually forcibly marched to forts along the coast of western Africa. There they were sold to European and American human traffickers. They might have to wait in these forts, which were like prisons, for months before slave ships arrived.

Enslaved people were then packed onto the slave ships. Often, they were packed together as closely as possible. (The famous drawing on the right shows how closely enslaved people were packed together on some slave ships.) Enslaved men were often chained together at the ankles. Sometimes, slaves were allowed to move around during the day, but many ships kept enslaved people chained up for the entire trip.

Sailing through the Middle Passage could take anywhere from one to six months, depending on the weather. Over time, human trafficking ships got better at making the trip more quickly. In the early 16th century, the average trip took a few months. However, by the 19th century, many slave ships crossed the Middle Passage in fewer than six weeks.

Living conditions

Enslaved people were treated barbarically and wickedly during the Middle Passage. Slaves were not seen as human. They were thought of as "cargo" or "goods" - commodities rather than innocent people - to be bought and sold, and not respected and cared about.

Enslaved people were starved during the Middle Passage. At "best", the enslavers fed enslaved people beans, corn, yams, rice, and palm oil. However, enslaved African people were not always fed every day. If there was not enough food for the sailors (human traffickers) and the slaves, the enslavers would eat first, and the enslaved might not get any food. On some slave ships, slaves who looked sick were not given any food. Many enslaved people died from starvation and dehydration (not having enough water) during the Middle Passage.

The enslaved peoples' living conditions on the slave ships were horrific. Diseases spread very quickly because the enslaved people were so crowded together, and because there was no sanitation. The most common diseases were dysentery, scurvy, smallpox and measles. Many enslaved African people were killed by disease during the Middle Passage. On longer trips, even more enslaved people died, because there was less food and water (this made dysentery and scurvy more common). Also, many slaves became too depressed to eat.

Slaves were often tortured as punished if they did not follow the human traffickers' orders or if they seemed disobedient in any way. For example, enslaved people who were too depressed or sick to eat might be beaten or whipped. The worst forms of torture were for enslaved people who tried to rebel (fight back).


Many different people participated in the Middle Passage and the triangular trade.

World powers

The countries that controlled most of the slave trade were European and Asian countries that were very powerful at the time. These countries included:

Slave traders in North America, Brazil, and the Caribbean also took part in the slave trade.

Different countries were more powerful in the slave trade at different times. For example, for two hundred years, from 1440–1640, Portugal controlled most of the slave trade. However, over time, the balance of power in Europe changed. By the 18th century, the British Empire was much more powerful. During the 18th century, when 6 million Africans were brought over the Middle Passage, British slavers carried almost 2.5 million of them.


Most of the African slaves came from eight different areas:

Slave traders

The slave trade was very profitable for slave traders. By the late 18th century, a strong male slave could be sold for about $600 to $1500 (which is about $9,000 to $15,000 in United States dollars today). Because of this, kidnapping people in Africa and selling them into slavery became more and more popular. Historians think that African warlords, kings, and private kidnappers - Europeans, Americans, and Africans alike - all participated in kidnapping people into slavery.

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