Slave ship

For other uses, see Slave ship (disambiguation).

Slave ships were large cargo ships specially converted for the purpose of transporting slaves, especially newly captured African slaves to the Americas.

Atlantic slave trade

A plan of the slave ship Brookes, showing how 454 slaves were accommodated on board. This same ship had reportedly carried as many as 609 people; published by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Only a few decades after the arrival of Europeans to America,[1][2] demand for unpaid labor to work plantations made slave-trading a profitable business. The peak time of slave ships to the Atlantic passage was between the 18th and early-19th centuries, when large plantations developed in the colonies of America.

In order to achieve profit, the owners of the ships divided their hulls into holds with little headroom, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy led to a high mortality rate, on average 15%[3] and up to a third of captives. Often the ships, also known as Guineamen,[4] transported hundreds of slaves, who were chained tightly to plank beds. For example, the slave ship Henrietta Marie carried about 200 slaves on the long Middle Passage. They were confined to cargo holds with each slave chained with little room to move.[5]

The most significant routes of the slave ships led from the north-western and western coasts of Africa to South America and the south-east coast of what is today the United States, and the Caribbean. As many as 20 million Africans were transported by ship.[6] The transportation of slaves from Africa to America was known as the Middle Passage.

Conditions on slave ships

Owners of slave ships did their best to hold as many enslaved people as possible, cramming, chaining, and selective grouping techniques were used to maximize space and make travel more profitable.Those that were on the ships were underfed and treated with brutality which caused some to die before even arriving at their destination. These people also were not treated as human: living like animals throughout their long voyage to the New World. The enslaved were naked and shackled together with several different types of chains, stored on the floor beneath bunks with little to no room to move due to the crammed conditions. They spent a large portion of time pinned to floorboards which would wear skin on their elbows down to the bone. Firsthand accounts from former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano describe the horrific conditions that enslaved people were forced to endure.[7]

The Slave Trade Act 1788 regulated conditions on board British slave ships for the first time. It was introduced to the United Kingdom parliament by Sir William Dolben, an advocate for the abolition of slavery. For the first time, limits were placed on the number of enslaved people that could be carried. Under the terms of the act, ships could transport 1.67 slaves per ton up to a maximum of 207 tons burthen, after which only one slave per ton could be carried.[8] The well-known slave ship Brookes was limited to carrying 454 people; it had previously transported as many as 609 enslaved.[9] Olaudah Equiano was among the supporters of the act but it was opposed by some abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce, who feared it would establish the idea that the slave trade simply needed reform and regulation, rather than complete abolition.[10]

This limited reduction in the overcrowding on slave ships may have reduced the on-board death rate but this is disputed by some historians.[11]

Abolition of the slave trade

The former slave ship HMS Black Joke (left) fires on the Spanish ship El Almirante before capturing her, January 1829 (painting by Nicholas Matthews Condy)

The African slave trade was outlawed by the United States of America and the United Kingdom in 1807. The applicable UK act was the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire. The US law took effect on January 1, 1808.[12] After that date all US and British slave ships leaving Africa were legally pirate vessels subject to capture by the United States Navy or Royal Navy.[13] In 1815,[14] at the Council of Vienna, Spain, Portugal, France, and the Netherlands also agreed to abolish their slave trade.

After abolition, slave ships adopted quicker, more maneuverable forms to evade capture by naval warships, one favorite form being the Baltimore Clipper. Some had hulls fitted with Copper sheathing. This was very expensive work that at this time was only commonly done to Royal Navy vessels. However it increased speed by preventing the growth of marine weed on the hull, which would otherwise cause drag.[15] The speed of slave ships made them attractive ships to repurpose for piracy,[16] and also made them attractive for naval use after capture; the USS Nightingale (1851) and HMS Black Joke (1827) were examples of such vessels. HMS Black Joke had a notable career in Royal Navy service and was responsible for capturing a number of slave ships and freeing many hundreds of slaves.

List of slave ships

La Rochelle slave ship Le Saphir ex-voto, 1741.
Images showing how the slaves were transported on the ships
Diagram of a four-deck large slave ship. Thomas Clarkson: The cries of Africa to the inhabitants of Europe, 1822?

See also


  1. Native Americans Prior to 1492. Retrieved on 2015-12-03.
  2. Native America before European Colonization. YouTube (2013-04-08). Retrieved on 2015-12-03.
  3. Mancke, Elizabeth and Shammas, Carole. The Creation of the British Atlantic World. 2005, page 30-1
  4. "Glossary". Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Emory University. Retrieved 2012-10-01.
  5. "History: The Middle Passages". The Middle Passage – A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie. Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, Inc. Retrieved 2012-10-01.
  6. Shillington, Kevin (2007). "Abolition and the Africa Trade". History Today. 57 (3): 20–27.
  7. White, Deborah (2013). Freedom on My Mind. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. pp. 20, 21.
  8. Cohn, Raymond (1985). "Deaths of Slaves in the Middle Passage". Deaths of Slaves in the Middle Passage. 45 (3): 685–692. doi:10.1017/s0022050700034604. JSTOR 2121762.
  9. Walvin 2011, p. 27.
  10. Hochschild 2005, p. 140.
  11. Haines and Shlomowitz 2000, p. 58.
  12. Exploring Amistad at Mystic Seaport
  13. "Slave Ships – The Last Slave Ships". Retrieved 2012-12-30.
  14. Timeline: The Atlantic Slave Trade. Exploring Amistad at Mystic Seaport
  15. McCarthy, Mike (2005). Ships' Fastenings: From Sewn Boat to Steamship. Texas A&M University Press. p. 108. ISBN 1585444510.
  16. "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship – National Geographic". 2012-12-14. Retrieved 2012-12-30.
  17. "Brooks Slave Ship". E. Chambre Hardman Archives. Retrieved 2008-02-28.
  18. Why the Tombs for Slave Trade Execution. (1907-11-30). Retrieved on 2015-12-03.
  19. "Encyclopedia". Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  20. "The Slave Mutiny on the slaver ship Meermin". Cape Slavery Heritage. 26 March 2008. Retrieved 2011-10-14.
  21. Gilliland, C. Herbert (2003). "Deliverance from this Floating Hell". Naval History. 17 (48–51): 20–27.
  22. "Slave Ship Trouvadore Website". Turks & Caicos National Museum and Ships of Discovery. Retrieved 2012-10-01.
  23. Harper's Weekly, June 2, 1860, p344. Online at The Slave Heritage Resource Center accessed 3 July 2006.

Further reading

External links

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