The Middle Passage

A clay ball with a copper-alloy band.
This clay ball with a copper-alloy band, found in the burial of a young woman, may have been used for luck or in divination rituals. Protective amulets hidden on the upper body were common among West Africans of the day. The woman was probably a conjurer or diviner in life.


"If you look at the sea long enough, scenes from the past come back to life. 'The sea is history… the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.'" The Atlantic Ocean is a graveyard which holds the bodies of the enslaved Africans thrown overboard. The Atlantic Ocean is also an archive of black history;it tells the stories of all those lost in the journey to the Americas, the accounts of what happened aboard each ship, and echoes the anguish of all the words unspoken by the suffered. It was through the Middle Passage, in which the words family, neighbor, friend, wife, brother, sister, were lost.

Glass Bead Ornaments
A child 1.5 to 4 years of age was buried with a string of 22 European-made black beads around the hips. Few ornaments or pieces of jewelry were found buried with the enslaved Africans at the African Burial Ground. The most common ornament was glass beads, almost all were made in Venice, Italy.


John Newton, a slave ship captain during the 1800s, wrote in Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, "With our ships, the great object is, to be full. When the ship is there, it is thought… she should take as many as possible. The cargo of a vessel…is calculated to purchase from two hundred and twenty to two hundred and fifty slaves…the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf." It is inherently problematic in how the ship is viewed as more of a living being in the captain's referral to it as a "she," while the enslaved Africans were reduced to simple commodities through the captain's comparison to books on a shelf. Furthermore, the very act of placing a value on a person supports dehumanization —the commodification of the enslaved Africans devalues their existence to something easily bought or traded. The Middle Passage converted enslaved Africans to just another piece of property for the plantation owners, "A slave without a past had no life to avenge" and "had been forced to forget mother," in the sense that the only thing left was a sense of hopelessness that made the enslaved Africans forget their origins, their countries, and their freedom;through this, it was easy to create a social hierarchy with the Africans at the bottom. This concept was the justification for disregarding the enslaved Africans' lives.

Read the complete research paper.

Last updated: October 9, 2015

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

African Burial Ground NM
C/O Federal Hall National Memorial
26 Wall St

New York, NY 10005


212 238-4367

Contact Us