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The Middle Passage

Map centered on the Atlantic Ocean with colored arrows showing movement of Enslaved Africans to the Americas, Raw Materials from Americas, and Manufactured goods from Europe
Map showing the primary movement of Enslaved Africans, raw materials, and manufactured goods

Boston's "Cradle of Liberty," Faneuil Hall, stands only steps away from sites where merchants sold enslaved Africans whom they had trafficked across the Middle Passage from West Africa to North America. While frequently recognized as a place of debate and protest during the American Revolution and subsequent social revolutions, this building also serves as a reminder of the wealth amassed by the port city of Boston from the Transatlantic trade, which included the selling of enslaved Africans.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, merchants transported approximately 12 million Africans across the Atlantic as human property. The most common routes formed what is now known as the "Triangle Trade," connecting Europe, Africa, and the Americas. From 1560 to 1850, about 4.8 million enslaved people were transported to Brazil; 4.7 million were sent to the Caribbean; and at least 388,000, or 4% of those who survived the Middle Passage, arrived in North America. Between 1700 and 1808, the most active years of the international slave trade, merchants transported around 40% of enslaved Africans in British and American ships.

The Middle Passage itself lasted roughly 80 days on ships ranging from small schooners to massive, purpose-built "slave ships." Ship crews packed humans together on or below decks without space to sit up or move around. Without ventilation or sufficient water, about 15% grew sick and died. Ottobah Cugoano, a survivor of the voyage, called it "the brutish, base, but fashionable way of traffic" (Gates and Anderson 1998: 369). In addition to the physical violations enslaved people suffered, they were ripped away from their families, homelands, social positions, and languages.

Boston's Role in the Middle Passage

As a major port city, Boston played a role in this global economic story. The first slave trade voyage from the American colonies sailed out of Massachusetts. The ship Desire left Salem in 1637, carrying Native American captives from the Pequot War to be sold as slaves in the Caribbean. When it returned up the coast with the first known Africans imported into the northern English colonies, it most likely anchored in Boston. After this documented case of enslavement, Massachusetts legalized the enslavement of Africans, Native Americans, and mixed-race people in the colony's Body of Liberties. Thus began the legal justification for slavery in the Massachusetts colony.

It is estimated that 166 transatlantic voyages embarked out of Boston. Local newspapers carried over 1,000 ads for the sale of enslaved people during the 1700s, which took place everywhere from ships to markets, warehouses, coffee houses, and homes.

Newspaper clipping from 1761 about selling enslaved people.
"Just imported from Africa, and to be Sold at No. 19 on the Long Wharf, A Parcel of likely, heathy (sic) Negro Slaves."

Boston Gazette, June 22, 1761

Boston was further complicit in the Triangle Trade as a major exporter of rum, likely made from sugar produced in the Caribbean and sometimes sold in exchange for enslaved Africans. Ironically, commodities such as sugar and molasses drove colonial Bostonians to revolution: leaders likened taxation on these goods to slavery even as the trade continued to prop up slavery itself.

As one of the wealthiest and most well-connected Boston merchants, Peter Faneuil played an integral role in this empire of goods, wealth, and enslavement. Ledgers, letters, custom records, and other primary sources reveal his involvement in trading goods consumed and produced by enslaved labor including sugar, molasses, indigo, and grain. Peter Faneuil financed in part at least two slaving voyages, and several suspected slaving voyages, as well as enslaved men and women in his home. Though Faneuil cannot be characterized as a major slave trader, he built his financial empire on this complex trading system that relied on the institution of slavery.

The Legacy of the Middle Passage

Despite vast cultural and linguistic diversity, enslaved Africans in the colonies transformed shared elements of their cultures into the creolized societies of the African diaspora. Widespread southern and Caribbean food traditions, music, and religious rituals in the colonies have been traced back to African roots. In Boston, the enslaved community composed of descendants of the first Africans from the West Indies, supplemented by trafficked Africans.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, enslaved people called for their own freedom as Boston's leaders spoke about liberty from the Crown. In the 1770s, enslaved individuals petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts for their freedom and for an end to slavery; however, their efforts failed. After the Revolution, northern states confronted the hypocrisy of fighting a war for freedom while holding thousands of men, women, and children in bondage. In 1783, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided that slavery was incompatible with the new state constitution. In 1808, Britain and the United States agreed to ban the transatlantic slave trade.

Slavery itself flourished in the United States until the Civil War, becoming the defining issue of national political life. Slavery in the South and second-class citizenship in the North became legacies of a history that began with the Middle Passage. As trailblazing Bostonian Maria Stewart wrote in 1833:

"The unfriendly whites...stole our fathers from their peaceful and quiet dwellings, and brought them hither...now that we have enriched their soil, and filled their coffers, they say that we are not capable of becoming like white men, and that we never can rise to respectability in this country. They would drive us to a strange land. But before I go, the bayonet shall pierce me through."

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: December 2, 2021