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" is only steps from sites where enslaved Africans were bought and sold after traveling the Middle Passage from West Africa to North America. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, approximately 12 million Africans were transported 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, around 40% of enslaved Africans were transported in British and American ships.

Ottobah Cugoano, a survivor of the voyage, called it "the brutish, base, but fashionable way of traffic" (Gates and Anderson 1998: 369). The Middle Passage itself lasted roughly 80 days, on ships ranging from small schooners to massive, purpose-built "slave ships." Humans were packed together on or below decks without space to sit up or move around. Without ventilation or sufficient water, about 15% grew sick and died. In addition to the physical violations enslaved people suffered, they were ripped away from their families, homelands, social positions, and languages. Still, despite vast cultural and linguistic diversity, many found new ways to understand each other. In the New World, Africans 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 New World have been traced back to African roots.

Boston was part of this global 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 with the first known Africans imported into the northern English colonies, Boston was its most likely port of return. It is estimated that 166 transatlantic voyages embarked out of Boston. Local newspapers carried over 1,000 ads for the sale of slaves during the 18th century, which took place everywhere from ships to markets, warehouses, coffee houses, and homes. Boston was further complicit in the Triangle Trade as a major exporter of rum, which was made from sugar produced in the Caribbean and sometimes sold in exchange for slaves in Africa. Ironically, commodities like 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.

After the American 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 were the legacies of a history that began with the Middle Passage. In this history, African Americans were the builders and just inheritors of the nation. As trailblazing Bostonian Maria Stewart wrote in 1833:

"The unfriendly whites...stole our fathers from their peaceful and quiet dwellings, and brought them 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."

Last updated: August 6, 2021