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 1500s to the 1800s, 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.

Voices of the Middle Passage

Many individuals who experienced the Middle Passage or participated in the Transatlantic Slave Trade have documented its horrors. Read the words of some of these individuals through the dropdowns below.

Belinda Sutton submitted a petition to the Massachusetts General Court in 1783 to argue her right to a pension from the estate of her enslaver Isaac Royall Jr. This petition provides an account of her experience being forcibly removed from her homeland and brought to the colonies.

But her affrighted imagination, in its most alarming extension, never represented distresses equal to what she hath since really experienced – for before she had Twelve years enjoyed the fragrance of her native groves, and e’er she realized, that Europeans placed their happiness in the yellow dust which she carelessly marked with her infant footsteps – even when she, in a sacred grove, with each hand in that of a tender Parent, was paying her devotions to the great Orisa who made all things – an armed band of white men, driving many of her Countrymen in Chains, ran into the hallowed shade! – could the Tears, the sighs and supplications, bursting from Tortured Parental affection, have blunted the keen edge of Avarice, she might have been rescued from Agony, which many of her Country's Children have felt, but which none hath ever described, — in vain she lifted her supplicating voice to an insulted father, and her guiltless hands to a dishonoured Deity!  She was ravished from the bosom of her Country, from the arms of her friends – while the advanced age of her Parents, rendering them unfit for servitude, cruelly separated her from them forever!

Scenes which her imagination had never conceived of – a floating World – the sportingMonsters of the deep – and the familiar meetings of Billows and clouds, strove, but in vain to divert her melancholly attention, from three hundred Affricans in chains, suffering the most excruciating torments; and some of them rejoicing, that the pangs of death came like a balm to their wounds.

Once more her eyes were blest with a Continent – but alas! how unlike the Land where she received her being!  here all things appeared unpropitious – she learned to catch the Ideas, marked by the sounds of language only to know that her doom was Slavery, from which death alone was to emancipate her...i 

To learn more about Belinda Sutton, please visit the Royall House & Slave Quarters webpage on Belinda Sutton and Her Pensions.

i. "Petition of Belinda." Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions; Massachusetts Archives Collection. v.239-Revolution Resolves, 1783. SC1/series 45X. Massachusetts Archives. Boston, Mass.

In his personal narrative, Olaudah Equiano recounts his kidnapping, enslavement, and life in freedom. Equiano dedicated his life to advocating against slavery and published this narrative to help illustrate the horrors of this system.

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, which I am yet at a loss to describe, nor the feelings of my mind. When I was carried on board I was immediately handled, and tossed up, to see if I were sound, by some of the crew, and I was now persuaded that I had got into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me…When I looked round the ship too, and saw a … a multitude of black people of every description chained together, everyone of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate, and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.i


The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.ii

i. Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself Vol 1 (London: Author, 1789), 70.

ii. Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 79.

Dr. Alexander Falconbridge served as surgeon aboard a number of slave ships in the late 1700s. He later became active in anti-slavery work. The following is excerpted from his book, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa:

...The hardships and inconveniences suffered by the Negroes during the passage are scarcely to be enumerated or conceived….But the exclusion of fresh air is among the most intolerable… the Negroes' rooms soon grow intolerable hot. The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies and being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes which generally carries off great numbers of them…

During the voyages I made, I was frequently witness to the fatal effects of this exclusion of fresh air… The deck, that is the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughter-house. It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture a situation more dreadful or disgusting…i

i. Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (London: J. Phillips, George Yard, Lombard-Street, 1788), 24. GoogleBooks.

In his book, Reminiscences of Fugitive-Slave Law Days in Boston, sailor and abolitionist Austin Bearse recounts his time shipping enslaved Africans in the southern states. Though not referring specifically to the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, Bearse's account gives further insight into New England's complicity with slavery and the slave trade and the horrors experienced by its victims.

Between the years of 1818 and 1830, I was from time to time mate on board of different vessels engaged in the coasting trade on the coast of South Carolina. It is well known that many New England vessels are in the habit of spending their winters on the Southern coast, in pursuit of this business –for vessels used to run up the rivers for the rice and cotton of the plantations, which we took to Charleston. We often carried gangs of slaves to the plantations as they had been ordered. These slaves were generally collected by slave-traders in Charleston, brought there by various causes, such as the death of owners and the division of estates, which threw them into the market. Some were sent as punishment for insubordination, or because the domestic establishment was too large; or because persons moving to the North and West preferred selling their slaves to the trouble of carrying them. We had on board our vessels, from time to time, numbers of these slaves –sometimes two or three, and sometimes as high as seventy or eighty. They were separated from their families and connections with as little concern as calves and pigs are selected out of a lot of domestic animals…We used to allow the relatives and friends of the slaves to come on board and stay all night with their friends, before the vessel sailed. In the morning it used to be my business to pull off the hatches and warn them that it was time to separate, and the shrieks and cries at these times were enough to make anybody's heart ache.i

After this experience, Austin Bearse decided that, "Because I no longer think it right to see these things in silence, I trade no more south of Mason and Dixon's line."ii He later became an active and leading member of Boston's abolitionist community.

i. Austin Bearse, Reminisces of the Fugitive Slave Law Days (Warren Richardson, 1880), 9,

ii. Austin Bearse, Reminisces of the Fugitive Slave Law Days, 9.

The following is excerpted from George Henry Moore's 1866 Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts. Though not a first-hand account, Moore's research and writings shed light into one of the Boston's darkest episodes early in the slave trade in the mid 1600s.

…at the very birth of the foreign commerce of New England the African slave trade became a regular business. The ships which took cargoes of staves and fish to Madeira and the Canaries were accustomed to touch on the coast of Guinea to trade for negroes, who were carried generally to Barbadoes or the other English Islands in the West Indies, the demand for them at home being small. In the case referred to, instead of buying negroes in the regular course of traffic, which, under the fundamental law of Massachusetts already quoted, would have been perfectly legal, the crew of a Boston ship joined with some London vessels on the coast, and, on pretence of some quarrel with the natives, landed a "murderer" –the expressive name of a small piece of cannon –attacked a negro village on Sunday, killed many of the inhabitants, and made a few prisoners, two of who fell to the share of the Boston Ship.i

i. George Henry Moore, Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts (Massachusetts: D. Appleton & Company, 1866), 29.

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 American 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 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: February 22, 2023