Voices from the Middle Passage

Portrait, possibly of Olaudah Equiano, last half of the 18th century. Artist Unknown.

From the collections of the Royal Albert Museum, Exeter, UK. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


"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."

"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."

Above excerpts from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself.


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…"

Description of a slave ship
Description of a slave ship, 1789.

Printed by James Phillips. Source: Wikimedia Commons


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."

Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts

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."

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: March 10, 2017