The Human Cargo

A life of misery began for the African captives even before they reached the shores of the New World. Two techniques were advocated for dealing with the human cargo. Some captains believed in ‘loose packing’, a technique which involved transporting a lower number of Africans. Captains who practised it believed that by providing the captives with more air, room and better sanitation, it increased the percentage of slaves who were in good condition by the time they arrived in the New World. More survivors meant more profit.

The other technique was ‘tight packing’, which was employed when a captain believed that greater numbers of captives would offset the high mortality rate. ‘Tight packing’ became the dominate practice over time. Conditions on-board were so horrible that documented accounts speak of an odour so strong that it announced the ships’ arrival at port long before the boats themselves could be seen. Slaves were segregated by gender, but were chained together and packed so closely together in the ships’ holds that sleeping could only be accomplished spoon fashion. Standing was impossible, with only two–four feet of clearance above their heads. The captives were forced to lie in their own faeces, urine, blood and vomit.


Diagram of slaves packed in ships

It is not surprising that under such conditions disease was the primary cause of death. Doctors were employed by ‘tight packers’ in an effort to increase the percentage of captives who survived, and survived in good condition. Most could only be called doctors in the broadest sense of the term and would never have been allowed to practise medicine anywhere but aboard a slave ship. Such men were paid ‘head money’, a price per captive who made the journey and arrived in the New World fit enough to start work.

The greatest fear of the captain of a slave ship was revolt, and it was not a fear that was unfounded. More than 200 attempts to mutiny were documented during the years of the Middle Passage before the United States outlawed the import of African slaves in 1808. Some captains were known to punish a cargo of captives who attempted revolt by herding them into the sea. Some men jumped in voluntarily rather than face further brutality.

Crossing the Atlantic might take three weeks or three months, depending upon weather conditions. During that time, the captives were only allowed on deck during good weather or when the captain had no reason to fear the threat of revolt. Captains of slave ships applied extreme controls in order to prevent any possible revolt. One account tells of a captain who used a young woman as an example, tying her to a hoist and lowering her into the water. Even though she was raised immediately, sharks had already eaten the lower half of her body.

Unfounded or justified, the captains of slave ships made the message clear to captives who didn’t understand the language of their captors. Resistance would be met with brutal punishment.

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