10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship

D.G. Hewitt - July 11, 2018

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
If rebellions failed, slaves would sometimes throw themselves into the ocean in despair. Missed History.

Slaves often went overboard – but usually due to despair

On November 29, 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong realised their supplies of drinking water were running perilously low. The ship, owned by a syndicate based in Liverpool, was taking around 400 slaves from Africa across the Atlantic. By the time it reached the coast of Jamaica, the situation was desperate. However, an easy solution was reached: the crew simply unchained 140 slaves and threw them overboard. The dead included 54 women and children. After all, if the slaves – their property – died at sea rather than on land or from ‘natural causes’, the ship’s owners could claim them on their insurance policy.

The company duly filed its insurance claim for the value of around 140 slaves. The court case caused outrage, and indeed it was instrumental in winning support for what became the Slave Trade Act of 1788, the first British legislation aimed at regulating the cruel trade. And, while, the insurers refused to pay out and the judge backed their stance, he still noted that there were circumstances in which it was acceptable for slave ship captains to order slaves be thrown overboard to their certain deaths.

For reasons of simple economics rather than humanity, captains were reluctant to throw slaves overboard during the ‘middle passage’. Of course, slaves who died during the journey were thrown over the side almost as soon as they were found. However, only in extreme cases did living slaves meet the same fate. Captains were under pressure to arrive with as many ‘heads’ as possible and so would usually resort to other measures, including torture and other extreme punishments, if they caught a slave trying to escape or incite a rebellion.

That’s not to say that hardly any slaves ended up in the cold waters of the Atlantic. Tragically, many did indeed drown. However, in many cases, this was an act of desperation and defiance, with both slave men and women preferring to kill themselves than await their fate in the Americas. Slave ship captain John Newton recalled: “When we were putting the slaves down in the evening, one that was sick jumped overboard. Got him in again but he died immediately, between his weakness and the salt water he swallowed.”

Most large slave ships had their crew on stand-by to ‘rescue’ slaves who threw themselves overboard and some even fitted special ‘suicide nets’ to prevent jumpers – again, motivated by greed rather than any sense of humanity. To get around this, some slaves even asked their fellow captives to strange them. In cases of suicide, some crews would decapitate the corpses of slaves, telling the remaining captives that they too would go to the afterlife with no head if they chose the ‘easy way out’.

10 Miserable Things a Slave Experience During Life on a Slave Ship
The journey across the Atlantic was brutal, and it was just the start of a grim life for slaves. Schools Wikia.

The end of the voyage was just the start of the slaves’ new life…

After many weeks at sea, the captains and crews of slave ships were usually heartened to see the coast of America. Indeed, some histories of the ‘middle passage’ reveal that, in some cases, conditions on the slave ships improved markedly during the final stage of the journey, with the slaves treated better for their last few days on board.

But, of course, if slave ship captains did order their crews to treat the slaves better, it was not out of compassion or remorse for the harsh treatment they were forced to endure earlier in the journey. Rather, the captains were businessmen and under pressure to deliver slaves who looked strong and healthy. After all, some would be sold at auction and others would be put to work on the plantations almost right away. So, in the final few days of the voyage, food rations would be increased significantly. The shackles might even be loosened or taken off completely – again, with the slave markets in mind, with the captains wanting their ‘cargo’ to look as fresh and injury-free as possible.

While there are some accounts of ‘parties’ aboard slave ships as they got close to their final destination, this would have been yet another act of humiliation for the slaves. Men, and especially women, would be forced to dress up in costumes and dance on the deck for the amusement of the captain and his crew, with a sailor armed with a whip watching over them to ensure they danced with sufficient enthusiasm.

Once they landed, the horrors were often only just beginning for the slaves. Many had no idea what fate awaited them – indeed, according to Equiano, some feared they were to be eaten. He recalls: “They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much; and sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages. We were conducted immediately to the merchant’s yard, where we were all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold.” From there, men, women and children were purchased just like cattle and sent off to a life in servitude.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Extracts from John Newton’s journal.” The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.

“Life on board slave ships.” Black History Month.

“Women’s Resistance in the Middle Passage: A Story Lost at Sea.” Molly Morgan, Albany University.

“A History of Africa: The Middle Passage.” BBC World Service.

“5 Slave Ship Uprisings Other Than Amistad.” Atlanta Black Star, February 2014.

“The Amistad revolt.” Cornell University Law Department.

“Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829.” Eyewitness to History.