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Understanding Slavery

A Slave on Three Continents

Passage to America
The Middle Passage The journey from Africa to America was called "The Middle Passage." It was the middle leg of the triangular slave trade which began and ended in Europe. No African expected the misery and horror it held. Slavers packed three or four hundred Africans into a lower deck— the ship's cargo.

The cargo hold was tiny— a person couldn't even stand up in it. The air in the hold was hot and stale. The smell of sweaty bodies and human waste made the air even more unpleasant.

Plan of slave ship
The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential.

The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the 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. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Disease and death were common. Up to 25 percent of a slave ship's Africans died during the voyage. The captain and crew struggled to keep their valuable cargo alive. They forced the Africans to dance on deck for exercise. Sometimes they force-fed Africans who would rather die than suffer further.

Next: A Slave in America

Timeline of Olaudah Equiano's Life
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