Black History |The Slave Trade | Conditions on Slave Ships

Conditions on Slave Ships

slaveshipdiagram_tcm4-403052How the slaves were “packed”

There are two ways for the captains to load their boats with slaves. One system is called loose packing to deliver slaves. Under that system, captains transported fewer slaves than their ships could carry in order to reduce the disease and deaths among them. The other system is the cruelest one and is called tight packing. This system was based on the fact that the more slaves they had, the more profit they could make. They carried as many slaves as their ship could carry, and often more. In the ship’s hold, the slaves were chained ankle to wrist, with barely any place to move.


In the worse case, the captains did not provide any kinds of hygiene. In other boats, the captains placed buckets for the slaves’ excrements, but there was never one bucket per slave. Slaves who were close to the buckets used it but those who were farther away often tumbled and fell on others while trying to reach it. Severely hindered by the shackles that were tightly secured around their ankles, most slaves preferred to ease themselves where they were rather than to bruise themselves in the process of trying to reach it. Also, some sailors would be ordered to go below deck to wash the slaves briefly. Although the crew avoided the slaves, they often would call a woman on deck to satisfy their desires. When weather conditions were bad, the conditions of the quarters dramatically worsened. The slaves’ holding quarters were so hot and humid that the floor of their rooms was covered with layers of filth during most of the voyage.


Suicide attempts occurred daily and in painfully cruel ways. Slaves tried jumping overboard and even asked others to strangle them. One of the most common ways to avoid further punishment on the journey was to avoid eating. Starvation suicide attempts became so common that a device was introduced to forcefully open the mouths of slaves who refused to eat. Slaves believed that their death would return them to their homeland and to their friends and relatives. To prevent slaves from killing themselves, sailors began chopping the heads off of corpses, implying that when they died, they would return to their homes headless. Even with precautions taken to avoid suicide attempts like drowning and starvation, many healthy and well-fed slaves died from what was known as “fixed melancholy.”

Fixed melancholy: A loss of the desire to live.

Food and water

Food was a very big problem for the slaves and the captains. The captains often thought that food was too expensive, and tried to buy as little food as they could. Some captains chose to take a sufficient amount of food, believing that healthy slaves would be worth the cost of the food. Many captains simply decided to buy as less food as possible, even if much of their “cargo” died of starvation. The feeding of the slaves was on deck. The slaves were taken out cautiously, with sailors to feed them and many to guard them with loaded guns in order to prevent a slave rebellion. On other boats, the slaves were fed in the hold, by sailors.


Diseases were very common in boats, they were transmitted easily because of the poor hygiene and the way slaves were packed together. Deaths numbers could very important, as in a Portuguese ship, a hundred out of five hundred slaves died during the night because of an unrecorded disease. The flux, smallpox and scurvy were the most spread diseases on the boats. To prevent both despondency and scurvy, sailors forced the slaves to be more active and participate in what they called a dance. In this ritual, sailors snapped large whips at the naked bodies of the slaves who jumped screamed from the pain. The shackles were left on during the whippings and often tore away at their bruised flesh. The poor conditions, brutal treatment of slaves, and continual suicides resulted in a high mortality during the Middle Passage.

Flux: A flowing or discharge of fluid from the body; diarrhea

Scurvy: A disease caused by a lack of vitamin C and characterized by spongy gums, loosening of the teeth, and a bleeding into the skin and mucous membranes.

Smallpox: An acute, highly infectious, often fatal disease caused by a poxvirus and characterized by high fever and aches with subsequent widespread eruption of pimples that blister, produce pus, and form pockmarks.

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A Native Texan who adores baby kittens, loves horses, rodeos, pomegranates, & collect Eagles. Enjoys politics, games shows, & dancing to all types of music. Loves discussing and learning about different cultures. A Phi Theta Kappa lifetime member with a passion for Social & Civil Justice.
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8 Responses to Black History |The Slave Trade | Conditions on Slave Ships

  1. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    Why hasn’t our government ever issued a formal apology for slavery??? The following would be a good guide to what to include in the confession and apology:

    (From 1824 publication by the Religious Society of Friends titled “A View of the Present State of the African Slave Trade,” page 3)

    “Among the various calamities which flow from the ambition and cupidity of man, there are few productive of more extensive and distressing evils or which give rise to greater degrees of human misery and wretchedness —none that occasion a more barbarous destruction of the species, or which in their general tendency are more inimical to the peace, the happiness and moral rectitude of a large portion of mankind, than the African Slave Trade. When we contemplate the long train of cruelties which it inflicted upon the unoffending negroes, from the time they are kidnapped in Africa and dragged away from their homes to the slave ships, till their arrival at the place of their destination, and reflect that they are men —that the universal parent is just and equal in his ways—regards all the human family with the same tenderness and compassion, and designs the happiness of all— we must surely be forcible and fearfully impressed with the crying wickedness, the injustice and inhumanity, of this abominable traffic.”

    (Note: I added the bold print.)

  2. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    Here is Sonia Sanchez’s deeply moving and powerful performance of her poem Middle Passage:

    She keeps it REAL. My heart is shaken and torn after listening. I wanted to go through time to rescue those aboard the brutal ships of unimaginable cruelty.

  3. As much suffering and misery as I have seen, read of and heard of in 56 years and I still find it difficult to understand; to really feel; how anyone could do or want to do what these people did and those like them still do today.
    The world never changes; we simply change the labels we apply to things to make them seem more palatable.
    The Evil lives and breathes and the suffering goes on while we sip our tea and savor our delicately trimmed cucumber sandwiches.(figuratively of course)

  4. Ametia says:

    I can’t even begin to fathom the filth, stench, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual and downright inhumane cruelty my ancestors suffered.

  5. Ametia says:

    SG2, I hope you are tweeting these posts.

    The trolls and racists on Twitter heads are probably exploding.


  6. Ametia says:

    Truthfully, these EVIL barbarians were the real ANIMALS. Whew lord, it’s too much!

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