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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
Recognition of
additional sponsors
for this exhibition
can be found by
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Middle PassageSailing and StormsStowageIllness and Death
Ships and CrewsProvisionsEnduring the Middle PassageResistance

Illness and Death

Conditions on board the typical merchant ship during this period would be considered appalling to twenty-first century sensibilities, but the conditions experienced by the captives were far lower than the typical poor sanitation and accommodations. Seasickness was common and the heat was oppressive. The suffocating conditions and a lack of sanitation resulted in a constant threat of disease. Epidemics of fever, dysentery (the "flux"), and smallpox were common.

Danse de Nègres
Danse de Nègres

In good weather the captives exercised on deck; of course this was typically forced exercise. The captives ate twice a day, with force-feeding being utilized when they attempted to refuse food. The body of a captive who did not survive the voyage would be thrown overboard. The combination of disease, inadequate food, rebellion, and punishment took a heavy toll on the captives and crew. Surviving records suggest that until the 1750s, the death rate for captives on board slave ships was above ten percent.

Several European governments, including Great Britain and France, then introduced laws to regulate conditions on the ships. They limited the number of captives to be carried on each voyage and required a surgeon to be on board all slave ships. These reforms were enacted primarily out of concern for the crew, not for the captives.

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Ships and Crews