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

Activities: Sea Chest

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

Ships and Crews

Brig Sultana
Brig Sultana

Your captains and mates ... must neither have dainty fingers nor dainty noses, few men are fit for these voyages but them that are bred up to it. It's a filthy voyage as well as a laborious [one].

Sir Dalby Thomas, from An historical account of the growth of the West-India colonies, and of the great advantages they are to England, in respect to trade, London, 1690

Vue du Cap Français et du Navire La Marie-Séraphique
Vue du Cap Français et du Navire La Marie-Séraphique

Slave ships were merely merchant ships altered below deck to house as many humans as possible. Like other businessmen, slave ship owners lessened the risk on their investments by insuring their ships and cargoes.

John Newton
John Newton

Slave ship captains had to deal with difficult crews, prevent or suppress rebellions, and bring in a profit. The risks were great, but so were the rewards: after a few successful voyages, a captain could buy his own ship or operate one as a part owner.

The ordinary seamen sailing the Middle Passage were often not much better off than the African captives. Pay was poor, conditions were unhealthy, and danger was ever present. Normally about one-fifth of a slave ship crew died on any given voyage. It was not unusual for crews to include free blacks or slaves rented out by their masters.

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Activity: Sea Chest