Black History Month 2014: The Anatomy of a Slave Ship

Horizontal cross section of a slave ship. Slaves stacked up against one another like boxes or cattle. The notion of the slave as property starts here and reverberates throughout the history of the American negro.

Slavery was a horrid and sad era in American history. Even though it’s an ugly and depressing thing to dwell on, appreciation for what our people have become today starts with the recognition of what got us here. So, we start with what literally got us here: the Slave Ship.

The typical slave ship was a cargo vessel outfitted to carry slaves from the Eastern Hemisphere over to the New World. An example of this is the frigate Duc du Maine, which brought the first African slaves from Senegambia (confederation of Senegal and Gambia) to Louisiana in 1797. At 101.7 feet long and 29.9 feet wide (at its widest point), it could carry 500-600 slaves per voyage. Its destinations were typically around the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean.

Let’s do some math here to get a sense of the types of conditions we’re talking about. Remember as you read what follows that this is an approximation, where our slave ship is a paper-thin box. Consider the average adult to be 5.7 feet tall and 1.6 feet wide, and stack them as tightly as you can in a paper-thin box that’s 101.7 feet long and 29.9 feet wide. That’s fitting 63 people (since you can’t have fractions of a person) along its length laying shoulder-to-shoulder in 5 rows (feet flush against heads) from end to end. That’s 315 people per deck. Average frigate-class ships from this era had two full decks. Two levels of slaves would total roughly 630 men, women, and children, each with mere centimeters of “wiggle room”. Keep in mind, this is envisioning a slave ship as a paper-thin box of those exact measurements. Adding in the thickness of the wood between the slaves and the water, the front of the ship tapering into a point (see first image), and space for things like stairs make this all the more horrifying.

Slaves were gathered from the coasts of western Africa, and packed in like boxes of wine. Conditions aboard the slave ships were, to put it lightly, inhumane. Men, women, and children were crammed into every available nook, denied adequate room, food, or breathing space. There was little regard for the need for food, water, or sanitation. One account of a captured vessel’s “cargo” counts 562 slaves, 55 of which had been thrown overboard. Another has slaves numbering in the 800’s for a vessel regulated for 350.

Vertical cross-section of typical slave ships

Voyages along the middle passage could last from one to three months, during which time many of the enslaved would die from disease, suicide (jumping overboard or other means), malnourishment, and just plain violence.

Over 35,000 voyages were made to transport slaves to the Americas. If you consider an arbitrary figure of 400 slaves taken per voyage, that results in at about 14 million slaves legally transported to the Americas between 1527 and 1808 (when the abolition of the international slave trade took effect in the United States; legal domestic slavery lasted until 1865 with the 13th amendment). It’s actually estimated that the number is closer to 20 million slaves. Bringing our average up to roughly 570 slaves per voyage. The mortality rate for the voyage alone was about 15%, making the trip to the western hemisphere responsible for a genocide of Africans closing in on numbers put up by the Holocaust.

Cheers, everyone.