Today we will explore The Middle Passage that slaves had to endure on their way to the Americas and the Caribbean.

Middle Passage 1600 - 1860 Photo Credit:

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Among all archetypes, the journey is perhaps the most universal. Of course, there are always variations on themes. There is the external journey, and there is the internal journey. There are personal journeys, and there are collective journeys. There is the journey as quest, but there is also the journey as conquest. There are journeys of heroes, journeys of villains, journeys of victims, and journeys of survivors. There are journeys of exploration and journeys of exploitation. Not every journey is a journey of individuation.

There is the journey to Africa — for example, the journeys of Jung to North Africa in 1920 and to East Africa in 1925-26, as well as the journey of Jungians to South Africa in 2007. There is also the journey from Africa. Of journeys from Africa, the most universal is the journey of all humanity from Africa, as the evidence of mitochondrial DNA has conclusively proved, but there is also another journey from Africa, not of all humanity, but the journey of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade — the “night sea journey” of the Middle Passage to the Americas.

The passengers on the ships on the Middle Passage were not immigrants but “imports.” They were slaves. As James A. Rawley says, a slave was a “commodity,” and the slave trade was a “business” (7). Rawley estimates the imports of slaves into the Americas, 1451-1870, at 11,345,000 (428).

The most notorious image of those ships is the diagram of the Brookes.

Abolitionists published the diagram in 1788, when a law that would restrict that ship to 454 slaves was under consideration in the British Parliament. One witness testified that in 1783 the ship had carried approximately 600 slaves, of whom 70, or 11.6%, had died on the journey. “It was calculated,” Rawley says, “that if every man slave was allowed six feet by one foot, four inches, platform space, every woman five feet ten by one foot four, every boy five feet by one foot two, and every girl four feet six by one foot, the Brookes could hold 451 slaves” (283).

Hardly any personal accounts of the journey exist, but one by Olaudah Equiano describes an initial experience of the ship.

“I was now,” he says, “persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me.” On the ship he saw “a large furnace or copper,” and he had a fantasy that the white men on the ship were going to boil him. He fainted. When he recovered, he asked other slaves on the ship “if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair” (Gates 1987: 33). There is, of course, a certain irony to all this, for one of the fantasies of Europeans was that Africans were cannibals who would boil them and eat them. Equiano was reassured that he was not going to be boiled and eaten, that he was not going to be killed, but he was still convinced that the world of white men that he had gotten into on the ship was a world of “bad spirits” — and that was, in fact, an accurate description of the psychic reality of the situation. The white men were bad spirits.

“The psychological impact,” Rawley says, “of the Middle Passage upon the involuntary passengers was noted by contemporaries.” For example, a doctor reported that one ship had carried 602 slaves, of whom 155, or 25.7%, had died on the journey. He estimated that two-thirds of those deaths had been the result of melancholy. The doctor, Rawley says, “could cure none who had the melancholy” (291). Diagnostically, the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade was an incurable depression.

The archetype of the journey comprises three stages: separation, initiation, and return (Campbell: 30). As a journey, however, the transatlantic slave trade included only two stages: separation and initiation — or separation and trauma. In a sense, of course, every initiation is a trauma, and every trauma is an initiation. Also, every journey is a journey toward an unknown destination for unknown purposes. The slave trade was hardly exceptional in that respect. Every journey is a journey of the ego into the unconscious.

As an initiatory experience, however, the slave trade was an especially traumatic experience. It was a journey with no return. On a beach in Dahomey, there is the “Gate of No Return.”

It symbolizes, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., says, that “the spirits of slaves, the dead, are welcome home through this gate” (1999: 226). Of course, it is one thing to return dead and in spirit, quite another thing to return alive and in body.

What so depressed Equiano was the realization that “I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country” (Gates 1987: 33). The result was often, if not insanity, suicide. The captain of one ship reported that slaves committed suicide because “tis their belief that when they die they return home to their own country and friends again” (Mannix: 117-18). A doctor on another ship also reported that slaves “wished to die on an idea that they should then get back to their own country.” The captain of that ship devised an ingenious solution to the problem — to behead the dead in order to prevent any idea of suicide. “The captain in order to obviate this idea,” the doctor said, “thought of an expedient viz. to cut off the heads of those who died intimating to them” — that is, to the slaves — “that if determined to go, they must return without heads” (Mannix: 118). From a psychoanalytic perspective, decapitation is dissociation. To return without a head would be to return without spirit — or without psyche. To sever the head from the body was to sever the slave from Africa spiritually or psychically.

Of course, some contemporary descendants of slaves do return to Africa — for example, to Goree Island off the coast of Senegal. This is not just the slave trade, in an ironic reversal, as a tourist trade — a mere exercise in nostalgia or sentimentality. It is a return to the scene of the trauma, as if such a journey might be a curative experience

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Between 10 and 16 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic between 1500 and 1900. But this figure grossly understates the actual number of Africans enslaved, killed, or displaced as a result of the slave trade. At least 2 million Africans–10 to 15 percent–died during the infamous “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic. Another 15 to 30 percent died during the march to or confinement along the coast. Altogether then, for every 100 slaves who reached the New World, 40 died in Africa or during the Middle Passage.

On shipboard, slaves were chained together and crammed into spaces sometimes less than five feet high. Conditions within the slave ships were unspeakably awful. Inside the hold, slaves had only half the space provided for indentured servants or convicts. Urine, vomit, mucous, and horrific odors filled the hold.

The Middle Passage usually took more than seven weeks. Men and women were separated, with men usually placed toward the bow and women toward the stern. The men were chained together and forced to lie shoulder to shoulder. During the voyage, the enslaved Africans were usually fed only once or twice a day and brought on deck for limited times.

The death rate on these slave ships was very high, reaching 25 percent in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It remained around ten percent in the 19th century as a result of malnutrition and such diseases as dysentery, measles, scurvy, and smallpox. The most serious danger was dehydration due to inadequate water rations. Diarrhea was widespread and many Africans arrived in the New World covered with sores or suffering fevers.

Many Africans resisted enslavement. On shipboard, many slaves mutinied, attempted suicide, jumped overboard, or refused to eat. Our best estimate is that there was a revolt on one in every ten voyages across the Atlantic.

The level of slave exports grew from about 36,000 a year in the early 18th century to almost 80,000 a year during the 1780s. By 1750, slavers usually contained at least 400 slaves, with some carrying more than 700. During the peak years of the slave trade, between 1740 and 1810, Africa supplied 60,000 captives a year–outnumbering Europeans migrating to the New World.

There is another video at the link below that goes into extreme detail about the middle passage and the ships that made the journeys

Thanks for your attention.



About The BETAA at NJIT Mentor

Long Distance Mentor

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