Olaudah Equiano Spark Notes: the Heartrending Journey of the Middle Passage

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From Majestic Sails to Hidden Horrors: The Dark Reality of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Looking from the outside, the magnificent boats sailing across the Atlantic Sea with their white flags and towering masts looked as though new adventures and promises awaited those on board. Trade these days was exciting, full of new opportunities and money to be made. Many of these successful sailors carried cargo such as rum, wood, spices, and foreign delicacies; however, in other ships, the fortune for those inside could not be farther from a dream.

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Beginning in the 15th century, the Atlantic trade networks soon came to fruition as one of the largest slave trade routes to the Americas. The journeys across the sea were incredibly intense, full of torment and devastation. People, taken from their homeland and torn from their families, with no reference to age or gender, were packed together like cans of sardines, waiting days to get a fresh breath of air while their overseers fought to the top of the economic success ladder through slave commerce.

John Barbot, an agent for the French Royal African Company, wrote in his “Description of the Coasts of North and South Guinea” that many of the people onboard the Atlantic slave trade ships were, for the most part, “prisoners of war, taken either in fight, or pursuit,… others stolen away by their own countrymen.” The slaves are also stolen away by their neighbors when “found alongside the roads, or in the woods.” Children are even taken from their work in the corn fields at times when their parents are away. After these slaves have been captured from their homelands by African slave traders, they are then sold to the Europeans at slavery “fairs.” At these fairs, several thousands of people are frequently exposed to sales that had been collected from all parts of the country.

Branded and Bound: The Unimaginable Conditions of the Atlantic Slave Ships

They are sorted through for impurities, so to say (“above thirty-five years of age, or defective in their limbs, eyes or teeth; or grown grey, or that have the venereal disease, or any other imperfection.”) If they are found to be favorable, Barbot writes that they are “marked on the breast, with a red-hot iron, imprinting the mark of the French, English, or Dutch companies, that so each nation may distinguish their own.” Many of these slaves later wished they had remained in their previous state of slavery and then had to go through what their future held for them along the Atlantic slave route. Once aboard the slave ships, the slaves were like “sheep led to slaughter.” It is described that the men in bondage were “immediately fastened together, two and two, by handcuffs on their wrists” and by “irons riveted on their legs.” Finally, after all of the ship’s cargo had been organized inside, they were sent down below the ship and placed in an apartment separate from the women and children- each who had their own space. The stench of these apartments was described as “intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time.”

Some of the slaves had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air, but below became absolutely plaguelike. Gustavus Vassa, an African slave, writes in his narrative“The Life of OlaudahEquiano or Gustavus Vassa the African” that the “closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number of the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself” resulting in people being on the verge of suffocation. He also writes that the “air became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died.” This situation was continually aggravated by the chains, which, over time, became insupportable. Many children also became victims of suffocation when they often fell into the filthy necessary tubs [toilets].

Echoes from ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’: The Merciless Economics of the Slave Trade

Vassa writes that the “shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.” Those in the slave trading business were constantly fighting to be on the top of the economic pyramid, and being in the slave business was one of the most common ways to do this. From the time of the arrival of the ships to their departure, each day, slaves were purchased and carried on board in both small and large numbers. Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon aboard slave ships, writes in his account of the “Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa” (London, 1788) that in one of his voyages, the “stock of merchandise was exhausted in the purchase of about 380 Negroes, which was expected to have procured 500.” Purchasing a slave was affordable for most and could be bought in great numbers as long as the slave owner had enough provisions to sustain them. Falconbridge also mentions that during one of his voyages, “the black traders brought down, in different canoes, from twelve to fifteen hundred Negroes who had been purchased at one fair. They consisted chiefly of men and boys, the women seldom exceeding a third of the whole number.

Vigilance and Fear: Preventing Revolts aboard the Slave Ships

From forty to two hundred Negroes are generally purchased at a time by the black traders, according to the opulence of the buyer, and consist of all ages, from a month to sixty years and upwards. Scarcely any age or situation is deemed an exception, the price being proportionable.” However, with these large numbers of slaves, the slave traders had to be especially watchful of slave revolts, for this happened frequently. James Barbot, Jr., a sailor aboard the English slaver Don Carlos, describes a slave uprising that took place aboard the vessel. He writes that the crew had to “watch all opportunities to deliver themselves, by assaulting a ship’s crew, and murdering them all, if possible: whereof, we have almost every year some instances, in one European ship or other, that is filled with slaves.” Also according to Barbot, in order to prevent such misfortunes, the crew had to “visit them daily, narrowly searching every corner between decks, to see whether they have not found means, to gather any pieces of iron, or wood, or knives, about the ship, notwithstanding the great care we take not to leave any tools or nails, or other things in the way.” He explains that on his ship, he “always kept our slaves in such order, that we did not perceive the least inclination in any of them to revolt, or mutiny, and lost very few of our number in the voyage.” For the prisoners stowed away beneath the boat, life was nothing but misery.

Desperation and Despair: The Unimaginable Horrors Faced by Slaves Aboard

Before they entered the ships, their former Black masters would strip them of every item they possessed, regardless if they were men or women. They were then given a piece of canvas as their only means of dignity. OlaudahEquiano wrote about how he “saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly…I wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.” Some of the slaves that were transported from Guinea to America were described by John Barbot as “prepossessed with the opinion, that they are carried like sheep to the slaughter, and that the Europeans are fond of their flesh.” This caused many of them to fall into a pit of despair where they refused to eat any food or drink, leading some of the crew members to beat them, busting their teeth, and forcing food down their throats in order for them to get nourishment. In his account, Equiano wrote about his experience when he refused to eat, describing how one of the men “held me fast by the hands and laid me across the windlass and tied my feet while the other flogged me severely.”

Horrors of the Middle Passage: A Journey of Desolation and Lost Humanity

He also wrote about how the crew used to watch everyone extremely closely in case they should leap into the water. The reality was that many of these slaves attempted this very act and were “most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating.” The diet of the slaves, while on board, consisted chiefly of horse beans boiled to a pulp, boiled yams, rice, and sometimes a small quantity of beef or pork from the sailors’ leftovers. They are fed twice a day in some ships, but in most, they are only fed once a day. Their food is served up to them in tubs about the size of a small water bucket, with ten fighting to get enough to each tub. The surgeon, Alexander Falconbridge, also described how “on board some ships, the common sailors are allowed to have intercourse with the women slaves whose consent they can procure. The officers are permitted to indulge their passions among them at pleasure and sometimes are guilty of such excesses as disgrace human nature….” The Middle Passage is known as one of the most atrocious periods in human history for all parties involved. On the side of the captured slaves, being chained in rows packed together with no room to turn around and living in conditions unfit for any living being, life was extremely painful. Many contemplated suicide and tried to accomplish it through starvation, revolting, or jumping overboard. Because of this, over two million slaves lost their lives during these voyages. While life was horrific for the slaves, the Middle Passage also negatively impacted the lives of the slave traders, losing their humanity by treating others with incredible brutality. This Middle Passage became a horrific cultural memory for millions of African slaves in the New World.  


  1. Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.”
  2. Falconbridge, Alexander. “An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa.” 
  3. Barbot, John. “Description of the Coasts of North and South Guinea.” 
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Olaudah Equiano Spark Notes: The Heartrending Journey of the Middle Passage. (2023, Aug 18). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/olaudah-equiano-spark-notes-the-heartrending-journey-of-the-middle-passage/