The MIDDLE PASSAGE was the journey that took Africans from the continent to the Americas or Caribbean. It could last from 30 days to 120 days. Ships loaded with Africans did not necessarily set sail immediately. Sometimes, they sailed for weeks further down the coast so crew could purchase more Africans. If a ship had the unfortunate timing of no wind or low tide, the ship would be docked or anchored until weather conditions changed. Africans were not unloaded during this time. They remained chained on board for the length of time it took for the ship to begin its journey.
Ships were packed to carry beyond the maximum number of human beings possible. While there was concern about the Africans aboard, this concern focused on how many Africans could be packed into a ship to bring the maximum amount of dollars - after the expected number of deaths.
Africans bought by companies and countries were identified by brands on various parts of their bodies. Women were separated from men and subjected to additional abuses such as rape. If an African refused to eat, he or she was forcibly fed by using any number of tortuous instruments that separated the lips to place a feeding instrument down the throat. When desperate enough, Africans were known to rip off their own nails or to pick the skin off their bodies where shackles were too tight. Mutinies and revolts did take place on land as well as on board.
Africans were brought to every part of the new world during the transatlantic slave trade. Material and food goods were also transported globally in this manner. It is hard for some people to imagine this time in history; however, the trade lasted for over 400 years. The institution lasted longer and, once abolished, gave rise to other terrors to oppress descendants of enslaved Africans. The exact number of Africans transported, killed, or who died during this time has been estimated any where from 3 million to 24 million.
A CONTEMPORARY CROSSING: From December 1998 to February 1999, I was the lead team teacher for the first leg of the historic Middle Passage Voyage, conceived by the incredible Captain Bill Pinkney. My job: to develop curricula with a team of teachers for over 200 US schools and museums that focused on the contributions of Africans to the Americas as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Curricula was developed in Chicago and while sailing to and visiting Puerto Rico, Barbados, and Brasil. Our team sailed with the crew from Puerto Rico to Barbados. I sailed alone with the crew from Barbados to Brasil. There would be three other teams to sail from Brasil to Ghana, from Ghana to Senegal, and the last would sail from Senegal to Puerto Rico.
This was an exciting and frightening time in my life. I had never sailed before and did not know how to sail. I could swim; however, I quickly came to realize the water was more powerful and more determined than I was.