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From the Barracoon to the Middle Passage

From the perspective of the African captives, conditions under which they were forced to make their journey from the point of enslavement to a plantation in the New World probably worsened. Once the trade was illegal, they often spent long periods of time awaiting embarkation, as slave ships waited for cruisers to leave the area. Food for hundreds of people could run short, and confinement in a barracoon was no healthier than in a slave ship, at least in terms of the epidemiological environment. If they survived a potentially long wait in the pens, the captives in the illegal era might expect a more rapid transatlantic crossing than their predecessors.

Voyage length from Angola to the Caribbean, for example, fell from just under ten weeks in the mid-eighteenth century to six weeks one hundred years later. On the other hand, southeast Africa became relatively more important in the nineteenth century, and the much longer voyages that were typical of this region offset some of this effect on the average experience. Indeed, the longest Middle Passage ever recorded in terms of distance–from near Mombasa in east Africa to Cuba–took place in this era.

At the outset of the illegal period, owners used smaller, faster vessels than previously, and they increased the number of captives per ton. But this pattern shifted after 1850, when much larger vessels came into use and the people per ton ratio fell once more. Twenty-five steamers are known to have gone to Africa for captives after 1840, and 80 percent of all vessels recorded as carrying off more than one thousand people on a single voyage sailed after 1830. After allowing for faster voyage times, shipboard mortality–that is, deaths per day–increased in the illegal phase of the traffic (after declining steadily since the seventeenth century). The worsening mortality may well have been the result of poorer conditions on land prior to embarkation. The gastrointestinal diseases that gave survivors of the Middle Passage such a skeletal appearance probably began before they got on board.