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Slave ship horrors

27 April 2009 by stepheng

Plan of the deck of a slave ship

Just looking at this plan of a slave ship hold almost makes me break out into a cold sweat.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a strong aversion to crowded enclosed spaces. This print of 1789 brings home to us all the hideous nature of the slave trade.

Liverpool’s slave ships carried their human cargoes from West Africa over the Atlantic to the Americas and Caribbean on journeys that took six weeks or more. The Africans were held in atrocious and dehumanising conditions – violence, terror and degradation were everyday occurrences.

They had already suffered terrible hardship before reaching the coast. Sometimes the slaves were forced to march hundreds of miles from the interior of Africa. Sold several times over, they passed from one owner to another, their sense of disorientation and dread increasing with each sale. However, the prisoners took every opportunity to escape. One group of women tracked their husbands for several days before breaking them free.

Some African leaders were actively involved in the trade but others took a stand against slavery. They included Tomba, leader of the Baga in Guineas and Agaja Trudo, king of Dahomey.

The slaves’ final destinations on land were forts and places such as the island of Goree where they were held before boarding ships. The message to potential escapers was clear – skeletons of those who tried to make a run for it were impaled on spikes as gruesome warnings.

The horrors of the Middle Passage, as it was known, were made worse because many of the captives had never seen the sea. They were packed into unbelieveably hot, cramped and suffocating conditions in the holds. The men were kept separated from the women and children. In good weather they were brought on deck.

The men were humiliated and forced to ‘dance’ for the crew. This also have an ulterior motive – to keep the slaves fit and healthy so they would fetch higher prices. Women were abused by crew members and rape was common.

The physical conditions, fear and uncertainty left many of the captives totally traumatised and unable to eat. Some preferred death and took their own lives. Disease and brutality took their tolls. Between one tenth and one quarter of enslaved Africans died on every journey. Mortality among crew members was also high.

At the International Slavery Museum, in the Merseyside Maritime Museum building, there are displays which explore slave voyages including a model and painting of slave ships.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).

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