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Forced Afro-Atlantic Migration and the Middle Passage

Phyllis Peres
University of Maryland, College Park

Africans arrived in Jamestown in the famous phrase of Lerone Bennett, "before the Mayflower." An early 1619 census reported the presence of Africans even before the noted arrival in 1619 of the Dutch slaver carrying the "twenty Negars," in John Smith's wording, but no one is sure how those first Africans got to Jamestown (Smith 126).

Three things are clear about these early arrivals. First, Africans came to Jamestown with a status not yet clearly defined by law or custom in the English world, although the Spanish and Portuguese had already decided that slaves were property whose labor could be sold and whose status could be inherited. That is a complex story, well-told by A. Leon Higginbotham and Ira Berlin among others. Second, these African migrants did not come voluntarily; they were forcibly seized from a Portuguese slave ship which in turn had picked them up from holding pens at the slave port of Luanda, Angola, where they in turn had arrived after their capture from places unknown by persons unknown. John Thornton suggests several possible African backgrounds for the Jamestown twenty and ends up strongly favoring the hypothesis that they might have originated in the Angolan Kimbundu-speaking Christian community. Third, the Atlantic passage from Africa to the Americas was horrific. It is estimated that some eleven to twelve million Africans were taken on ships for passage to the Americas between 1520 and 1860. Only nine to ten million survived the Atlantic crossing and many more died soon after their arrival. The Middle Passage was always dangerous to the African captives no matter how humane or brutal the captain and crew might have been. However, the incentive to make a profit on each slave body may have meliorated the cruelty somewhat.

It is clear that slave voyages were complicated commercial endeavors. Slave vessels had large crews, including those hired solely to guard captive Africans and to insure their passivity in the face of the passage. Slave ships at the time of Jamestown were small, relatively inexpensive, and built with speed in mind. They held two hundred and fifty to three hundred captives. The Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas has been described as a physical and psychological hell. Typically, enslaved Africans were separated by sex, shackled in pairs, and placed below deck in the various slave quarters that smelled of human excrement and vomit. With the relatively airless quarters no more than six feet long and two feet high, enslaved Africans were forced to crouch or lie on bare planks with no coverings for their bodies. The captives were fed no more than twice per day on fish, beans, and yams, with limited fresh water. Those who refused food were force-fed. Other types of resistance were met with corporal punishment or death. It was common, moreover, for live slaves to be thrown off the ship into the Atlantic in order to balance the ship's weight. Women and children were sometimes given more relative freedom and allowed to walk on deck, although this increased the real risk of rape and physical abuse by the crew. We know that despite the heavy security, at least some enslaved Africans managed to organize revolts against the captain and crew. Most attempts, however, were unsuccessful. The most famous revolt, of course, occurred well after Jamestown, in 1839 on the Amistad.

Early in the Atlantic slave trade, mortality rates reached fifteen-to-twenty percent, a figure that includes the journey in the seventeenth century when slaves were brought to Jamestown. Because profits to the traders depended to some extent on the survival of the slaves, some measures were taken by the end of the eighteenth century to improve conditions during the Middle Passage, so that mortality rates were reduced to five-to-ten percent. Ironically, more slaves seemed to survive the trip when they were fed less, as they were not forced to eat contaminated provisions.

The Atlantic crossing typically lasted three to five weeks from Angolan ports, a hellish but brief journey compared to the Middle Passage from Benin or Biafra which sometimes took several months. The passage of the Jamestown twenty, who most likely hailed from Angola, was only the beginning of the African-American experience of misery, depravation, and degradation. While scholars such as Ira Berlin have argued for the existence of Atlantic Creoles who had already arrived and been naturalized in a world where slavery had not yet been defined, time would only make the Middle Passage harsher. The end of the journey would prove bleaker, not only for the transported Africans but for their descendants in Jamestown and elsewhere in the Americas.

Suggestions For Further Reading

Bennett Jr., Lerone. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. 6th Edition. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Curtin, Philip. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.

Higginbotham, A. Leon. In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process in the Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Sluiter, Engel. "New Light on the "'20. And Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia, August 1619." The William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 395-398.

Thomas, Hugh. The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. New York: Touchstone Books, 1999.

Thorndale, William. "The Virginia Census of 1619." Magazine of Virginia Genealogy 33 (1995): 155-170.

Thornton, John. "The African Experience of the '20. and Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia in 1619." The William and Mary Quarterly 55 (1998): 421-434.