The Terrifying Conditions Aboard a Slave Ship

Millions of Africans were forcibly taken from their homeland and shipped across the Atlantic from the late 15th to the mid 19th century.

Out of over 12.5 million slaves, almost 2 million wouldn’t survive the horrific journey. The lack of hygiene caused many to die of disease, and others were thrown overboard for being sick, or as a discipline.

The Atlantic slave-trade impacted not only the lives of the slaves and their descendants but also the economies and histories of large parts of the world.

The ships used for transporting the slaves were built by European merchants. They were capable of transporting hundreds of people per journey. Moreover, they even had additional compartments added below deck to take on more human cargo.

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Conditions aboard a slave ship were beyond appalling.

But even before the slaves were taken aboard the vessels, they were vigorously stripped of their clothing and had their heads completely shaved. Then, they were loaded into every available space and denied any adequate treatment such as food, room, or even breathing space. The atmosphere was hellish, as men, women, and children were treated like savage beasts, rather than human beings. It was all incredibly inhumane, to say the least.

Over 20% of the slaves involved in the trade during this period wouldn’t survive. Many died of diseases such as measles, smallpox, influenza, scurvy, and dysentery. Others committed suicide or starved themselves to avoid further suffering.

The ones who survived were completely dehumanized. They were often subject to forced exercise, sometimes including dancing and singing for the entertainment of the crew. Women were sexually abused and sometimes arriving in the new land bearing the children of their abusers.

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Rebellious slaves were brutally beaten and whipped with the barbarous tool cat of nine tails, designed to inflict unbearable pain. As for those who refused to eat their food, their mouths were forcefully opened with a speculum oris – a tool designed to pry open unwilling mouths.

One of these horror ships was Zong, which left Africa in 1781.

There were 442 slaves on board. At the time, a vicious disease was spreading amongst the enslaved and the crew. As the ship insurance didn’t cover slaves who died of disease, the captain of the ship, Luke Collinwood, took drastic measures. He was aware that slaves who drowned were covered, so he ordered his crew to throw some 133 Africans overboard. The captain claimed this was necessary to stop the disease from further spreading.


Image credits: History Channel/ YouTube

In 1783, at the trial between the Zong’s owners and their insurance company, the owners insisted their act wasn’t unlawful, as it was legal to kill sick animals for the ship’s health. They argued the law should be the same for infected slaves.

Although their argument was accepted by the court, the whole trial exposed the terrific conditions aboard slave ships. 

In 1807, the British Parliament passed a bill prohibiting the slave trade. The United States followed their example by outlawing the importation of slaves.

However, even after it was outlawed, the massive slave-trade has immensely impacted the world we live in even today. It has also contributed to the development of racism. As Europeans had adopted a religion based on equality, they needed justification for a practice like slavery. That’s why some claimed that Africans were biologically inferior and destined to be slaves. This racial basis made it impossible for slaves and their descendants to earn equal status in society.

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