North American Slavery

Complexities of The Middle Passage, Slavery, and identity


Between the 1600’s and the 1800’s slave systems within the Americas began altering form into what was becoming increasingly misunderstood, as well as socially and mentally complex in nature. A few examples of factors leading to such increased complexity include: the method in which slaves were transported, differences formed between northern and southern hemisphere slavery within North America, as well as the ways these changes affected the social interactions and behavior of slaves.

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Image of slaves being sold to European merchant by African slave traders along the African coast

The Middle Passage

Often referred to as the “middle passage”, this harsh and dangerous voyage was so named because it was the middle section of a three part journey to their final destination. A great deal of attention has been given to this leg of the journey, yet much of historiography of the time period indicates that this was not the most dangerous stage for those taken from their lives and sold into slavery. Rather, it can be suggested that a much greater mortality rate existed during the first and/or final stages of the process than within the middle passage. This is not to suggest that living conditions aboard slaving ships were not unsanitary and horrific, because the evidence supports that they often were. To be sure, slaves were packed very tightly together (Klein, 136) and as a matter of quarantine were often thrown overboard when ill. Nevertheless, Herbert Klein argues that mortality rates of the middle passage are estimated at much lower rates than the 18 to 20 percent experienced while awaiting transport in captivity along the African Coast. This stands to reason as the sea journey itself took on average of two months, while slaves would often wait in captivity for at least six months prior to being loaded onto a ship. Another cause of higher mortality rates aboard ship was slave revolt. During the journey slaves were often packed so closely together that they could barely move, although women and children were sometimes provided with more moving room and if the weather permitted, slaves would occasionally be taken above deck to exercise. However, these exercises were often painful and were done in an attempt to prevent scurvy (a previously misunderstood deficiency of vitamin C) (Kolchin, 1993, 21).

Additionally, those who endured this sea journey often found themselves experiencing what Orlando Patterson, in his book Slavery and Social Death, has referred to as “natal alienation” and a state of liminality. For Patterson, this meant a form of social death, having essentially been dishonored by their title in the society in which they were enslaved. In this view, not only are the enslaved detached from all known language and custom, but are also shackled by the domain in which they have been placed socially. Indeed, one of the few actual eye witness accounts of this journey from the African Coast comes from a young man named Igbo Olaudah Equiano whom was abducted in 1750. In his writings, Equiano states that while he was clearly despondent at times, expressing depression and disinterest, he also maintained his ability to observe, learned multiple languages, and participated in commerce (Klein, 157).

Moreover, having juxtaposed the psychological effects of the process into slavery with Equiano’s apparent ability to embrace some sense of normality within his plight, I would argue that this is the point wherein we can most effectively apply Patterson’s concept of liminality as it applies to existence upon a threshold.

Changing landscapes in North American slavery

Over the course of the eighteenth century some interesting changes in demographics and slave labor began to develop with North America. Inasmuch, these changes cultivated conflicting results. On one hand, the demand, and therefore abduction for supply of slaves increased, and probability of disease or death increased in route. However, it also became possible for slaves to begin re-embracing their origins and new African institutions enabled slaves to congregate as never before (Berlin, 1998, 177).

In the northern hemisphere, slaves began moving increasingly toward the center of the economy, particularly when the war effort, such as that of the French and Indian War led to a reduction in available servile labor (Berlin, 179). That being said, by 1760 one in every five workers was a slave. Additionally, as they gradually increased in number, slaves moved from positions in gentry homes to artisan shops which largely anchored economic stability (179). Furthermore, by the mid eighteenth century, slavery spread quickly through the heart of the north’s grain producing areas such as: Pennsylvania, Northern New Jersey, Long Island and the Hudson Valley. However, during the process of the crossover to slave labor, the north did not reorganize their productive systems as the South had previously done (181).

Slavery and social interaction in North America

However, this estrangement which Patterson speaks of is not the end of the story. Rather, the struggle against this estrangement created a foundational basis, driving the enslaved to find methods of maintaining ties to their past, culture, and each other (Brown, 2009, 1248).

By the mid eighteenth century, white assumption of superiority had more easily allowed for African men and women to interweave their African inheritance with their own evolving culture in North America. This created a situation in which slaves were able to be far more open than they were able to be in the plantation systems of the south. Indeed, slaves began creating buildings which were redolent of their West African homes (191). Additionally, northern Blacks were often very cognizant of their African legacy, referring to themselves as sons of Africa, and implementing new methods of choosing leaders and establishing their independence. And, although these methods were at times divisive, instead of entirely separating Black northerners, the entry of further Africans into northern society created greater direction for African American society (191).

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Image of Annamaboe Castle on the Gold Coast late 17th century. Annamaboe was a major English slaving station during this time period


Therefore, one may note that while the enslavement of African Americans in North America was without a doubt a horrific and oppressive institution, it was also extremely complex, in that those bound within its grasp were able to not only establish some sense of normality within their lives but were also able to maintain a degree of their cultural background.


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

Brown, Vincent. "Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery." American Historical Review (2009): EBSCOhost. Web. 2 Feb. 2016.

Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. 2nd. Cambridge University Press, Print.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery 1619-1877. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. Print.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MASS: Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.

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