Thriving trade led to successful port cities. European cities such as Nantes, France, and Bristol, England, grew prosperous because of triangular trade. In North America, even newly settled towns such as Salem, Massachusetts, and Newport, Rhode Island, quickly grew into thriving cities. Even though few slaves were imported directly to northern cities in North America, the success of the port cities there was made possible by the Atlantic slave trade.

Horrors of the Middle Passage

To merchants, the Middle Passage was just one leg of triangular trade. For enslaved Africans, the Middle Passage was a horror.

Forced March to the Ships

The terrible journey began before the slave ships set sail. Most Africans were taken from inland villages. After they were enslaved, they were forced to march to coastal ports. Men, women, and children were bound with ropes and chains, often to one another, and forced to walk distances as long as a thousand miles. They might be forced to carry heavy loads, and often the men's necks were encircled with thick iron bands.

Illustration of a tropical city on a beach with a fortified building near smaller residential buildings. Older huts are shown more inland and ships in the bay.

Europeans built fortresses in ports along the west coast of Africa, such as the town of Elmina in what is now Ghana, shown here.


What was one probable use of the fortress?

Many captives died along the way. Others tried to escape, and were often quickly recaptured and brutally punished.

Those who survived the march were restrained in coastal holding pens and warehouses in slave shipping ports such as Elmina, in what is now Ghana, or Gorée, in what is now Senegal. They were held there until European traders arrived by ship.

Packed Aboard the “Floating Coffins”

Once purchased, Africans were packed below the decks of slave ships, usually in chains. Hundreds of men, women, and children were crammed into a single vessel for voyages that lasted from three weeks to three months. The ships faced many perils, including storms at sea, raids by pirate ships, and mutinies, or revolts, by the captives.

Disease was the biggest threat to the lives of the captives and the profit of the merchants. Of the slaves who died, most died of dysentery. Many died of smallpox. Many others died from apparently no disease at all. Whatever the cause, slave ships became “floating coffins” on which up to half the Africans on board died from disease or brutal mistreatment.

Some enslaved Africans resisted, and others tried to seize control of the ship and return to Africa. Suicide, however, was more common than mutiny. Many Africans believed that in death they would be returned to their home countries. So they hanged themselves, starved themselves, or leapt overboard.

Impact of the Slave Trade

Historians continue to debate how many Africans were carried to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade. Some historians estimate that about 2,000 Africans were sent to the Americas each year during the 1500s. In the 1780s, when the slave trade reached its peak, that number approached 80,000 a year. By the mid-1800s, when the overseas slave trade was finally ended, an estimated 11 million enslaved Africans had been forcibly carried to the Americas. Another 2 million probably died under the brutal conditions of the Middle Passage.

The slave trade brought great profits to many and provided the labor needed by colonial economies. Yet the slave trade had a devastating impact on African societies.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments