Slave traders on the coast of Africa load unwilling captives into boats for the first part of their journey to North America.

“The Middle Passage,” the name of this painting, refers to the middle leg of a three-part journey that took trading ships from Europe to Africa (carrying manufactured goods, such as guns, to be exchanged for slaves), then on to the Western Hemisphere (to deliver slaves to market) and back to Europe (with sugar, tobacco and other products from the New World).

The Charles L. Blocksgon Afro-American Historical Collection

Envelope #16, Sec 11
© 2008, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Historical Collection, Temple. All Rights Reserved.


Do you wonder what the slave trade looked like? Imagine the dark, wet hold of a ship where hundreds of men, women and children are chained together in the semi-dark. They cannot move. They cannot even sit up, yet here they lie for some two months as the ship pitches and rolls on its way from Africa to the Americas. Groaning, crying, vomiting, those people – as many as 12 million of them over 400 years – were part of the most horrific mass movement of people from one continent to another that history has ever recorded. They were victims of the European slave trade in Africa.

Slavery has existed for thousands of years in almost every part of the world. The ancient Greeks and Romans enslaved prisoners of war, along with whole populations of defeated peoples. Slavery continues to this day in some countries. But the European trade was especially horrific. It started in the 1400s, when Portuguese ships first sailed along the coast of Africa and discovered the Black races. During the next four centuries, many generations of human beings were kidnapped and shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean and – later, when Britain got involved – to North America. Millio Read More

Do you wonder what the slave trade looked like? Imagine the dark, wet hold of a ship where hundreds of men, women and children are chained together in the semi-dark. They cannot move. They cannot even sit up, yet here they lie for some two months as the ship pitches and rolls on its way from Africa to the Americas. Groaning, crying, vomiting, those people – as many as 12 million of them over 400 years – were part of the most horrific mass movement of people from one continent to another that history has ever recorded. They were victims of the European slave trade in Africa.

Slavery has existed for thousands of years in almost every part of the world. The ancient Greeks and Romans enslaved prisoners of war, along with whole populations of defeated peoples. Slavery continues to this day in some countries. But the European trade was especially horrific. It started in the 1400s, when Portuguese ships first sailed along the coast of Africa and discovered the Black races. During the next four centuries, many generations of human beings were kidnapped and shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean and – later, when Britain got involved – to North America. Millions died of illness, despair or violence before delivery to market on the far side of the ocean. Some 200 years ago, Europeans started to wake to the horror and protest.


© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

An 1830 poster advertising a meeting of abolitionists

New scientific discoveries, philosophies and religious movements changed how people thought in the 18th century. Many began to question the morality of slavery. This poster advertises just one of the many meetings held by those people – called “abolitionists” – in the long campaign to end slavery in Britain.

English School (19th century)
Private Collection, The Bridgeman Art Library

Paper, Letterpress
IDMGS 187687
© 2008, The Bridgeman Art Library. All Rights Reserved.


John Newton helped turn British people into the enemies of slavery. Born in 1725, he had a wild and troubled youth. Drafted as a boy into the Royal Navy, he tried to desert, was publicly flogged and transferred to work on a slave ship bound for Africa. There, he lived among bad and dangerous men. He was rescued, returned to England and, in time, rose to be captain of a slave ship. He was not a bad man, but he saw and did terrible things. He carefully recorded the nightmare in a diary, which he later drew on to write about the slave trade. He also wrote one of the most famous hymns in the English language – "Amazing Grace," a hymn about repentance.

It was a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, who persuaded Newton to write about his past. For 50 years, Wilberforce was the driving force behind the fight to end slavery in the British Empire. Gradually, public opinion turned against slavery. More people became abolitionists. Year after year, they organized, protested and held meetings, wrote letters and collected signatures for petitions. As for Wilberforce, he took the fight to Parliament. In 1807, the abolitionists won a partial victory. Thoug Read More

John Newton helped turn British people into the enemies of slavery. Born in 1725, he had a wild and troubled youth. Drafted as a boy into the Royal Navy, he tried to desert, was publicly flogged and transferred to work on a slave ship bound for Africa. There, he lived among bad and dangerous men. He was rescued, returned to England and, in time, rose to be captain of a slave ship. He was not a bad man, but he saw and did terrible things. He carefully recorded the nightmare in a diary, which he later drew on to write about the slave trade. He also wrote one of the most famous hymns in the English language – "Amazing Grace," a hymn about repentance.

It was a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, who persuaded Newton to write about his past. For 50 years, Wilberforce was the driving force behind the fight to end slavery in the British Empire. Gradually, public opinion turned against slavery. More people became abolitionists. Year after year, they organized, protested and held meetings, wrote letters and collected signatures for petitions. As for Wilberforce, he took the fight to Parliament. In 1807, the abolitionists won a partial victory. Though slavery was still legal, the buying, selling and transporting of slaves was not. Another 25 years passed before the law-makers finally outlawed slavery in all British territories, including Canada.


© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

A slave auction in South Carolina, 1833

The United States was only 57 years old in 1833, when a British visitor sketched a slave auction. Recalling that the United States' new national anthem praised America as the “land of the free,” he scribbled a few scornful words on the back of his work: “The land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Henry Byam Martin
Library and Archives Canada

Watercolour / aquarelle
11.2 x 18.3 cm
1981-42-42 / C-115001
© 2008, Library and Archives Canada. All Rights Reserved.


A man rowing a boat on Lake Ontario flagged down a passing ship on its way to Canada and put three passengers on board. They were escaped slaves. For the next few hours, the men huddled on deck in wide-eyed terror, fearful that slave-catchers would overtake the ship. But when the captain put these refugees down on a beach in Canada, he saw them transformed. They came to life, he recalled later. Their eyes lit up. They laughed, embraced and kissed the ground. They were free!

Those men were part of a steady flow of refugees running from the United States to Canada in the early 19th century. Slavery was outlawed in Canada in 1833. It was another 30 years before it ended in the United States. During the years between, slaves had only to cross the border to be free.

The United States – like Canada – started off as a British colony, but the Americans rebelled in 1775, declaring that “all men are created equal.” The Americans won the war and, true to their word, created the first democratic republic in the modern world. But not every state in the federation shared that liberty with slaves. Like Canada, the northern states moved Read More

A man rowing a boat on Lake Ontario flagged down a passing ship on its way to Canada and put three passengers on board. They were escaped slaves. For the next few hours, the men huddled on deck in wide-eyed terror, fearful that slave-catchers would overtake the ship. But when the captain put these refugees down on a beach in Canada, he saw them transformed. They came to life, he recalled later. Their eyes lit up. They laughed, embraced and kissed the ground. They were free!

Those men were part of a steady flow of refugees running from the United States to Canada in the early 19th century. Slavery was outlawed in Canada in 1833. It was another 30 years before it ended in the United States. During the years between, slaves had only to cross the border to be free.

The United States – like Canada – started off as a British colony, but the Americans rebelled in 1775, declaring that “all men are created equal.” The Americans won the war and, true to their word, created the first democratic republic in the modern world. But not every state in the federation shared that liberty with slaves. Like Canada, the northern states moved gradually toward abolition. In the South, however – before the invention of farm machinery – huge numbers of slaves were needed to cultivate cotton and sugar. The United States was anything but “united” on the question of slavery.


© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

A famous Black spiritual, describing the bitter determination of slaves to escape

Oh, Freedom!
Oh, oh Freedom!
Oh, Freedom over me.
And before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord, and be free!

Folkways Records & Service Corp.
Smithsonian Folkways Archival, The Glory of Negro History

© 2008, Smithsonian Folkways. All Rights Reserved.


"Amazing Grace", one of the most famous hymns in the English language, was written by the former captain of a slave ship.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a soul like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear,
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far ,
And Grace will lead us home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

John Newton
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, African American Legacy Series

© 2008, Smithsonian Folkways. All Rights Reserved.


An African chant, such as many slaves passed on to their descendants

Traditional
Smithsonian Folkways Archival, The Glory of Negro History

© 2008, Smithsonian Folkways. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

After reading, viewing and listening to media files in the Learning Object, students will be able to:

• describe the experiences that Africans from the 1400s to the 1800s had to endure as captives of the European slave trade;

• consider the historical nature of slavery and reflect on its impact upon both Africans and Europeans;

• identify persons who contributed to the Abolition Movement in Britain;

• summarize some events that led to the abolition of slavery; and

• judge and draw conclusions about the practice of slavery and cite stated or implied evidence from the texts to support their views.


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