Imagine wearing these iron shackles around your ankles and neck during a long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Imagine the weight of the shackles and the dark, crowded conditions of the underbelly of a slave ship. Shackles like this were found in the wreckage of the Henrietta Marie off the Florida coast. The Henrietta had sold its human cargo in Jamaica and was heading back to London, full of sugar, spices, dyewood, and ivory, when it sank in 1700. The Africans who endured the Middle Passage often spent months on a ship, shackled in pairs to save space. They were sold into a lifetime of servitude once they reached the Caribbean, while their captors returned to Europe with the profits of their voyage.
Slavery, the practice of keeping people in servitude against their will and owning them as property, had a long history in the United States. The slave trade is sometimes called the Maafa (“great disaster” in Kiswahili) by African Americans. During the British colonial period, slaves were used extensively in the southern colonies, mostly on plantations. Many landowners grew increasingly dependent on slave labor, and legislation increasingly supported the practice. In 1793 the cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney; as the cotton industry grew, so did the demand for slaves.
The Middle Passage was a leg of the Atlantic slave trade—the capture and transport of black Africans to North and South America to do labor and be kept against their will by European colonists. It was called the Middle Passage because the slave trade was a form of “triangular trade” (a three-way exchange). European slave dealers purchased slaves on the African coast and then sold them in the Caribbean before sailing back to Europe with agricultural products. Slaves were typically resold in the United States. Most slave ships held nearly 300 slaves and about 35 crew members. Slaves were fed small portions of corn, yams, rice, and palm oil, often just enough to avoid starvation. Many ships kept the Africans shackled for the entire journey, which could take up to six months, depending on weather conditions. Up to 20 percent of captured slaves did not survive the Middle Passage. Diseases spread quickly in the small compartments in which the slaves lived, and longer voyages increased the risk of starvation. From 1450 to 1850 an estimated 12 million Africans suffered the Middle Passage, and the slave trade affected the lives of millions of people on four continents over the four centuries it was practiced.
Slavery was an important part of the economy in the south, and during the first half of the 19th century tensions grew between the slave states and the abolitionists. The divide between the free North and the slave-holding South led to the secession of the southern states and ultimately the American Civil War. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, a symbolic gesture that freed slaves in the Confederacy. As the Union reclaimed southern territory, the proclamation was implemented. American slavery officially ended with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865.