The Middle Passage: Hell on earth Olaudah Equiano’s The Middle Passage is a chilling look into the infamous Middle Passage, a harrowing journey across the Atlantic made by captured African slaves. The Middle Passage is told from Equiano’s own perspective of being captured, allowing the reader to more fully grasp the torturous emotions and tribulations involved in being ripped from your home and shipped a world away.
Through the Middle Passage, historians are able to view one of the most gruesome aspects of the journey to slavery from a first person perspective, examining the interactions between many cultures and the impressions each had of one another. The Middle Passage begins with Equiano’s sight and subsequent boarding of the ship that will take him across the Atlantic. It is obvious from the very beginning of his description that this is either his first or one of his first experiences with white people, describing them as “bad spirits” and believing “they were going to kill me. Fear is the first emotion Olaudah feels, and rightly so: The journey of 1-6 months had a 15% mortality rate, higher for africans during the process of capture and containment. (Wiki) In the subsequent paragraphs, fear turns into hopelessness, as Equiano begins to assess his situation and realizing he was “deprived of all chance of returning to my native country” As his journey progresses, the true horrors of the trip unfold.
The disease and stench of the proximity with which the slaves are held make up arguably the worst of the trauma; many throw up, no doubt adding to the disgust. Historians here get interesting insight into the psyche of the crew: instead of leaving the slaves to die down below, they show vested interest in their cargo, allowing the sickest or most at danger of dying to be brought to the deck of the ship in order to survive. No doubt this seeming empathy was targeted at ensuring survival and thus profit margin rather than compassion.
Multiple captured slaves commit suicide, preferring death over their grotesque conditions, a sickening allusion to how terrible the ship must have been. Upon reaching land the slaves are rounded up and finally given an explanation by other slaves that they will not be eaten, a fear that evidently persisted throughout the journey. They are then rounded up as cattle to be bought by land owners and merchants, a process similar to the reports of slave selling in 19th century America.
Equiano’s journey finally over, he remarks on the fact he will most likely never see anyone from that journey again, as he is now alone in a foreign world where he neither speaks the language nor has knowledge of any culture of customs. The Middle Passage tells a tale of suffering, calamity and filth. The insight historians glean from the tale no doubt confirms what is already known of the slave trade: that it is a torturous, inhumane institution who’s end could not have came soon enough.