Slave ship

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For other uses, see Slave ship (disambiguation).

Slave ships were large cargo ships specially converted for the purpose of transporting slaves, especially newly captured African slaves to the Americas.

Atlantic slave trade[edit]

Only a few decades after the arrival of Europeans to America,[1][2] demand for unpaid labor to work plantations made slave-trading a profitable business. The peak time of slave ships to the Atlantic passage was between the 18th and 19th centuries, when large plantations developed in the colonies of America.[citation needed]

In order to achieve profit, the owners of the ships divided their hulls into holds with little headroom, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy led to a high mortality rate, on average 15%[3] and up to a third of captives. Often the ships, also known as Guineamen,[4] transported hundreds of slaves, who were chained tightly to plank beds. For example, the slave ship Henrietta Marie carried about 200 slaves on the long Middle Passage. They were confined to cargo holds with each slave chained with little room to move.[5]

The most significant routes of the slave ships led from the north-western and western coasts of Africa to South America and the south-east coast of what is today the United States, and the Caribbean. As many as 20 million Africans were transported by ship.[6] The transportation of slaves from Africa to America was known as the Middle Passage.

Abolition of the slave trade[edit]

The former slave ship HMS Black Joke (left) fires on the Spanish ship El Almirante before capturing her, January 1829 (painting by Nicholas Matthews Condy)

The African slave trade was outlawed by the United States of America and the United Kingdom in 1807. The applicable UK act was the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire. The US law took effect on January 1, 1808.[7] After that date all US and British slave ships leaving Africa were legally pirate vessels subject to capture by the United States Navy or Royal Navy.[8] In 1815,[9] at the Council of Vienna, Spain, Portugal, France, and the Netherlands also agreed to abolish their slave trade.

After abolition, slave ships adopted quicker, more maneuverable forms to evade capture by naval warships, one favorite form being the Baltimore Clipper. Some had hulls fitted with Copper sheathing. This was very expensive work that at this time was only commonly done to Royal Navy vessels. However it increased speed by preventing the growth of marine weed on the hull, which would otherwise cause drag.[10] The speed of slave ships made them attractive ships to repurpose for piracy,[11] and also made them attractive for naval use after capture; the USS Nightingale (1851) and HMS Black Joke (1827) were examples of such vessels. HMS Black Joke had a notable career in Royal Navy service and was responsible for capturing a number of slave ships and freeing many hundreds of slaves.

List of slave ships[edit]

La Rochelle slave ship Le Saphir ex-voto, 1741.
Brookes slave ship plan
Images showing how the slaves were transported on the ships
Diagram of a four-deck large slave ship. Thomas Clarkson: The cries of Africa to the inhabitants of Europe, 1822?

Note: While La Amistad is often called a slave ship, it was in fact a general-purpose cargo ship that occasionally carried slaves. See the article about the ship, and the resulting court case, for more information.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Mancke, Elizabeth and Shammas, Carole. The Creation of the British Atlantic World. 2005, page 30-1
  4. ^ "Glossary". Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Emory University. Retrieved 2012-10-01. 
  5. ^ "History: The Middle Passages". The Middle Passage - A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie. Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, Inc. Retrieved 2012-10-01. 
  6. ^ Shillington, Kevin (2007). "Abolition and the Africa Trade". History Today 57 (3): 20–27. 
  7. ^ Exploring Amistad at Mystic Seaport
  8. ^ "Slave Ships - The Last Slave Ships". Retrieved 2012-12-30. 
  9. ^ Exploring Amistad at Mystic Seaport
  10. ^ McCarthy, Mike (2005). Ships' Fastenings: From Sewn Boat to Steamship. Texas A&M University Press. p. 108. ISBN 1585444510. 
  11. ^ "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship - National Geographic". 2012-12-14. Retrieved 2012-12-30. 
  12. ^ "Brooks Slave Ship". E. Chambre Hardman Archives. Retrieved 2008-02-28. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Encyclopedia". Retrieved 3 July 2011. 
  15. ^ "The Slave Mutiny on the slaver ship Meermin". Cape Slavery Heritage. 26 March 2008. Retrieved 2011-10-14. 
  16. ^ Gilliland, C. Herbert (2003). "Deliverance from this Floating Hell". Naval History 17 (48–51): 20–27. 
  17. ^ "Slave Ship Trouvadore Website". Turks & Caicos National Museum and Ships of Discovery. Retrieved 2012-10-01. 
  18. ^ Harper's Weekly, June 2, 1860, p344. Online at The Slave Heritage Resource Center accessed 3 July 2006.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]