Slavery and Servitude in the Colonies

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Describe the importance of the Middle Passage to the history of African Americans. 

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"Unspeakable horror" is the phrase used by more than one author to describe the conditions captured Africans were subjected to on the ocean trek to the West Indies, which was named the Middle Passage and was part of the three part triangle trade route that originated in Africa and ended in the United States.  

Some ship captains subscribed to the idea of what came to be called "tight packing" of human beings: get as many as possible into the ship on the assumption that even if more people died, more would still arrive.  Advocates of "loose packing" of human cargo believed that transporting fewer captives per ship meant that fewer deaths would yield more live stock to sell.  In either case, people held against their will--men, women, children, entire families--were loaded up like cargo and forced to endure horrendous overcrowding, lack of food, water, fresh air, human filth, the cries and wails of the desperate, the sick, and the dying. The dead were thrown overboard. 

This, then, was how Africans were "introduced" to the other side of the world in general, and usually, the American South in particular.  Although slavery ended in this country nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, the meaning of this phase in African American history cannot be overlooked.  An African American is much more limited in his or her ability to track family heritage because documentation of a slave's life was limited to papers related to sale and purchase.  Families were not recognized and were often split up at the auction block or from resale.

Does the Middle Passage have any significance to African-Americans today?  One might say that while not of direct significance in one's everyday life, a meaningful and accurate study of history of any people will have to include everything including the ugliness of this era of history, both in terms of the horrors that captives experienced, and the evil and cruelty manifested by those who held them.  In other words, the Middle Passage is an ugly phase in history because of the lack of human compassion exhibited by captors as they stripped their captives of human dignity.

The importance of the Middle Passage to African American history is that it marks the change in how millions knew and lived lives in a vastly different environment from the one they were forced into. Thus knowledge of this heritage can help explain their present experience and provide a guiding light to how to proceed in correcting long-lasting effects and results of that heritage.

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