Step 5: Imagine the Experiences of Atlantic Travel

The Atlantic crossing between ports in Europe or West Africa and North America was a distance of at least 3,700 miles. Most travelers took the voyage in large wooden schooner ships, built in New England colonies like Massachusetts and designed with a large holding area below decks.

blueprint for a Schooner, 1773

Imagine what it may have been like to travel in this type of ship. The voyage typically lasted one to two months, though it could be extended by unfavorable weather, wind patterns, or occasional attacks at sea. A person's experience on board varied based on his or her status. Slaves and indentured servants were usually forced to stay below decks for most of the voyage, but only slaves were chained to the walls and floor of the hold as if they were packaged goods. Lying down on unfinished lumber for a month or more caused enslaved people to develop life-threatening problems like skin infections, sores, diarrhea, vomiting, and loss of mobility. Even without the chains, many voluntary European migrants died en route due to epidemics like cholera that spread on board. For a fictional account of how shipboard illness could force an English family into indentured servitude, see this excerpt of the novel Bound by Sally Gunning.

Another way to picture the discomfort and pain of travel within slave ships is to reveal the consequences that slave sellers preferred to hide. For example, consider the ways this advertisement for a slave sale in Charleston, South Carolina made the captives on board the ship “Dembia” sound and look valuable. These appealing descriptions contrast sharply with ship records showing that ten people died below decks before the “Dembia” landed in 1769. What would probably be a more realistic portrayal of these captives?