Examining the Middle Passage

by William Walker


Students will examine period documents to learn about the hardships endured by captured African slaves.


Aim/Essential Question

Why did so many African slaves die on the Atlantic crossing?


  • Students will be able to describe the living conditions and treatment of Africans captured for the slave trade.
  • Through reading and role-playing, students will gain a better understanding of hardships faced by captured Africans.
  • Students will improve written communication skills through the writing of letters or the creation of a broadside or poster.


In order to get students involved in the activity, the teacher should consider the creation of a “slave ship” in the classroom. This activity will help students better understand what it must have felt like to be a slave on a slave ship during the Middle Passage. Have the students sit on the floor so that they are very close to each other, with little room to move around. Mark out a boundary around the group with tape on the floor to indicate the small size of the space. Turn out the lights, because the slaves were kept under the decks, where it was dark.

Have the children imagine that they are slaves who have been captured in Africa, and forced into this dark, creaking small space on the slave ship. Tell them that for much of the journey, they can’t move out of that small area—not to go up on deck, not to stretch, not even to go to the bathroom. Ask them how long they think they could stay in such a small space under those circumstances, and how long they think the journey would take. (Generally, it took from four to six weeks to reach the New World.)


  1. Complete the slave ship activity with your students.
  2. Divide the class into groups.
  3. Give each group copies of both articles. Members of the group should split the reading of each article so as not to have too much reading. Group members should make a list of the terrible conditions noted in their articles.
  4. Students in the group will discuss what they read and share their findings with each other. The group will then draw from both articles to develop a list of terrible conditions on the ships.


The teacher will then lead the class in a discussion of conditions on board a slave ship. Students will be asked to enumerate what they consider the three worst conditions.

Follow up Activity

Students will write a letter to the president of the United States and/or members of Congress as if they were citizens at that time and ask these officials to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, citing specific reasons and describing the horrors of such a voyage. Or instead of writing a letter, students could use the same specifics and details to make a broadside or poster calling for the abolition of the slave trade.

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