Slave Trade

Students will explore global wind patterns and the limitations of sailing vessels in order to understand the Triangle of Trade. With this understanding, students will learn about the Middle Passage and the impact the enslaved Africans had on the early South Carolina economy and culture.

Standards Addressed:

Supplies Needed:


Key Terminology:

Background Information:

Global Wind Patterns
Wind patterns on earth, although subject to some seasonal variation, are relatively consistent. These wind patterns had a tremendous affect on the way people traveled and traded during the age of sail. It was significantly faster and more efficient to utilize global wind patterns—covering greater distance in less time—than to try and go against the wind. Most ships traveling to or from the Americas traveled similar routes. The wind patterns in the North Atlantic naturally connect Europe to Northern Africa before turning towards the West Indies and southern North America. From there the Gulf Stream travels north until about Rhode Island before turning east towards Europe again. This wind pattern developed a pattern of trade known as the Triangle of Trade.

Because Europe considered itself the center of civilization, the section of this route from Europe to Africa was considered the first passage. From Africa to the New World was considered the Middle Passage and then from the New World to Europe could be considered either the final leg or homeward passage.

Charleston is located in a particularly unique spot for global wind patterns. In addition to being a convenient landing spot for a ship inbound from Africa, it is not difficult to sail to and from the Caribbean, making it easier to trade goods between the city and the islands in the Caribbean as well.

The Middle Passage
Hundreds of slave trading vessels serviced the trade from American and European ports. Known as guineamen or slavers, these ships were long and sleek cargo ships especially designed for transporting bulk cargo to Africa and then refitted by ships' carpenters to accommodate the enslaved Africans below decks in the cargo holds. The average slaver was about 90 feet long, 25 feet wide at the beam, with an average tonnage of 130 tons. A tightly packed ship could hold more than 300 slaves in the slave decks. Come very large ships also worked the trade, including one vessel of 320 tons and a capacity for over 600 slaves. Nearly every inch of below deck space was used, allowing each person just about two feet of space above and approximately sixteen inches flat out on one's back. On the voyage to the Americas, typical slavers allowed women and children the run of the top deck during the day. They exercised the shackled men on deck by forcing them to dance and sing for a couple of hours each day.

The enslaved were typically fed two meals of boiled rice or cornmeal, stewed yams or beans, and a cup of water. During the night, all slaves were required to be stowed below decks, where they slept in chains. The holds were generally so crowded that the slaves were unable to reach latrine tubs. As a result, they simply relieved themselves where they were. It was said that the stench of a slave ship could be identified from five miles away. Sometimes the slavers had a crude house on deck that was used for the sick or for women and children in mild weather. The slave voyage typically took about five weeks, however, calm seas or major storms could extend the voyage up to three months. It is estimated that an average of 10% died en route, 30% on bad voyages.


May 2012 Economic and Cultural Influences of the Slave Trade in South Carolina
The impact of the knowledge and skills enslaved Africans brought to the area were critical in Charleston's economic success. Early exports included cattle and naval stores. Many of the enslaved were experienced herdsmen. They brought knowledge about herd growth and fertility not known in Europe. The term "cowboy" actually comes from the owners' term for the slaves working with the herds. Whites who worked with the cattle were called "cattlemen" to differentiate them from the slaves. The enslaved Africans were also used to collect and load onto ships lumber, pitch, and pine tar to be exported to Britain.

When it was discovered that the Lowcountry swamps and humidity were perfect for growing rice, it was the enslaved Africans from the Rice or Windward Coast (Sierra Leone and Liberia today) who had the knowledge and technology to bring success. They brought the technology to flood the fields with fresh, not brackish or salt, water, to plant rice seeds, and to harvest the rice. Additionally, the Lowcountry climate that made it perfect for rice also increased the likelihood of tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever. The enslaved Africans had developed better immunities to these diseases and were far less likely to become sick by working in the rice fields.

Plantation owners would leave the plantation during the humid months, in hopes of avoiding disease. Usually only a few white managers would be left behind to run the plantation with the help of trusted enslaved leaders. The plantations in the Lowcountry generally worked on a task system instead of a specific number of hours. As a result, one the day's tasks were completed, the slaves had time for personal activities such as gardening, worship, sewing, etc. The combination of more free time and limited interaction with white people meant that the slaves in the Lowcountry maintained more of the African roots that enslaved Africans elsewhere in the New World.

This led to much more African influence on the culture in the area. Many local traditions and foods can be traced back to the Rice Coast of Africa. Examples include sweet grass baskets, the Charleston (dance), Frogmore Stew, songs Kumbayah and Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Benne Wafers, Strip Quilting, the banjo, folk medicine including early Cesarean Section techniques, and cast nets. Many Gullah traditions closely match traditions of the Golapple in Sierra Leone.

South Carolina Educational Standards:

Science 4-4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of weather patterns and phenomena (Earth Science)

4-4.3 Compare daily and seasonal changes in weather conditions (including wind speed and direction, precipitation, and temperature) and patterns.

Weather patterns involve weather conditions that are repeated due to the seasons of the year. For example, summer temperatures are generally warmer than winter temperatures.

Social Studies 3-2: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the exploration and settlement of South Carolina.

The inhabitants of the early Carolina colony included native, immigrant, and enslaved peoples. To understand how these various groups interacted to form a new and unique culture, the student will utilize the knowledge and skills set forth in the following indicators:

3-2.4 Summarize the development of the Carolina colony under the Lords Proprietors and the royal colonial government, including settlement by and trade with the people of Barbados and the influence of other immigrant groups

3-2.5 Explain the role of Africans in developing the culture and economy of South Carolina, including the growth of the slave trade; slave contributions to the plantation economy; the daily lives of the enslaved people; the development of the Gullah culture; and their resistance to slavery.

Social Studies 4-2: The student will demonstrate an understanding of how the settlement of North America was influenced by the interactions of Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans.

The interaction among peoples from three different continents created a distinctly American culture. To understand the contributions made by Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans to the settlement of North America, the student will utilize the knowledge and skills set forth in the following indicators:

4-2.3 Explain the impact of the triangular trade, indentured servitude, and the enslaved and free Africans on the developing culture and economy of North America.

4-2.4 Summarize the relationships among the Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans, including the French and Indian Wars, the slave revolts, and the conduct of trade.

Social Studies Literacy Skills: