The enslaved cargo of a slave ship came were purchased in forts along the African coast. The enslaved were of multiple ethnicities, brought to European forts by African traders who acquired the enslaved as prisoners of war, through kidnapping, or to pay a debt. Most of the enslaved came from inland Africa, and some were kept within Africa as slaves to other tribes or families.
The enslaved which were sold to European traders were held for sale in the large forts built by Europeans near African trade centers. The European traders preferred young, male Africans, but would take young, healthy enslaved in general.
Already traumatized by their enslavement, the Africans felt between “the devil and the deep blue sea” when confronted by the ocean, white men, and slave ship, which were all foreign, violent sites to the enslaved.[i] On the slave ship, the Africans were separated male and female, males usually shackled below decks, women allowed to move freely because they were assumed to be easy to overpower. The enslaved were allowed on deck to eat and for exercise, which usually took the form of coerced dancing.
Many of the enslaved face death on board, through disease or willful resistance. The enslaved were packed tightly below decks, lacking fresh air, frequently laying in detritus; disease passed easily through the ship cargo. The enslaved could also resist their situation by willfully causing harm to themselves; they attempted to commit suicide, by jumping overboard, refusing to eat, or cutting themselves.
When the slave ship reached the Americas, the enslaved again faced sale. They were typically held on board ship or in a port warehouse to be inspected and then sold as farm or house slaves.
[i] Harms, 254.