The Food of the Middle Passage
Meals were served twice daily: breakfast was dispensed around 10:00 a.m., and another meal in the late afternoon, around 4:00. In good weather, slaves ate in groups on deck; in inclement weather, meals were had in the slovenly holds of the ships. Slave groups/gangs were typically required to say grace before eating and give thanks after meals.
In order to monitor food-intake (and prevent slaves from deliberately starving themselves), the process of eating was sometimes directed by signals from a monitor who indicated when slaves should dip their fingers or wooden spoons into their bowls, and when they should swallow. It was the responsibility of the monitor to report slaves who were refusing to eat, the penalty for which was severe whipping and/or forced-feeding by use of a speculum orum, or mouth-opener, that was used to force food down a recalcitrant slave’s throat.
The typical slave-ship diet included rice, farina, yams, and horse beans. Occasionally, bran was included. Some slavers offered their slaves the so-called “African meal” once per day, followed by a “European meal” in the evening, which consisted of horse beans boiled to a pulp. Most Africans so detested the European meal that, given an opportunity, they would oftentimes surreptitiously throw it overboard rather than eat it.
Slaves from the various slave regions of West Africa had their food preferences: Those from the Winward coast tended to prefer rice; while those from the Niger Delta and Angola preferred manioc (cassava), though it was bulky and had a lower shelf life (unless in dried, flour form) and was therefore less frequently offered. “Slabber sauce,” comprised of palm oil, water, and pepper, was sometimes added to the food—to the relative delight of the slaves since palm oil was a popular ingredient in West African cuisine.
For drink, slaves were provided half a pint of water twice per day. Occasionally, pipes were circulated, affording each slave a few puffs.
Log books were carefully kept of ships’ provisions so as to avoid shortages at sea. When inclement weather in the Middle Passage prolonged a ship’s journey across the Atlantic, food and water allowances were reduced. In an infamous case in 1781, the slaving vessel Zong, headed to Jamaica, became short on food and water while also experiencing an outbreak of disease. The captain decided to jettison 136 slaves whom the captain argued were too sick or weak to recover, claiming that throwing those 136 slaves overboard spared them a lingering death.
[Primary Source: Edward Reynold’s Stand the Storm: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade]