Women and children were kept separate from male slaves
While being kept on deck or in separate quarters would sometimes give women and children at least a bit of room to move around, it also had its downside. On deck in particular, they were left vulnerable to the whims of the crew. Abuse and exploitation was rife, especially the sexual abuse of women. Ships captains would, in general, try and prevent their crew from being intimate with the slaves. However, this was mainly for reasons of discipline among the crew than out of any concern for the slaves’ wellbeing.
In one diary entry, slave ship captain John Newton recalled: “Bought a slave girl (Number 92). In the afternoon, while we were off the deck, William Cooney seduced a woman slave down into the room and lay with her brutelike in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons. I hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep them quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman, I shall impute him, for she was big with child. Her number is 83…”
In some cases, women slaves would come ashore in America carrying the children of the crew members who had raped them. However, while brutal rapes and other forms of abuse were only too common aboard the slave ships, so too were small acts of resistance. Many female slaves fought back against their abusers, while some performed abortion and infanticide as small acts of resistance. Others used sex to their advantage, offering favours to crew members in return for better treatment and extra freedom – sometimes using this freedom to help the male slaves rise up and revolt. Indeed, according to some histories of the ‘middle passage’, women were instrumental in organising many slave ship uprisings. Since they were allowed to move (relatively) freely on deck, they could meet and talk, with the crew usually underestimating them out of sheer prejudice.
Children of all ages would join their mothers in the cramped quarters of a slave ship. Many simply never made it. Young children and nursing infants were particularly vulnerable to the many diseases that ravaged the slave ships. Combined with the weakness that came with meagre food rations and many children simply wasted away, their emaciated bodies thrown overboard as their anguished mothers could only watch on.