Comparing the Middle Passage to the Trail of Tears


The history of United States is rich with cultural heritage that have now reflected to the diversity people living in the nation. However, everything never came too easy because numerous pains, struggles and sufferings have resulted to obtain the concept of American freedom that every United States citizen now enjoys.

For African Americans, a pivotal point of their struggles is Middle Passage that occurred in the 1500s to 1700s where Africans were traded as slaves. The journey of the African captives from the West Coast of Africa to the West Indies was known as the “Middle Passage” because it was only part of a route that eventually led back to America. More than half of the Africans sometimes died during the journey and this painful trip usually took from forty to sixty days. For the American Indians, a pivotal point was the period of 1838 to 1839, where the Cherokee Indians were forcefully removed from Georgia to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma and their poignant journey westward is now recalled as the “Trail of Tears.

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”This paper will tackle the similarities and differences of these pivotal events in American history. Both periods will be assessed based on emotions, torment and the effects of these events to the existing American culture. Also, we will compare the time periods, the area and how these events came into light. It is hypothesized that the Middle Passage has more differences than similarities to the Trail of Tears.

In doing this paper, it is aimed that we can draw lines of similarities and differences in comparing these two pivotal events that has marked the struggles of African Americans and American Indians from the brutalities in the past. As Americans, we should be aware of these events to enable people to understand and appreciate fully the great conflicts and dilemmas in American society and to develop a commitment to help make America’s ideals a reality.

Background Information

History of the Middle Passage

Africans have been in America for many centuries. Inconclusive evidence suggests that they established a colony in Mexico long before Columbus’ voyage in 1492. Africans were with the first Europeans who explored America. Africans had been living in Europe for many years when European explorations of America began.

The Moors, a North African people, invaded Europe in 711. They eventually conquered and ruled Spain. Other Africans were brought to Europe as slaves beginning in the 1400s. These Africans worked in private homes as servants, in banks and shipyards, and in mercantile establishments.

However, slave trade became common in Europe in 1400s. In the mid fifteenth century, European monarchs sent explorers to Africa to obtain such goods as skins and oils. Many of these explorers brought back these wares as well as African slaves and gold as gifts for their rulers. These gifts greatly pleased the European monarchs.

As more and more Europeans explored Africa and brought Africans back to Europe, the slave trade gradually gained momentum. Black slavery never became widespread in Europe, but it grew by leaps and bounds when Europeans started settling in America in the 1600s. Europeans developed large plantations in the West Indies that grew crops such as sugar, indigo, cotton, and tobacco. Sugar production reigned supreme over all other crops. To produce increasing amounts of sugar, the Europeans brought thousands of Africans to the West Indies (Franklin & Moss, 2000).

The life of the African captives was terrifying, brutal, and shocking. Slave catchers, who were usually Africans, raided the interior of the West African coast looking for captives from other tribal groups. When Africans were caught, they were chained together and marched long distances, often hundreds of miles, to the European forts near the coast. Here they waited, sometimes for months, to be forced onto ships headed for America. The captives adamantly resisted bondage. Some of them escaped on the long march to the forts. Others jumped overboard once the ships were at sea.

Mutinies occurred, both on the African shore and in mid-ocean. In 1753 a group of captives seized a ship bound for America, killed the White crew, and forced the ship back to Africa. In 1839, the Amistad, a slave ship, was brought into New London, Connecticut, by a group of Africans who had revolted against their captors. Cinque, the young African leader, and his followers were granted their freedom by the U. S. Supreme Court (Ladson-Billings, 1994).Conditions on the slave ships were degrading and dehumanizing. The captured Africans were packed into the ships like sardines.

They were chained together with iron ankle fetters. The space for each slave was so small that they were forced to lie down in the ship. Because of the crowded and filthy conditions on the ships, diseases were rampant and took many lives. Many Africans died from scurvy, dysentery, and smallpox.

Sometimes everyone on a ship was blinded by ophthalmia. Africans who became very sick were dumped into the ocean because dead Africans were worthless on the American slave market. More than half of the Africans sometimes died during the journey in the trip that lasted up to forty to sixty days. Some historians estimate that one out of every eight captives died in the middle passage and never reached the Americas.

Apologists for the slave trade attempted to gloss over this inhumanity by claiming that Africans, at a lower stage of development than Europeans, were immune to this treatment. They believed that only by gradually learning civilized practices would Africans eventually escape from the cultural hold that strangled them. Opponents of slavery, on the other hand, pointed to the cruelty and violence of the trade as well as to the incongruity of supposedly civilized nations engaging in wanton inhumanity (Diedrich, Gates, & Pedersen, 1999, p. 6).

History of the Trail of Tears

When the Europeans started to conquer United States, the native American Indian tribes fought back. Despite the Indians’ aggressive and bold resistance, the Europeans were destined to win the struggle. The Whites retaliated with shocking massacres, like Sand Creek in 1864, biological warfare, and massive wars in which men, women, and children were killed and, often, dismembered and scalped.

After Indian resistance was crushed, Whites legitimized the taking of Indian lands by convincing the Indian leaders to sign treaties. Indian chiefs were frequently offered gifts or other bribes to sign treaties. Once an Indian group had signed a treaty, the Whites schemed to remove them from their land. Often the Indians were forced west of the Mississippi into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), land the Whites considered uninhabitable.

If only a few Indians remained after the conquest, they were often absorbed by local tribes or forced onto reservations.This cycle was repeated many times as the White settlers pushed westward. When Whites went farther west, Indians were forced to sign new treaties granting Whites the lands earlier treaties had assured them. Some Indian groups, like the Winnebagos, were forced to move as many as six times during a period of thirty years. No aspects of U.S. history are more poignant than the accounts of the making and breaking of Indian treaties by Whites and the forced removal of Indians across the United States.

Commissioner will be sent down to negotiate, with a pocket full of money and his mouth full of lies. Some chiefs he will bribe, some he will flatter, and some he will make drunk: and the result will be…something that will be called a treaty (Hagan 1961, p. 99).It was in 1829 that the Georgians began an aggressive drive to remove the Cherokees from their homeland when gold was discovered on Cherokee land. The Cherokees initiated a court battle against removal.

In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokees had a right to remain on their land. However, this ruling by the high court did not halt the determined efforts of the Georgians and President Andrew Jackson to remove the Cherokees. Harassed and pressured, part of the tribe finally signed a removal treaty in 1835. Even though only a minority of the tribe’s leaders signed the treaty, the Cherokees were forced to move to Indian Territory.

During the long march from Georgia to Oklahoma in 1838 and 1839, almost one fourth of the Cherokees died from starvation, diseases, and the perils of the journey. Their long westward journey is recalled as the “Trail of Tears.” The Creeks were forced to sign a treaty in 1832, which gave the Whites rights to their lands east of the Mississippi. Nearly half of the Creeks perished during the migration to and during their early years in the West (Harvey ; Harjo, 1998).

Definition of Key Terms

In this research, it is essential to define the key terms that define the similarities and difference of both the events concerned. The Oxford English dictionary defines similar as “a thing or person similar to or resembling another; a counterpart”, while it defines difference as “the condition, quality, or fact of being different, or not the same in quality or in essence; dissimilarity, distinction, diversity; the relation of non-agreement or non-identity between two or more things, disagreement”.  In this case, when we say similarities in the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears, we will delve on the resemblance of both events. When we tackle the difference of both events, we will delve on the things that deviated from both events.

Similarities and Differences Between the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears

One of the starkest similarities of the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears are the pains and sufferings that they had undergone under the White colonists. Both events can also be characterized as forced migration. To know the sufferings the Africans experienced during the Middle Passage, it is best seen through the eyes of the Africans themselves. There are several memoirs written by or taken down from individuals who actually underwent a voyage in a nineteenth-century slave ship.

The story of the untold sufferings of the enslaved, as they were marched to the coast, kept in cages under appalling conditions, packed into slave ships like cattle, and the horrors of the Atlantic crossing, euphemistically referred to as the middle passage, have all been vividly presented by historians.

For example, in 1842, the Minerva was intercepted on its way from Ambriz to Bahia while carrying 126 children. The ship was thirty-six-and-a half feet long, ten feet four inches at its widest point and had a hold with a maximum depth of five feet seven inches. After stowing fifteen water casks and provisions, there were fourteen inches of space left below decks into which half the children were fitted. The remainder occupied every foot available on deck.

There were six slaves for every measured ton of the vessel. Seven years later five crew of a captured slave ship stole the official boat of the Sierra Leone Mixed Commission Court, rowed it into the Rio Pongo, “kidnapped or purchased five or six slaves” and successfully navigated to Brazil where the slaves were sold. The boat was twenty-eight-feet long and was without decking or cover of any kind (Eltis 1987, p. 125-126).

Manning (1992) estimated that, as a result of these exports of slaves, the population of the Western Coast of Africa–the region from Senegal to Angola from which most New World slaves were drawn–declined significantly from about 1730 to 1850. Further, since the slaves were removed at the rate of roughly two males for every female, the result was a relative shortage of males on the African continent: adult sex ratios fell to 80 men per 100 women in many areas, and to 50 men per 100 women in such hard-hit areas as Loango and Angola.

In the East African region from Mozambique to Kenya, a serious population decline occurred later, from about 1820 to 1890, as slaves were taken both to Muslim areas in Arabia and the Persian Gulf and to European-ruled territories in the Indian Ocean and the New World. The sex ratio of slaves transported from East Africa was, on average, about even (p. 120)

In the case of the Trail of Tears, a novel explained the emotional and psychological turmoil experienced by the Cherokees during that time. Describing Cherokee removal by way of miles and deaths captures the quantitative hardship of the incident but misses its psychological and spiritual reverberations. In her novel Pushing the Bear (1996), Cherokee poet Diane Glancy has reframed this event by imagining the inner journeys of those who walked. Glancy constructs a multivoiced history by weaving together the threads of diverse experiences.

She balances the voices of Maritole, a young Cherokee woman and the main character of the novel, with Maritole’s family members, Cherokee Christians, traders, elders, and spirits. Excerpts from historical documents such as property claims and government reports are also woven into the text, creating a narrative that is layered and expansive. Unlike Andrew Jackson’s representation of removal as an improving exercise, Glancy depicts the event as a nightmare. In Glancy’s portrayal the walk West is a life-stealing march, which Maritole describes in the bleakest of terms: “We were marching west toward darkness, toward death… The cold sat upon my bones.

It was as though I had no clothing. It was as though I had no skin. I was nothing but a bare skeleton walking the path”. Maritole’s brother, Tanner, renames the Trail of Tears to express the reality of spiritual and physical death, saying, “Behind us for a hundred miles stretched the trail of ghosts of our dead ones” (p. 58, 86).   The effect was also similar on both the cultures of the African slaves and American Indians because they were aggressed from their home lands that have profound effects on their traditional culture and values.

One difference of the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears is the time span. In the Middle Passage, it appears to have existed longer from the 1500s to the 1700s. The Trail of Tears lasted for just a year 1838 to 1839. Another big difference is that the area where the events took place. In the Middle Passage, it was trans-Atlantic because the Middle Passage involved three continents: Europe, Africa and North America.

On the other hand, the area of the Trail of Tears concentrated on the ancestral lands of the Cherokees as they were forcefully removed from Georgia to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.The triggering factors were also different in nature of both events. In the case of the Middle Passage, the issue was the need for slaves to work for the White masters. In the case of the Trail of Tears, the issue was that the White aggressors wanted to mine gold in the area so they drove away the Cherokees in their ancestral lands.


Accuracy of Sources

All sources mentioned cited historical documents that were essential in completing the puzzle of what transpired in the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears. In the Middle Passage, the documents gathered were written by the slaves themselves and they described the brutalities that they experienced during the slave trade. However, for the Trail of Tears, a novel by Cherokee poet Diane Glancy was used. Although it is a novel, it was based on the historical accounts of what the Cherokee tribe experienced during those times.

Overall Analysis of Project

In this project, we have seen that both events have similarities and differences. However, it was proven that there are more differences in terms of the time span, the area covered and what sparked these events to happen. Fact is that we have proven the hypothesis that the differences weighed more than the similarities. Although the experiences of brutalities and torments were similar, it should be considered that the long time span means that the African people suffered more than the Cherokees. Another thing that we find contrasting is that the Trail of Tears has concentrated on just one tribe: the Cherokees, while the Middle Passage involved African people who were from different locations.


In this research, we have seen that the differences have more weight than the similarities in the events that have transpired in the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears. Both events caused the removal of Africans and Cherokees in their home lands. This has caused them similar emotional, psychological and physical torture that has a profound effect in their culture as a people.

We believe that the Middle Passage is a more brutal phenomenon because it had occurred for centuries, unlike the Trail of Tears that lasted only a year. The scope in area is also larger in the Middle Passage because it involved three continents. We have learned that these events are an important part of American history because it was the events that made people realize that Africans and American Indians should be given equal rights like the White people. These events were contributed to the concept of true American freedom that should see through beyond the color of skin so that every one will enjoy the full benefits of being free citizens.


  1. Diedrich, M., Gates, H. L., & Pedersen, C. (Eds.). (1999). Black Imagination and the Middle Passage. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Eltis, D. (1987). Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
  3. Franklin, J. H., & Moss, A. A., Jr. (2000). From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Black Americans (8th ed. ). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Glancy, D. (1996). Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, New York: Harcourt Brace.
  5. Hagan, W. T. (1961). American Indians. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
  6. Harvey, K. D. , & Harjo, L. D. (1998). Indian Country: A History of Native People in America.
  7. Golden, CO: North American Press.Manning, P. (1992). The Slave Trade: The Formal Demography of a Global System.


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