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Middle Passage

By Charles Johnson 
Middle Passage is the story of a petty thief who stows away on a slave ship to avoid an arranged marriage.  Once on board, the ship is plagued with difficulties that only increase once she picks up her cargo. 
**Note to teachers: Middle Passage contains many difficult words and allusions.  It also contains numerous sailing terms and archaic language.  I would only recommend this book for an advanced reader**

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June 14, 1830
  • Rutherford (our narrator) tell the reader that he is from the Illinois, and that he moved to New Orleans after his master emancipated him on his deathbed.  Rutherford supports himself as a petty criminal. 
  • A local business man lets Rutherford know that he owes him a lot of money.  Isadora has agreed to pay these debts if Rutherford will marry her.   The wedding will be the next day.
  • Rutherford panics and goes drinking.  While on this binge, he meets a sailor named Squibb who is also quite drunk.  When Squibb passes out, Rutherford steals his papers and boards the ship on which Squibb is supposed to be the cook.  

June 20, 1830

  • Rutherford is found on the ship and attempts to pass himself off as a Squibb, but the people on the ship know Squibb and aren't fooled.
  • Rutherford is taken to the captain who allows him to stay on board, but won't pay him.  He informs Rutherford that the ship is to be used for slave transport.
  • Rutherford is put to work in the kitchen working with Squibb.
  • Rutherford learns the negatives of working on a ship--it's wet, filled with rats, and people get sick all the time.  The other people on board drink a lot to keep from worrying.
  • Rutherford hears that the the slaves they are picking up are a strange group--many who have tried to capture them before have been killed.  They're rumored to be a tribe of sorcerers.

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Vocabulary Words from Middle Passage


Scrivener—professional copier; notary public

Scurvy—disease caused by a lock of vitamin C

Shoal—group of fish; group of people

Sodden—very wet, drunk

Sot—a person who drinks too much alcohol

Sough—to make a soft rustling, sighing, or murmuring sound like the wind in the trees

Stemson—part of a wooden ship

Sully—spoil, make dirty

Taffrail—the rail around the stern of a ship

Teem--full of; rain heavily

Tendril—delicate twist or coil

Thalassic—living in the sea; relating to the sea

Theologian—someone who studies religion

Timpani—drums in an orchestra

Tome—large book

Transcendence—to leave the natural world; greater status

Trellis—crisscross strips for supporting a plant; structure made of crisscross strips

Unbidden—not wished for; not asked for or invited

Vicariously—to experience something through another person

Vortices—whirling water or air; something overwhelming

Adenoidal—nasal voice; breathing difficulties

Abhor—hate something

Annihilate—destroy something; defeat somebody


Bantam—overconfident; miniature

Barbican—a strong defensive tower at the entrance to a town

Barnacle—a clinging organism often found on the underside of a boat

Bawdy—coarse and funny, but often in a vulgar way

Behoove—to be right and proper for someone

Belay— stop; fasten line on ship; secure rope;

Beldam—offensive term for an older woman who is thought to be a witch

Bilge—lower hull of a boat

Binocular—using both eyes

Bleak—unwelcoming; discouraging; cold and cloudy

Blight—something that spoils or damages things

Bourgeois—a conventional, middle-class person.

Bosun—ship’s maintenance officer

Broach—bring up a difficult subject; open something

Buoy—to keep something up (v); an object that floats in the water (n)


Caricature—a drawing or description that exaggerates a person’s characteristics

Cavernous—very large and empty, like a cavern

Chiton—tunics wore in ancient Greece

Clamor—to demand noisily; shout


Cleave—to split; to cut a path through

Colossus—something enormously large or powerful

Commodity—a traded item; useful thing

Contempt—hatred or disgust

Conspirator—member of a group planning something (usually illegal)

Convivial—pleasant, sociable

Curare—plant resin that causes paralysis


Degenerate—to become worse or useless; somebody immoral or corrupt

Dovetail—fit together; join pieces of wood

Dumbfounded—make speechless


Emulsion—suspension of one liquid in another liquid

Entreat—plead, beg

Esoteric—difficult to understand; secret or confidential; understood by only a few

Excruciating—very painful, hard to bear

Exploit—to take advantage of someone or something


Fetid—something with a rotten or offensive sm

Flabbergasted—shock someone completely

Fop—a man very interested in fashion; a vain man

Frowzy—messy appearance; stuffy

Fusty—stale-smelling; outdated


Gusto—hearty enjoyment



Inextricable—impossible to escape from; unable to untangle

Ingenuous—innocent; honest

Ingratiate—to try to please someone; kiss up

Initiate—to start something; to someone about something new


Juggernaut—crushing force


Lichen—plant that grows on rocks

Limpid—clear; easy to understand; unworried

Litotes—an purposeful understatement done for affect

Luciferin—substance found in the cells of organism like glowworms and fireflies that emits a bluish-green light with very little heat

Luminous—brightly lit; emitting or reflecting light

Luscious—sweet and juicy; desirable; romantic and emotional


Mallow—flowering plant

Melic—meant to be sung

Milquetoast—a timid man

Miscreant—a villain, or wrongdoer

Modulate—alter something, change sound

Moor—tie boat with ropes


Parasite—an organism that lives off of another; a scrounger

Penetralia—innermost parts

Permeate—spread through; pass through

Pilfer—steal small items of little value

Pilgrimage—religious journey; trip to a special place


Placate—make someone less angry




Rake—immoral pleasure seeker
Rapscallion—an annoying child or a dishonest person

Raucous—unpleasantly loud

Recalcitrant—hard to do or handle; resisting control

Regime—form of government; controlling group; established system

Rend—tear something apart

Rescind—cancel something


Roil—make or become cloudy; make somebody angry

Ruinous—damaging, decayed