Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano


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Olaudah Equiano was born in Essaka, an Igbo village in the kingdom of Benin (now Nigeria) in 1745. His father was one of the province's elders who decided disputes. According to James Walvin "Equiano described his father as a local Igbo eminence and slave owner".

When he was about eleven, Equiano was kidnapped and after six months of captivity he was brought to the coast where he encountered white men for the first time. Equiano later recalled in his autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African (1787): "The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country."

Olaudah Equiano was placed on a slave-ship bound for Barbados. "I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a greeting in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. The wretched situation was again aggravated by the chains, now unsupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable."

After a two-week stay in the West Indies Equiano was sent to the English colony of Virginia. In 1754 he was purchased by Captain Henry Pascal, a British naval officer. He was given the new name of Gustavus Vassa and was brought back to England. According to his biographer, James Walvin: "For seven years he served on British ships as Pascal's slave, participating in or witnessing several battles of the Seven Years' War. Fellow sailors taught him to read and write and to understand mathematics. He was also converted to Christianity, reading the Bible regularly on board ship. Baptized at St Margaret's Church, Westminster, on 9 February 1759, he struggled with his faith until finally opting for Methodism."

By the end of the Seven Years' War he reached the rank of able seaman. Although he was freed by Pascal he was re-enslaved in London in 1762 and shipped to the West Indies. For four years he worked for a Montserrat based merchant, sailing between the islands and North America. "I was often a witness to cruelties of every kind, which were exercised on my unhappy fellow slaves. I used frequently to have different cargoes of new Negroes in my care for sale; and it was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves; and these I was, though with reluctance, obliged to submit to at all times, being unable to help them." James Walvin points out that "Equiano... also trading to his own advantage as he did so. Ever alert to commercial openings, Equiano accumulated cash and in 1766 bought his own freedom."

Equiano now worked closely with Granvile Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Equiano spoke at a large number of public meetings where he described the cruelty of the slave trade. In 1787 Equiano helped his friend, Offobah Cugoano, to published an account of his experiences, Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of America. Copies of his book was sent to George III and leading politicians. He failed to persuade the king to change his opinions and like other members of the royal family remained against abolition of the slave trade.

Equiano published his own autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African in 1789. He travelled throughout England promoting the book. It became a bestseller and was also published in Germany (1790), America (1791) and Holland (1791). He also spent over eight months in Ireland where he made several speeches on the evils of the slave trade. While he was there he sold over 1,900 copies of his book.

David Dabydeen has argued: "With Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe, Equiano was a major abolitionist, working ceaselessly to expose the nature of the shameful trade. He travelled throughout Britain with copies of his book, and thousands upon thousands attended his readings. When John Wesley lay dying, it was Equiano's book he took up to reread."

On 7th April 1792 Equiano married Susanna Cullen (1761-1796) of Soham, Cambridgeshire. The couple had two children, Anna Maria (16th October 1793) and Johanna (11th April 1795). However, Anna Maria died when she was only four years old. Equiano's wife died soon afterwards. During this period he was a close friend of Thomas Hardy, secretary of the London Corresponding Society. Equiano became an active member of this group that campaigned in favour of universal suffrage.

Olaudah Equiano was appointed to the expedition to settle former black slaves in Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa. However, he died at his home at Paddington Street, Marylebone, on 31st March, 1797 before he could complete the task.

The historian, James Walvin, has argued: "After his death his book was anthologized by abolitionists (especially before the American Civil War). Thereafter, however, Equiano was virtually forgotten for a century. In the 1960s his autobiography was rediscovered and reissued by Africanist scholars; various editions of his Narrative have since sold in large numbers in Britain, North America, and Africa. Equiano's autobiography remains a classic text of an African's experiences in the era of Atlantic slavery. It is a book which operates on a number of levels: it is the diary of a soul, the story of an autodidact, and a personal attack on slavery and the slave trade. It is also the foundation-stone of the subsequent genre of black writing; a personal testimony which, however mediated by his transformation into an educated Christian, remains the classic statement of African remembrance in the years of Atlantic slavery." Chinua Achebe has called him "the father of African literature" whereas Henry Louis Gates claimed him for America as "the founding father of the Afro-American literary tradition".

In 2005 Vincent Carretta published his book, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-made Man. He argued that he had found a document that suggests that Equiano was really born in South Carolina. As David Dabydeen points out: "In other words, Equiano may never have set foot in Africa, never mind boarded a slave ship, and the narrative of his early life may be pure fiction." However, he adds: "Equiano's autobiography, Carretta suggests, is a monumental 18th-century text, a unique mixture of travel-writing, sea lore, sermon, economic tract and fiction. That the early chapters may have invented a life in Africa only adds to our appreciation of Equiano's imaginative depth and literary talent."

To kidnap our fellow creatures, however they may differ in complexion, to degrade them into beasts of burthen, to deny them every right but those, and scarcely those we allow to a horse, to keep them in perpetual servitude, is a crime as unjustifiable as cruel; but to avow and to defend this infamous traffic required the ability and the modesty of you and Mr. Tobin. Can any man be a Christian who asserts that one part of the human race were ordained to be in perpetual bondage to another.

I was born, in the year 1745, in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka. The distance of this province from the capital of Benin and the sea coast must be very considerable; for I had never heard of white men or Europeans, nor of the sea.

The dress of both sexes is nearly the same. It generally consists of a long piece of calico, or muslin, wrapped loosely round the body, somewhat in the form of a highland plaid. This is usually dyed blue, which is our favourite colour. It is extracted from a berry, and is brighter and richer than any I have seen in Europe. Besides this, our women of distinction wear golden ornaments; which they dispose with some profusion on their arms and legs. When our women are not employed with the men in tillage, their usual occupation is spinning and weaving cotton, which they afterwards dye, and make it into garments. They also manufacture earthen vessels, of which we have many kinds.

Generally, when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighborhood's premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us; for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize.

One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound; but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time.

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.

Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.

When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believed were some of those who had brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair. They told me I was not: and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass, but, being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand. One of the blacks, therefore, took it from him and gave it to me, and I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, throw me into the greatest consternation at the strange feeling it produced, having never tasted any such liquor before. Soon after this, the blacks who brought me on board went off, and left me abandoned to despair.

I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a greeting in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.

The white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.

The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

At last, we came in sight of the island of Barbados, at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy to us. We did not know what to think of this; but as the vessel drew nearer, we plainly saw the harbor, and other ships of different kinds and sizes, and we soon anchored amongst them, off Bridgetown.

Many merchants and planters now came on board, though it was in the evening. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this, we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they appeared to us; and, when soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread and trembling among us, and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from these apprehensions, insomuch, that at last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much. And sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages.

We were conducted immediately to the merchant's yard, where we were all pent up together, like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age. As every object was new to me, every thing I saw filled me with surprise. What struck me first, was, that the houses were built with bricks and stories, and in every other respect different from those I had seen in Africa; but I was still more astonished on seeing people on horseback. I did not know what this could mean; and, indeed, I thought these people were full of nothing but magical arts.

We were not many days in the merchant's custody, before we were sold after their usual manner, which is this: On a signal given, (as the beat of a drum) the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehension of terrified Africans, who may well be supposed to consider them as the ministers of that destruction to which they think themselves devoted.

In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again. I remember, in the vessel in which I was brought over, in the men's apartment, there were several brothers, who, in the sale, were sold in different lots; and it was very moving on this occasion, to see and hear their cries at parting. Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends, to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery, with the small comfort of being together; and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, husbands their wives? Surely, this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress; and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.

While I was thus employed by my master, I was often a witness to cruelties of every kind, which were exercised on my unhappy fellow slaves. I used frequently to have different cargoes of new Negroes in my care for sale; and it was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves; and these I was, though with reluctance, obliged to submit to at all times, being unable to help them. When we have had some of these slaves on board my master's vessels, to carry them to other islands, or to America, I have known our mates to commit these acts most shamefully, to the disgrace, not of Christians only, but of men. I have even known them to gratify their brutal passion with females not ten years old; and these abominations, some of them practised to such scandalous excess, that one of our captains discharged the mate and others on that account. And yet in Montserrat I have seen a Negro man staked to the ground, and cut most shockingly, and then his ears cut off bit by bit, because he had been connected with a white woman, who was a common prostitute. As if it were no crime in the whites to rob an innocent African girl of her virtue, but most heinous in a black man only to gratify a passion of nature, where the temptation was offered by one of a different color, though the most abandoned woman of her species.

One man told me that he had sold 41,000 negroes, and that he once cut of a negro man's leg for running away. I told him that the Christian doctrine taught us to do unto others as we would that others should do unto us. He then said that his scheme had the desired effect - it cured that man and some others of running away.

Another negro man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer. Thus, by repeated cruelties, are the wretched first urged to despair, and then murdered, because they still retain so much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and retaliate on their tyrants. These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, but not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes.

Their huts, which ought to be well covered, and the place dry where they take their little repose, are often open sheds, built in damp places; so that when the poor creatures return tired from the toils of the field, they contract many disorders, from being exposed to the damp air in this uncomfortable state, while they are heated, and their pores are open. This neglect certainly conspires with many others to cause a decrease in the births as well as in the lives of the grown negroes.

I knew one man in Montserrat whose slaves looked remarkably well, and never needed any fresh supplies of negroes; and there are many other estates, especially in Barbados, which, from such judicious treatment, need no fresh stock of negroes at any time. I have the honor of knowing a most worthy and humane gentleman, who is a native of Barbados, and has estates there. He allows them two hours of refreshment at mid-day, and many other indulgencies and comforts, particularly in their lodging; and, besides this, he raises more provisions on his estate than they can destroy; so that by these attentions he saves the lives of his negroes, and keeps them healthy, and as happy as the condition of slavery can admit.

When Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography in England in 1789, he achieved instant celebrity. Several thousand copies were sold, the subscribers including the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and the Duke of Cumberland. The book went through nine editions between 1789 and 1794, and pirated versions appeared in Holland, New York, Russia and Germany. He was a best-selling author, and became the wealthiest black man in the English-speaking world. He was so well off that he dabbled in moneylending to English people. His daughter inherited £950 and a silver watch from his estate....

A major reason for Equiano's popularity is that his autobiography contains a detailed account of his birth and childhood in Nigeria, with rare descriptions of the culture of 18th-century Igbo society. His narrative of the Atlantic crossing in a slave ship is as unique as it is moving. The early chapters are much anthologised since they offer a first-hand record of an African kidnapped at the age of ten, taken to the coast, sold to European merchants and despatched to the Americas.

Equiano writes passionately and vividly of his separation from his mother and sister, of his initial horror at seeing Europeans (they behaved so brutishly and were so alien to behold - "white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair" - that he feared they were cannibals bent on eating the cargo of slaves), of the astonishment of seeing a ship for the first time and, on the transatlantic journey, of the strange and exotic sight of flying fish and other sea creatures. In the midst of dreadful suffering the child-Equiano asserts the magical beauty of life. A sympathetic white sailor lets him look through a quadrant. "The clouds appeared to me to be land, which disappeared as they past along. This heightened my wonder and I was now more persuaded than ever that I was in another world, and that everything about me was magic."

Fascinating and bestselling material, but how truthful? Vincent Carretta's biography seems to have torpedoed the slave ship and shattered trust in Equiano's veracity. Through years of patient and tenacious research in neglected archives, Carretta has discovered not one but two documents indicating that Equiano was born in Carolina - the first, a baptism record from February 9 1759, in St Margaret's Church, Westminster, stating that he was a "Black, born in Carolina, 12 years old"; the second, a muster list on a ship in which Equiano served in 1773, on which his birthplace is declared to be "South Carolina". In other words, Equiano may never have set foot in Africa, never mind boarded a slave ship, and the narrative of his early life may be pure fiction.

Needless to say, many scholars of African-American studies are furious with Carretta for seeming to suggest that Equiano is a trickster. One of them suggested he should have buried the evidence, for as one journalist in the Chronicle of Higher Education put it: "Carretta's conclusions threaten a pillar of scholarship on slave narratives and the African diaspora. Questioning Equiano's origins calls into doubt some fundamental assumptions made in departments of African-American Studies." Many Nigerians too are up in arms, Equiano being their star writer and witness. The fact that Carretta is white has increased the level of hostility to his book.

So how are we to reassess Equiano? Carretta himself suggests that his possible birth in Carolina rather than Africa in no way diminishes the power of his testimony. Autobiography, after all, is always partly fictional, the narrator excited by storytelling, by shaping and plotting the tale and by dressing up dull facts. Equiano was African in terms of origin, he knew the horrors of the slave trade which by the 1780s were widely broadcast by white abolitionists. What he did was to take it upon himself to write the first substantial account of slavery from an African viewpoint but, as importantly, to write it with pulse and heartbeat, giving passion to the subject so as to arouse sympathy and support for the cause of abolition. With Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe, Equiano was a major abolitionist, working ceaselessly to expose the nature of the shameful trade. When John Wesley lay dying, it was Equiano's book he took up to reread.

Carretta's biography, far from detracting from Equiano's greatness, calls attention to it. Apart from the doubt about Equiano's birth, Carretta has tracked down records proving that practically everything else he told about his life was factually correct. Carretta reveals a man almost unique in his travelling and experience of different cultures and landscapes. Equiano worked on ships trading in the West Indies, North America, Central America and the Mediterranean. In 1773 he was an able seaman on the Phipps expedition to the North Pole - probably the first African to set foot on Arctic ice. And wherever he went he sought out the strangeness of the place, never allowing his status as an exploited black man to dim his sense of awe. Sailing to Philadelphia he is "surprised at the sight of some whales, having never seen any such large sea monsters before"; in Italy he witnesses an eruption of Mount Vesuvius - "it was extremely awful"; sighting Arctic ice he is moved by "the whole of this striking, grand and uncommon scene; and, to heighten it still more, the reflection of the sun from the ice gave the clouds a most beautiful appearance." Always he conveys the sense of a natural world of overpowering beauty, far removed from the sordid human world of slavery.

Equiano's autobiography, Carretta suggests, is a monumental 18th-century text, a unique mixture of travel-writing, sea lore, sermon, economic tract and fiction. That the early chapters may have invented a life in Africa only adds to our appreciation of Equiano's imaginative depth and literary talent. Carretta has done great service to the study of the African diaspora, unearthing more documentation on Equiano than any previous scholar, even locating the gravestone of Equiano's daughter, Joanna, in Abney Park Cemetery, North London. He deserves applause, not resentment, for his indefatigable research.


Olaudah Equiano

Within ten years of the first North American settlements, Europeans began transporting captured Africans to the colonies as slaves. Imagine the thoughts and fears of an eleven-year-old boy who was kidnapped from his village by African slave traders. He was forced to march west to the coast of Africa, sold to different people along the way. When he reached the Slave Coast he saw white men for the first time. His mind must have been filled with many questions. Where was he going? What would these men do to him? Would he ever see his home again?

This young man was Olaudah Equiano. He and many other Africans, both male and female, were loaded on ships that took them to the British colonies, where they were sold as slaves. Hundreds of people were packed into the lower decks with barely enough room to move during a journey that took at least six weeks. Many died, but Equiano survived.

Equiano traveled the world as a slave to a ship captain and merchant. In 1766 he was able to purchase his own freedom. Equiano wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789. Equiano recounted how his early life in Africa was interrupted when he was kidnapped by slave traders and separated from his family, writing “we were soon deprived of even the smallest comfort of weeping together.” Equiano was bought and sold, marched to the African coast, and shipped in squalid conditions to America. He wrote of the voyage, “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scacely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.” Many people read Equiano’s Narrative, and his account exposing the horrors of slavery influenced Parliament’s decision to end the British slave trade in 1807.

Excerpt

I was not long suffered to indulge my grief I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life so that with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced any thing of this kind before and although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side but I could not and, besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself. In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of them what was to be done with us? they gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them.


Olaudah Equiano - History

Olaudah Equiano
The Interesting Narrative of the Life
of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African
(London, 1789 vol. I)

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Scanned and proofread by Kathleen Diekhoff, May 1998.
Proofread and posted by Raluca Preotu, August 1999.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

The author's birth and parentage--His being kidnapped with his sister--Their separation-surprise at meeting again--. . .

[Page 45] I hope the reader will not think I have trespassed on his patience in introducing myself to him with some account of the manners and customs of my country. They had been [Page 46] implanted in me with great care, and made an impression on my mind, which time could not erase, and which all the adversity and variety of fortune I have since experienced served only to rivet and record for, whether the love of one's country be real or imaginary, or a lesson of reason, or an instinct of nature, I still look back with pleasure on the first scenes of my life, though that pleasure has been for the most part mingled with sorrow.

I have already acquainted the reader with the time and place of my birth. My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter. As I was the youngest of the sons, I became, of course, the greatest favourite with my mother, and was always with her and she used to take particular pains [Page 47] to form my mind. I was trained up from my earliest years in the art of war my daily exercise was shooting and throwing javelins and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner.

Generally when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighbours' premises to play and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents absence to attack and carry off as many as they could seize. One day, as I was watching at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people [Page 48] come into the yard of our next neighbour but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young people in it. Immediately on this I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded by the stoutest of them, who entangled him with cords, so that he could not escape till some of the grown people came and secured him. But alas! ere long it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh. One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as [Page 49] far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day. For a long time we had kept the woods, but at last we came into a road which I believed I knew. I had now some hopes of being delivered for we had advanced but a little way before I discovered some people at a distance, on which I began to cry out for their assistance: but my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack. They also [Page 50] stopped my sister's mouth, and tied her hands and in this manner we proceeded till we were out of the sight of these people. When we went to rest the following night they offered us some victuals but we refused it and the only comfort we had was in being in one another's arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears. But alas! we were soon deprived of even the small comfort of weeping together.

The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other's arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually and for several days I did not [Page 51] eat anything but what they forced into my mouth. At length, after many days travelling, during which I had often changed masters I got into the hands of a chieftain, in a very pleasant country. This man had two wives and some children, and they all used me extremely well, and did all they could to comfort me particularly the first wife, who was something like my mother. Although I was a great many days journey from my father's house, yet these people spoke exactly the same language with us. This first master of mine, as I may call him, was a smith, and my principal employment was working his bellows, which were the same kind as l had seen in my vicinity. They were in some respects not unlike the stoves here in gentlemen's kitchens and were covered over with leather and in the [Page 52] middle of that leather a stick was fixed and a person stood up, and worked it, in the same manner as is done to pump water out of a cask with a hand pump. I believe it was gold he worked, for it was of a lovely bright yellow colour, and was worn by the women on their wrists and ankles. I was there I suppose about a month, and they at last used to trust me some little distance from the house. This liberty I used in embracing every opportunity to inquire the way to my own home: and I also sometimes, for the same purpose, went with the maidens, in the cool of the evenings, to bring pitchers of water from the springs for the use of the house. I had also remarked where the sun rose in the morning, and set in the evening, as I had travelled along and I had observed that my father's house was towards the [Page 53] rising of the sun. I therefore determined to seize the first opportunity of making my escape, and to shape my course for that quarter for I was quite oppressed and weighed down by grief after my mother and friends and my love of liberty, ever great, was strengthened by the mortifying circumstance of not daring to eat with the free-born children, although I was mostly their companion.

While I was projecting my escape, one day an unlucky event happened, which quite disconcerted my plan, and put an end to my hopes. I used to be sometimes employed in assisting an elderly woman slave to cook and take care of the poultry and one morning, while I was feeding some chickens, I happened to toss a small pebble at one of them, which hit it on the middle and directly killed it. The old slave having [Page 54] soon after missed the chicken, inquired after it and on my relating the accident (for I told her the truth, because my mother world never suffer me to tell a lie) she flew into a violent passion, threatened that I should suffer for it and, my master being out, she immediately went and told her mistress what I bad done. This alarmed me very much, and I expected an instant flogging, which to me was uncommonly dreadful for I had seldom been beaten at home. I therefore resolved to fly and accordingly I ran into a thicket that was hard by, and hid myself in the bushes. Soon afterwards my mistress and the slave returned, and, not seeing me, they searched all the house, but not finding me, and I not making answer when they called to me, they thought I had run away, and the whole [Page 55] neighbourhood was raised in the pursuit of me. In that part of the country (as in ours) the houses and villages were skirted with woods, or shrubberies and the bushes were so thick that a man could readily conceal himself in them, so as to elude the strictest search. The neighbours continued the whole day looking for me, and several times many of them came within a few yards of the place where I lay hid. I then gave myself up for lost entirely, and expected every moment, when I heard a rustling among the trees, to be found out, and punished by my master: but they never discovered me, though they were often so near that I even heard their conjectures as they were looking about for me and I now learned from them, that any attempt to return home would be hopeless. Most of them supposed I had fled towards home [Page 56] but the distance was so great, and the way so intricate, that they thought I could never reach it, and that I should be lost in the woods. When I heard this I was seized with a violent panic, and abandoned myself to despair. Night too began to approach, and aggravated all my fears. I had before entertained hopes of getting home, and I had determined when it should be dark to make the attempt but I was now convinced it was fruitless, and I began to consider that, if possibly I could escape all other animals, I could not those of the human kind and that, not knowing the way, I must perish in the woods. Thus was I like the hunted deer:
"Ev'ry leaf and ev'ry whisp'ring breath
Convey'd a foe, and ev'ry foe a death."

I heard frequent rustlings among the leaves and being pretty sure they were [Page 57] snakes I expected every instant to be stung by them. This increased my anguish and the horror of my situation became now quite insupportable. I at length quitted the thicket, very faint and hungry, for I had not eaten or drank anything all the day and crept to my master's kitchen, from whence I set out at first, and which was an open shed, and laid myself down in the ashes with an anxious wish for death to relieve me from all my pains. I was scarcely awake in the morning when the old woman slave who was the first up, came to light the fire, and saw me in the fire place. She was very much surprised to see me, and could scarcely believe her own eyes. She now promised to intercede for me, and went for her master, who soon after came, and, having slightly reprimanded [Page 58] me, ordered me to be taken care of, and not to be ill-treated.

Soon after this my master's only daughter, and child by his first wife, sickened and died, which affected him so much that for some time he was almost frantic, and really would have killed himself, had he not been watched and prevented. However, in a small time afterwards he recovered, and I was again sold. I was now carried to the left of the sun's rising, through many different countries, and a number of large woods. The people I was sold to used to carry me very often, when I was tired, either on their shoulders or on their backs. I saw many convenient well-built sheds along the roads, at proper distances, to accommodate the merchants and travellers, who lay in those buildings along with [Page 59] their wives, who often accompany them and they always go well armed.

From the time I left my own nation I always found somebody that understood me till I came to the sea coast. The languages of different nations did not totally differ, nor were they so copious as those of the Europeans, particularly the English. They were therefore easily learned and, while I was journeying thus through Africa, I acquired two or three different tongues. In this manner I had been travelling for a considerable time, when one evening to my great surprise, whom should I see brought to the house where I was but my dear sister! As soon as she saw me she gave a loud shriek, and ran into my arms. I was quite overpowered: neither of us could speak but, for a considerable time, [Page 60] clung to each other in mutual embraces, unable to do anything but weep. Our meeting affected all who saw us and indeed I must acknowledge, in honour of those fable destroyers of human rights, that I never met with any ill treatment, or saw any offered to their slaves, except tying them, when necessary, to keep them from running away. When these people knew we were brother and sister they indulged us together and the man, to whom I supposed we belonged, lay with us, he in the middle, while she and I held one another by the hands across his breast all night and thus for a while we forgot our misfortunes in the joy of being together: but even this small comfort was soon to have an end for scarcely had the fatal morning appeared, when she was again torn from me forever! I was now more miserable, [Page 61] if possible, than before. The small relief which her presence gave me from pain was gone, and the wretchedness of my situation was redoubled by my anxiety after her fate, and my apprehensions lest her sufferings should be greater than mine, when I could not be with her to alleviate them. Yes, thou dear partner of all my childish sports! Thou sharer of my joys and sorrows! happy should I have ever esteemed myself to encounter every misery for you, and to procure your freedom by the sacrifice of my own. Though you were early forced from my arms, your image has been always rivetted in my heart, from which neither time nor fortune have been able to remove it so that, while the thoughts of your sufferings have damped my prosperity, they have mingled with adversity and increased its bitterness. [Page 62] To that Heaven which protects the weak from the strong, I commit the care of your innocence and virtues, if they have not already received their full reward, and if your youth and delicacy have not long since fallen victims to the violence of the African trader, the pestilential stench of a Guinea ship, the seasoning in the European colonies, or the lash and lust of a brutal and unrelenting overseer.

I did not long remain after my sister. I was again sold, and carried through a number of places, till, after travelling a considerable time, I came to a town called Tinmah, in the most beautiful country I had yet seen in Africa. It was extremely rich, and there were many rivulets which flowed through it, and supplied a large pond in the center of the town, where the people washed. Here I first saw and tasted cocoa-nuts, [Page 63] which I thought superior to any nuts I had ever tasted before and the trees, which were loaded, were also interspersed amongst the houses, which had commodious shades adjoining, and were in the same manner as ours, the insides being neatly plastered and whitewashed. Here I also saw and tasted for the first time sugar-cane. Their money consisted of little white shells, the size of the finger nail. I was sold here for one hundred and seventy-two of them by a merchant who lived and brought me there. I had been about two or three days at his house, when a wealthy widow, a neighbour of his, came there one evening, and brought with her an only son, a young gentleman about my own age and size. Here they saw me and, having taken a fancy to me, I was bought of the merchant, and went home with them. Her house and [Page 64] premises were situated close to one of those rivulets I have mentioned, and were the finest I ever saw in Africa: they were very extensive, and she had a number of slaves to attend her. The next day I was washed and perfumed, and when meal-time came I was led into the presence of my mistress, and ate and drink before her with her son. This filled me with astonishment and I could scarce help expressing my surprise that the young gentleman should suffer me, who was bound, to eat with him who was free and not only so, but that he would not at any time either eat or drink till I had taken first, because I was the eldest, which was agreeable to our custom. Indeed everything here, and all their treatment of me, made me forget that I was a slave. The language of these people resembled ours so nearly, that we understood [Page 65] each other perfectly. They had also the very same customs as we. There were likewise slaves daily to attend us, while my young master and I with other boys sported with our darts and bows and arrows, as I had been used to do at home. In this resemblance to my former happy state I passed about two months and I now began to think I was to be adopted into the family, and was beginning to be reconciled to my situation, and to forget by degrees my misfortunes when all at once the delusion vanished for, without the least previous knowledge, one morning early, while my dear master and companion was still asleep, I was wakened out of my reverie to fresh sorrow, and hurried away even amongst the uncircumcised.

Thus, at the very moment I dreamed of the greatest happiness, I found myself [Page 66] most miserable and it seemed as if fortune wished to give me this taste of joy, only to render the reverse more poignant. The change I now experienced was as painful as it was sudden and unexpected. It was a change indeed from a state of bliss to a scene which is inexpressible by me, as it discovered to me an element I had never before beheld, and till then had no idea of, and wherein such instances of hardship and cruelty continually occurred as I can never reflect on but with horror.

All the nations and people I had hitherto passed through resembled our own in their manners, customs, and language: but I came at length to a country, the inhabitants of which differed from us in all those particulars. I was very much struck with this difference, especially when I came among [Page 67] a people who did not circumcise, and are without washing their hands. They cooked also in iron pots, and had European cutlasses and cross bows, which were unknown to us and fought with their fists amongst themselves. Their women were not so modest as ours, for they ate, and drank, and slept, with their men. But, above all, I was amazed to see no sacrifices or offerings among them. In some of those places the people ornamented themselves with scars, and likewise filed their teeth very sharp. They wanted sometimes to ornament me in the same manner, but I would not suffer them hoping that I might sometime be among a people who did not thus disfigure themselves, as I thought they did. At last I came to the banks of a large river, which was covered with canoes, in which the people appeared to live [Page 68] with their household utensils and provisions of all kinds. I was beyond measure astonished at this, as I had never before seen any water larger than a pond or a rivulet: and my surprise was mingled with no small fear when I was put into one of these canoes, and we began to paddle and move along the river. We continued going on thus till night and when we came to land, and made fires on the banks, each family by themselves some dragged their canoes on shore, others stayed and cooked in theirs, and laid in them all night. Those on the land had mats, of which they made tents, some in the shape of little houses: in these we slept and after the morning meal we embarked again and proceeded as before. I was often very much astonished to see some of the women, as well as the men, jump into the water, dive to the [Page 69] bottom, come up again, and swim about.

Thus I continued to travel, sometimes by land, sometimes by water, through different countries and various nations, till, at the end of six or seven months after I had been kidnapped, I arrived at the sea coast. It would be tedious and uninteresting to relate all the incidents which befell me during this journey, and which I have not yet forgotten of the various hands I passed through, and the manners and customs of all the different people among whom I lived: I shall therefore only observe, that in all the places where I was the soil was exceedingly rich the pomkins, eadas, plantains, yams, etc. etc. were in great abundance, and of incredible size. There were also vast quantities of different gums, though not used for any purpose, and everywhere a great deal of [Page 70] tobacco. The cotton even grew quite wild and there was plenty of red-wood. I saw no mechanics whatever in all the way, except such as I have mentioned. The chief employment in all these countries was agriculture, and both the males and females, as with us were brought up to it, and trained in the arts of war.

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were found by some of the crew and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions too [Page 71] differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard), united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country. When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, everyone of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little I found some black people about me, who I believed were [Page 72] some of those who brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair. They told me I was not and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass but, being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand. One of the blacks therefore took it from him and gave it to me, and I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, threw me into the greatest consternation at the strange feeling it produced having never tasted any such liquor before. Soon after this the blacks who brought me on board went off, and left me abandoned to despair.

I now saw myself deprived [Page 73] of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore which I now considered as friendly and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo. I was not long suffered to indulge my grief I was soon put down hinder the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables and on my refusing to eat, [Page 74] one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across I think the windlass and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced anything of this kind before and although, not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not and, besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water: and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself. In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I [Page 75] inquired of these what was to be done with us they gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them.

I then was a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate: but still I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty and this not only shewn towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves. One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in consequence of it and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more and I [Page 76] expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner. I could not help expressing my fears and apprehensions to some of my countrymen: I asked them if these people had no country, but lived in this hollow place (the ship): they told me they did not, but came from a distant one. 'Then,' said I, 'how comes it in all our country we never heard of them?' They told me because they lived so very far off. I then asked where were their women? had they any like themselves? I was told they had: 'and why,' said I, 'do we not see them?' They answered, because they were left behind. I asked how the vessel could go? They told me they could not tell but that there were cloths put upon the masts by the help of the ropes I saw, and then the vessel went on and the white men had some spell or magic they put in the water [Page 77] when they liked in order to stop the vessel. I was exceedingly amazed at this account, and really thought they were spirits. I therefore wished much to be from amongst them, for I expected they would sacrifice me: but my wishes were vain for we were so quartered that it was impossible for any of us to make our escape.

While we stayed on the coast I was mostly on deck and one day, to my great astonishment, I saw one of these vessels coming in with the sails up. As soon as the whites saw it, they gave a great shout, at which we were amazed and the more so as the vessel appeared larger by approaching nearer. At last she came to an anchor in my sight, and when the anchor was let go I and my countrymen who saw it were lost in astonishment to observe the vessel stop and were now convinced it was [Page 78] done by magic. Soon after this the other ship got her boats out, and they came on board of us, and the people of both ships seemed very glad to see each other. Several of the strangers also shook hands with US black people, and made motions with their bands, signifying I suppose we were to go to their country but we did not understand them. At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. But this disappointment was the least of my sorrow. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so in tolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air but now that the whole ship's cargo were [Page 79] confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. Happily perhaps [Page 80] for myself I was soon reduced so low here that it was thought necessary to keep me almost always on deck and from my extreme youth I was not put in fetters. In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon deck at the point of death, which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries. Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than myself. I envied them the freedom they enjoyed, and as often wished I could change my condition for theirs.

Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites. One day they had taken a number of fishes and when they had killed and satisfied themselves with as many as [Page 81] they thought fit, to our astonishment who were on the deck, rather than give any of them to us to eat as we expected, they tossed the remaining fish into the sea again, although we begged and prayed for some as well as we could, but in vain and some of my countrymen, being pressed by hunger, took an opportunity, when they thought no one saw them, of trying to get a little privately but they were discovered, and the attempt procured them some very severe floggings. One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea: immediately another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was suffered to be out of irons, also [Page 82] followed their example and I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship's crew, who were instantly alarmed. Those of us that were the most active were in a moment put down under the deck, and there was such a noise and confusion amongst the people of the ship as I never heard before, to stop her, and get the boat out to go after the slaves. However two of the wretches were drowned, but they got the other, and afterwards flogged him unmercifully for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery. In this manner we continued to undergo more hardships than I can now relate, hardships which are inseparable from this accursed trade. Many a time we were near suffocation from the want of fresh air, which we were often without for whole days together. This, [Page 83] and the stench of the necessary tubs, carried off many. During our passage I first saw flying fishes, which surprised me very much: they used frequently to fly across the ship, and many of them fell on the deck. I also now first saw the use of the quadrant I had often with astonishment seen the mariners make observations with it, and I could not think what it meant. They at last took notice of my surprise and one of them, willing to increase it, as well as to gratify my curiosity made me one day look through it. The clouds appeared to me to be land, which disappeared as they passed along. This heightened my wonder and I was now more persuaded than ever that I was in another world, and that every thing about me was magic.

At last we came in sight of the island of Barbadoes, at which the whites on board gave a great [Page 84] shout, and made many signs of joy to us. We did not know what to think of this but as the vessel drew nearer we plainly saw the harbour, and other ships of different kinds and sizes and we soon anchored amongst them off Bridge Town. Many merchants and planters now came on board, though it was in the evening. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this we should be eaten by those ugly men, as they appeared to us and, when soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread and trembling among us, and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from these apprehensions, insomuch that at last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They [Page 85] told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much and sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages. We were conducted immediately to the merchant's yard, where we were all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age.

As every object was new to me everything I saw filled me with surprise. What struck me first was that the houses were built with stories, and in every other respect different from those in Africa: but I was still more astonished on seeing people on horseback. I did not know what this could mean and indeed I thought these people were full of nothing but magical arts. While I was in this astonishment one of my [Page 86] fellow prisoners spoke to a countryman of his about the horses, who said they were the same kind they had in their country. I understood them, though they were from a distant part of Africa, and I thought it odd I had not seen any horses there but afterwards when I came to converse with different Africans, I found they had many horses amongst them, and much larger than those I then saw. We were not many days in the merchant's custody before we were sold after their usual manner, which is this: On a signal given (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamour with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of the [Page 87] terrified Africans, who may well be supposed to consider them as the ministers of that destruction to which they think themselves devoted. In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again. I remember in the vessel in which I was brought over, in the men's apartment, there were several brothers, who, in the sale, were sold in different lots and it was very moving on this occasion to see and hear their cries at parting. O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? [Page 88] Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.

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Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)

Olaudah Equiano, whose father was an Ibo chief, was born in 1745 in what is now Southern Nigeria. At the age of 11 years, Olaudah was captured by African slave traders and sold into bondage in the New World. Equiano, given the name Gustavus Vassa by one of his many owners, was forced to serve several masters, among them a Virginia plantation owner, a British Naval officer, and a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania merchant. While a slave to the naval officer Equiano traveled between four continents. These global experiences within the Atlantic Slave Trade allowed Equiano to produce the most popular and vivid slave narrative of his era.

By 1777 at the age of 32, Equiano, after having mastered reading, writing and arithmetic, purchased his freedom. He settled in England, befriended Granville Sharp, the first prominent British abolitionist, and soon became a leader of the emerging anti-slavery movement. Equiano presented one of the first petitions to the British Parliament calling for the abolition of slavery.

In 1787 Equiano became the first person of African ancestry to hold a post in the British Government when he was appointed to the post of Commissary for Stores to the Expedition for Freed Slaves. This abolitionist-supported venture would create the West African nation of Sierra Leone. At first pleased with the position, Equiano soon began to witness fraud and corruption among those responsible for providing supplies for the expedition. His unwillingness to accommodate this malfeasance led to his dismissal.

Equiano, however, continued to work with leading British abolitionists including William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson who urged Parliament to abolish the Slave Trade. He also interjected his own history into the struggle when in 1789 he wrote and published his autobiography titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself. His narrative soon became the first “best seller” written by a black Briton. Among those who purchased copies of his narrative were the Prince of Wales and eight dukes. Equiano also embarked on a lecture tour of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to promote his book particularly among the growing number of abolition committees it spawned.

The intriguing title of Equiano’s autobiography is likely a reflection on other slave narratives that were heavily edited. Equiano’s autobiography, however, like that of his American counterpart, Frederick Douglass, which appeared half a century later, is deemed most authentic. Equiano’s narrative is more than descriptive. Unlike most slave narratives, he advanced a number of religious and economic arguments for the abolition of slavery.

Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, in 1792. The couple had two daughters, one of whom survived to inherit her father’s estate. Olaudah Equiano died in 1797, ten years before the slave trade was abolished and 36 years before Parliament outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire.


Annotation

One of the very first slave narratives, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), served as a prototype for the well-known slave autobiographies of the 19th century written by such fugitive slaves as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. First published in 1772, the volume recounts Equiano's kidnapping in Africa at the age of 10 or 11, and how he was subsequently shipped to the West Indies, sent to a Virginia plantation, purchased by an officer in the British navy, and toiled on a merchant ship for a decade until he was able to buy his freedom. It also tells readers how as a free man he worked on merchant and military ships, served in the Seven Years War, and traveled to the Arctic, as well as how he became a leading figure in the British antislavery movement.

This autobiography, which is one of the very few slave narratives to offer a first-hand description of life in Africa as well as of capture, enslavement, and experiences during the Middle Passage to the New World, can be read on multiple levels. It offers a graphic first-hand look at slavery's cruelties, including the process of enslavement and the horrors of the Middle Passage. It provides vivid insights into the social history of the 18th century and a gripping first-person account of the workings of triangular trade connecting Africa, the Americas, and Europe. The book is also a religious conversion narrative, which helps us understand how an individual coped with slavery's oppressions, as well as a travel narrative, which offers a vivid glimpse of the 18th-century Atlantic world.

Yet the narrative is also problematic. The biographer Vincent Carretta has raised difficult questions about the truthfulness of Equiano's claim that he was born in Africa and the authenticity of his account of his capture and his experiences during the Middle Passage. Carretta likens the volume to another 18th-century autobiography, Benjamin Franklin's, which also uses a life story to advance larger themes and arguments. In short, reading this book challenges a reader to weigh historical evidence and to address the problematic nature of any autobiography, including the extent to which we can rely on a writer's memories and self-representation.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, 1791.

Excerpt I. Enslavement

My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter. As I was the youngest of the sons, I became, of course, the greatest favourite of my mother, and was always with her and she used to take particular pains to form my mind. I was trained up from my earliest years in the arts of agriculture and war and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner:- - Generally, when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighborhood's premises to play and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize. One day, as I was watching at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people come into the yard of our next neighbour but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young people in it. Immediately, on this, I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded by the stoutest of them, who entangled him with cords, so that he could not escape till some of the grown people came and secured him. But alas! ere long, it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh. One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound but were unable to take any food and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time.

Excerpt II. The Middle Passage

I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly. I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind.

There I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life. With the loathesomeness of the stench and the crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.

Soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across the windlass and tied my feet while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced anything of this kind before. If I could have gotten over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not. The crew used to watch very closely those of us who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water. I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself.

I inquired of these what was to be done with us. They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them. I then was a little revived, and thought if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate. But still I feared that I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted in so savage a manner. I have never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty, and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves.

One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in consequence of it, and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more, and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner.

I asked them if these people had no country, but lived in this hollow place? They told me they did not but came from a distant land. "Then," said I, "how comes it that in all our country we never heard of them?"

They told me because they lived so far off. I then asked where were their women? Had they any like themselves? I was told they had.

"And why do we not see them" I asked. They answered, "Because they were left behind."

I asked how the vessel would go? They told me they could not tell, but there was cloth put upon the masts by the help of the ropes I saw, and then vessels went on, and the white men had some spell or magic they put in the water when they liked in order to stop the vessel when they liked.

I was exceedingly amazed at this account, and really thought they were spirits. I therefore wished much to be from amongst them, for I expected they would sacrifice me. But my wishes were in vain- - for we were so quartered that it was impossible for us to make our escape.

At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel.

The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time. . . some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air. But now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number of the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.

This produced copious perspirations so that the air became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died- - thus falling victims of the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, which now became insupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs [toilets] into which the children often fell and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Happily perhaps for myself, I was soon reduced so low that it was necessary to keep me almost always on deck and from my extreme youth I was not put into fetters. In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon the deck at the point of death, which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries. Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than myself. I envied them the freedom they enjoyed, and as often wished I could change my condition for theirs. Every circumstance I met with, served only to render my state more painful and heightened my apprehensions and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites.

One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea. Immediately another quite dejected fellow, who on account of his illness was suffered to be out of irons, followed their example. I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship's crew, who were instantly alarmed. Those of us that were the most active were in a moment put down under the deck, and there was such a noise and confusion among the people of the ship as I never heard before to stop her and get the boat out to go after the slaves. However, two of the wretches were drowned, but they got the other and afterwards flogged him unmercifully for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery.

Excerpt III. Arrival in the New World

As the vessel drew nearer, we plainly saw the harbor and other ships of different kinds and sizes and we soon anchored amongst them off Bridgetown. Many merchants and planters came on board. . . They put us in separate parcels and examined us attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they appeared to us. When soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread and trembling among us and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from the apprehensions. At last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much, and sure enough, soon after we landed, there came to us Africans of all languages.

We were conducted immediately to the merchant's yard, where we were all pent up together, like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age. As every object was new to me, everything I saw filled me with surprise. What struck me first was that the houses were built with bricks and stories, and in every respect different from those I had seen in Africa, but I was still more astonished to see people on horseback. I did not know what this could mean, and indeed I thought these people were full of nothing but magical arts. While I was in this astonishment, one of my fellow prisoners spoke to a countryman of his about the horses who said they were the same kind they had in their country. I understood them, though they were from a distant part of Africa and I thought it odd I had not seen any horses there but afterwards when I came to converse with different Africans, I found they had many horses amongst them, and much larger than those I then saw.

We were not many days in the merchant's custody, before we were sold after their usual manner. . . . On a signal given, (as the beat of a drum), buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make a choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehension of terrified Africans. . . . In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again. I remember in the vessel in which I was brought over. . . there were several brothers who, in the sale, were sold in different lots and it was very moving on this occasion, to see and hear their cries in parting.

Credits

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African. New York: Printed and sold by W. Durell, at his book-store and printing-office, no. 19, Q. Street, M,DCC,XCI, 1791.


Who was Olaudah Equiano – and why was his story of slavery so important?

Kidnapped, torn from his family as a child, and sold as a slave, Olaudah Equiano's story would become a bestseller of its time, and a catalyst for the abolition of slavery in Britain. Jonny Wilkes explores his story for BBC History Revealed

This competition is now closed

Somewhere on the coast of what is now Nigeria, 11-year-old Olaudah Equiano trembles with fear as he is thrown aboard a slave ship. The year is around 1756, and the vessel is crammed to bursting with men, women and children from all over Africa. Confused and terrified, Equiano is placed below deck, where the hot stench of sickness, chained bodies and filth assails him.

“The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us”, he later wrote. “The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”

As the huge boat creaked its way out to sea, Equiano, denied fresh air and surrounded by bleak, sorrowful faces, came to a bitter realisation. He would never again inhale the sweet air of his beloved Africa.

Who was Olaudah Equiano?

Equiano was born in Essaka, a small province in the Kingdom of Benin, in Guinea – the youngest of seven children. Little detail is known of his early life, but it is likely that Equiano’s childhood in Essaka was simple and happy.

Agriculture was the province’s primary source of income, buildings favoured practicality over extravagance, and life was lived to an established system of law and marriage. “I had never heard of white men or Europeans, nor of the sea”, he recalled later in life.

In his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (first published in 1789), Equiano recalled that he and the other village children would spend their afternoons keeping a lookout for the kidnappers, who would often steal unattended children to sell on as slaves.

It was during one of these raids, in fact, that Equiano and his sister were seized, and carried far away from their village.

A few days later, the siblings were separated and Equiano was sold to a new master. His recollection of the parting is heart wrenching: “My sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms … It was in vain that we besought them not to part us she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually…”

Like most slaves, Equiano was sold and re-sold a number of times during those early weeks of imprisonment, but he eventually found himself in the town of Tinmah, “the most beautiful country I had yet seen in Africa”.

There, he was purchased for 172 of the small white shells that constituted the currency of the town. His new mistress was a wealthy African widow with a young son, both of whom treated Equiano as one of the family. But his relative happiness lasted just two short months, as Equiano was again loaded onto a slave ship, this time bound for Barbados.

At first, Equiano feared the “white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair,” and he wrote later of the terror he felt as the ship pulled away from his homeland, and he was forced to come to terms with his uncertain future. Death permeated the voyage to Barbados: he described children as nearly suffocating in “necessary tubs”, while fatalities caused by flogging and starvation were frequent.

The fate of those sold into slavery lay in the hands of the masters, who “rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best”.

Equiano, after failing to secure a bidder in Barbados, was quickly transported to Virginia, where he was purchased by Lieutenant Michael Pascal of the Royal Navy, for around £30-£40. After a further 13 weeks at sea, Equiano set foot on English soil for the first time, aged just 12.

What was Olaudah Equiano’s life like in England?

Upon his arrival in Falmouth, Equiano – who had been renamed Gustavus Vassa (after the 16th-century Swedish King) by his new master – began to adjust to his new life, observing English customs and discovering a deep interest in literacy.

Books were a constant source of curiosity to him. Believing that he could converse with them, Equiano later described how he had “often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me”.

Snow, too, fascinated the young African, who, upon seeing it covering the deck of the ship on which he’d sailed to England, declared that someone had thrown salt over the vessel during the night.

But Equiano’s new life on land was to be a short-lived affair. War had broken out in 1754 – primarily between Britain and France – over competition for colonies and trading rights (known later as the Seven Years’ War), and Equiano was soon summoned to assist his master on board his ship, the Roebuck.

Equiano sailed the oceans with Pascal for some eight years, travelling to Holland, Nova Scotia, Pennsylvania, Scotland and the Caribbean in his service. Life on board was often hard for the slave – Equiano wrote of how he was made to fight with white men for sport – and he saw combat in a number of battles, including the Siege of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia in 1758.

But it was during his time spent in London between naval engagements that Equiano gained the skills that were to change his life. Able to speak English, and no longer fearful of the white-skinned strangers who surrounded him, Equiano – now 14 – was sent to school, where he learned to read and write.

And it was during this period that Equiano discovered Christianity – a faith that was to guide him for the rest of his life. He was baptised in February 1759.

“I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen,” he later wrote, “but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners…”

Equiano retained a firm belief that Pascal – the master who had shown him such kindness – would eventually free him from slavery, and he saved money in preparation for the event. But Equiano’s dreams were to be shattered.

Pascal accused him of planning an escape, and he was subsequently sold to James Doran, Captain of the Charming Sally, a ship bound for the West Indies. Equiano was devastated at being forced into yet further slavery, and upon landing in Montserrat in February 1763, the young African “called on death to relieve me from the horrors I felt and dreaded”.

There, beneath the blazing West Indian sun, Equiano experienced the true misery of slavery. Robbed of his precious savings, Equiano’s body was “mangled and torn” as he unloaded and loaded the ship of its cargo.

Three months later, Equiano’s physical ordeal ended when he was sold again – this time to a prominent Quaker merchant named Robert King, under whose care he flourished. King even allowed Equiano to retain some of his wages and often utilised him as a clerk, as well as a valet.

Although his new life offered a relative comfort, Equiano remained horrified at the atrocities he saw inflicted upon his fellow slaves by their masters: rape – often involving children as young as 10 – violence, abuse and murder were all commonplace.

“I have seen a negro man staked to the ground, and cut most shockingly, and then his ears cut off bit by bit… I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for even letting a pot boil over”, he wrote. These were images that would haunt him his whole life.

Equiano worked as a deckhand, valet and barber for King for some three years, quietly earning extra money by trading goods on the side until finally, in 1766, aged 21, he had earned enough money to buy his freedom.

As a free man, Equiano spent much of the next 20 years of his life travelling the world. He made several voyages aboard trading vessels, making trips to Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Jamaica, Grenada, North America, and even the Arctic – the latter as assistant to scientist Dr Charles Irving.

How did Equiano help abolish slavery?

Equiano never forgot the plight of his fellow slaves, and, after returning to London in 1786, added his voice to the growing movement to abolish slavery.

Equiano, together with members of London’s black community, formed an abolitionist group: the Sons of Africa. The group campaigned tirelessly for abolition, working hard to dispel the many misconceptions of the day held about Africans.

In 1788, the former slave found himself standing before Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. He presented her with a petition on behalf of his enslaved African brethren, beseeching her to take note of the tyranny and oppression of slavery in the West Indies.

The publication of Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in 1789, also did much to publicise the horrors of slavery, and he spent several months travelling and promoting his book.

Equiano finally settled down to raise a family in 1792, when he married Englishwoman Susannah Cullen in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The pair went on to have two daughters. His death in 1797, at the age of around 52, put an end to a truly remarkable life. Just ten years later, the Slave Trade Act was passed, making it illegal for British ships to carry enslaved peoples between Africa, the West Indies and America.

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history.


Olaudah Equiano, 1789

Within ten years of the first North American settlements, Europeans began transporting captured Africans to the colonies as slaves. Imagine the thoughts and fears of an eleven-year-old boy who was kidnapped from his village by African slave traders. He was forced to march west to the coast of Africa, sold to different people along the way. When he reached the Slave Coast he saw white men for the first time. His mind must have been filled with many questions. Where was he going? What would these men do to him? Would he ever see his home again?

This young man was Olaudah Equiano. He and many other Africans, both male and female, were loaded on ships that took them to the British colonies, where they were sold as slaves. Hundreds of people were packed into the lower decks with barely enough room to move during a journey that took at least six weeks. Many died, but Equiano survived.

Equiano traveled the world as a slave to a ship captain and merchant. In 1766 he was able to purchase his own freedom. Equiano wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789. Equiano recounted how his early life in Africa was interrupted when he was kidnapped by slave traders and separated from his family, writing "we were soon deprived of even the smallest comfort of weeping together." Equiano was bought and sold, marched to the African coast, and shipped in squalid conditions to America. He wrote of the voyage, "The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scacely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us." Many people read Equiano’s Narrative, and his account exposing the horrors of slavery influenced Parliament’s decision to end the British slave trade in 1807.

Excerpt

I was not long suffered to indulge my grief I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life so that with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced any thing of this kind before and although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side but I could not and, besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself. In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of them what was to be done with us? they gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them.


Olaudah Equiano - History

Kidnapping and Banditry as Ways to Acquire Slaves
Digital History ID 468

Author: Scott Glenn and Olaudah Equiano
Date:1789

Annotation: Olaudah Equiano, an Ibo from Nigeria, was just 11 years old when he was kidnapped into slavery. He was held captive in West Africa for seven months and then sold to British slavers, who shipped him to Barbados and then took him to Virginia. After serving a British naval officer, he was sold to a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who allowed him to purchase his freedom in 1766. In later life, he played an active role in the movement to abolish the slave trade.


Document: My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter. As I was the youngest of the sons, I became, of course, the greatest favourite of my mother, and was always with her and she used to take particular pains to form my mind. I was trained up from my earliest years in the arts of agriculture and war and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner:- - Generally, when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighborhood's premises to play and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize. One day, as I was watching at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people come into the yard of our next neighbour but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young people in it. Immediately, on this, I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded by the stoutest of them, who entangled him with cords, so that he could not escape till some of the grown people came and secured him. But alas! ere long, it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh. One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound but were unable to take any food and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short tim

Source: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African (London, 1789).


Annotation

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, an estimated 20 million Africans crossed the Atlantic to the Americas in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Until recently, slave studies rarely discussed children's experiences, but it has been estimated that one quarter of the slaves who crossed the Atlantic were children. Olaudah Equiano, kidnapped at age 11, became one of the most prominent English abolitionists of the 18th century. His narrative is extremely valuable not only for the wealth of information it presents on children's experiences in the slave trade, but also for those examining the abolitionist movement in England during this period of time.

Many Africans who survived the coffles and made their way to the coast had never seen a white man, let alone the ocean or a slave ship. For Equiano, a child of 11, this experience was one he could not understand. What is particularly important about this source, however, is Equiano's placement into the hold of the slave ship. As a child, he should have traveled the Middle Passage on deck, unfettered with the slave women and children. Yet, Equiano was put in the hold with the adults, giving him a different experience entirely.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself, 1791.

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. . . indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country. When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believe were some of those who had brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair. They told me I was not, and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass but being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand. One of the blacks therefore took it from him and gave it to me, and I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, threw me into the greatest consternation at the strange feeling it produced. . .

I was not long suffered to indulge my grief I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomness [sic] of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced anything of this kind before, and, although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not and besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut, for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This was often the case with myself.

I inquired of these what was to be done with us. They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them. I then was a little revived, and thought if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate. But still I feared that I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted in so savage a manner. I have never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty, and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves.

One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in consequence of it, and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more, and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner. . ..

One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea. Immediately another quite dejected fellow, who on account of his illness was suffered to be out of irons, followed their example. I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship's crew, who were instantly alarmed. Those of us that were the most active were in a moment put down under the deck, and there was such a noise and confusion among the people of the ship as I never heard before to stop her and get the boat out to go after the slaves. However, two of the wretches were drowned, but they got the other and afterwards flogged him unmercifully for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery.

Credits

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself. Edited by Robert J. Allison. New York: W. Durell, 1791. Reprint, Boston: Bedford Books, 1995, 53-54. Annotated by Colleen A. Vasconcellos.


Introducing Equiano's World

This project on Gustavus Vassa (Olaudah Equiano) focuses on the movement to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade and ultimately to emancipate the Africans and their descendants who had been enslaved. The subject of the project is the life story of Olaudah Equiano, the enslaved Igbo boy who was later known by the name given to him as a slave, Gustavus Vassa. He identified himself as African, sometimes as Ethiopian and ethnically as "Egbo," that is Igbo. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, as Published by Himself, first appeared in March 1789. The release of nine editions in Britain and one in New York were influential in the abolition of the British slave trade, which was implemented in 1807. Because of the book's literary merit and its political significance it has remained in print in several popular editions which are currently widely read in English literature and Black Studies courses at universities in North America, Britain and Africa.

His contribution is highlighted in hundreds of articles and books devoted to an interpretation of his impact, which has been organized on this website. The story of this most interesting African and black Briton is sometimes labeled the classic slave narrative, written in the richness of eighteenth-century literature, has subsequently shaped a whole genre of literature identified as "slave narratives." Considering Olaudah Equiano did not know any English until he was eleven or twelve, whereupon he became known as Gustavus Vassa, this extraordinary recognition confirms his historical importance and moral influence. In the early 1790s, the heady days influenced by Revolutionary France on those interested in Parliamentary reform, the abolition of the slave trade, and the ending of slavery. Vassa was arguably the most influential Black in London at a time when the Black community numbered perhaps 20,000, making London one of the largest &ldquoAfrican&rdquo cities, if not the largest, in the world at the time.

There is a considerable body of information presented here, much of it originally published in the various editions of The Interesting Narrative. Moreover, there is extensive scholarly analysis of different aspects of Vassa/Equiano&rsquos significance and his place in the period in which he lived. The Equiano's World project builds on that knowledge. Considerable historical work remains to be undertaken, particularly with regard to the relationship of Vassa to the Black poor of London, his friendship with radical leader, Thomas Hardy, who was tried for treason in 1794, his marriage to a white woman, Suzannah Cullen, his commercial activities, his observations in the Caribbean, his involvement in the Mosquito Shore venture of Dr. Charles Irving, and his fascination with the Muslim world of the Ottoman Empire. The papers of the leading abolitionists, intellectuals and political figures of the late eighteenth century and those who subscribed to the various editions of The Interesting Narrative reveal connections into British society that are astonishing in their range and depth. The research being conducted on places and individuals that were important in Vassa&rsquos life lends itself to dissemination of new knowledge via the internet.

This website is divided into different sections that establish the context in which Vassa lived, explore the places where he traveled, and the people whom he knew. There is also a section that raises questions surrounding Vassa's life, including where he was born to his views on race and slavery, and hosts a forum for discussion and queries. Studying Equiano provides access to primary documents, published scholarly analysis and web links relevant to the times and places of Vassa's life. Taken together, Equiano's World is an adventure into the history of abolition, accessible to scholars, students and the interested public.


Watch the video: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass - AudioBook


Comments:

  1. Leilani

    I like your posts

  2. Humility

    Thank you. What is needed))

  3. Kinnon

    Quite, yes



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