Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo, describes himself as born to a relatively prosperous, slave-owning family in the region east of the city of Onitsha, Nigeria, where ownership of slaves and slave-raiding were local practice at the time. At the age of about 10 or 11, Equiano was kidnapped along with his sister by local raiders and sold into slavery. His first owners were an African family located at some distance from his home, but still within the same linguistic sphere; he was then sold and resold several times until taken for transport on a British slave ship to Barbados and then to Virginia. Sold in Virginia to Lieutenant Michael Pascal of the Royal Navy, Equiano was renamed Gustavus Vassa (after the 16th- century Swedish king), and served in the “French and Indian” Seven Year’s War in a celebrated naval encounter in Gibraltar in 1759. He was acquired by Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia, who helped him purchase his freedom in 1766. Once emancipated, he traveled to the Arctic with the Phipps expeditions of 1772–-73 in search of a northwest passage, and around the Mediterranean in the service of an English gentleman. He lived among the Miskito Indians of Central America for six months, and later settled in London. Some recent voices have disputed Equiano’s account of his birth in Africa, arguing that he was born in South Carolina and adapted others’ writings or recollections of the Middle Passage as the source of his personal narrative; most scholars accept Equiano’s account of his African origins as genuine.
After his emancipation, Equiano became an ardent abolitionist. One of very few Africans who emerged from slavery and became literate in the languages of the West, Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), an autobiographical account of his life, including his early childhood and recollections of Igbo culture in Africa, his kidnapping, enslavement, and sale to British slavers, and his transport into slavery in the New World that is the focus of the selection here. Speculative criticism both at the time and recently has challenged the authenticity of this document, insisting, as one early commentator did, that “it is not improbable that some English writer has assisted him in the compilement, or, at least, the correction of his book.” Nevertheless, the book, importantly subtitled “Written by Himself,” was well received and reviewed. It sold over 5,000 copies and became a major force in bringing about the Abolition Act (March 1807) and Emancipation Bill (July 1833). Equiano’s work also served as one of the first records to shape the experiences of the black African diaspora during slavery and afterward. For the remainder of his life, Equiano continued to lecture against the slave trade; he married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, in 1792, and they had two daughters in the years before he died.
Equiano’s full work allows the reader to contrast the comparatively humane African forms of slavery with the relentlessly cruel and barbarous treatment accorded slaves in transport by their European captors. The passage included here begins after he has been sold and resold by African slavers, but is about to be loaded aboard ship for transport via the Middle Passage to the New World. Equiano describes his own impulses toward suicide, if he could have freed himself to do so, and attempts by his fellow slaves to jump overboard—attempts against which their captors were always on guard. Indeed, slavers often strung nets along the sides of the ship to prevent leaps into the water; they retrieved and sometimes executed and then mutilated those who did succeed in reaching the water, since the slavers were convinced, according to one historian of the period, that Africans believed mutilation would end the cycle of rebirth that otherwise would carry a suicide back home to Africa and his family. Wilfred Samuels says of Equiano’s thoughts of suicide, “while suicide might have been a means of escaping the living hellhole that threatened to engulf him, his sacred traditions taught that committing suicide would sever him eternally from his ancestral roots.” Of those slaves who did commit suicide, writes illiam Piersen, since they believed they would return to their former African homelands in the next life, “their deaths mark one of the world’s greatest, but most overlooked, religious martyrdoms.”
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Available online at Project Gutenberg #15399. Material in introduction from G. I Jones, “Olaudah Equiano of the Niger Ibo,” chapter 2 in Philip D. Curtin, Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967, pp. 92-96; and from Wilfred D. Samuels, ed., The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Coral Gables, FL: Mnemosyne Publishing Co., 1989, and from William D. Pierson, From Africa to America: African American History from the Colonial Era to the Early Republic, 1526–1790. New York: Twayne, Simon and Schuster, 1996, pp. 31-32.
from THE INTERESTING NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF OLAUDAH EQUIANO, OR GUSTAVUS VASSA, THE AFRICAN, WRITTEN BY HIMSELF
The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slaveship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, which I am yet at a loss to describe, nor the then feelings of my mind. 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 got 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 or 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 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 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 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 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. 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 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 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 cloth 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 when they liked in order to stop the vessel. I was exceedingly amazed at this account, and really though 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 staid 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 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 hands, 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 intolerably 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 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 amongst 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 became 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 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 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 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 to slavery. In this manner we continued to undergo more hardships than I can now relate; hardships which are inseparable from this accursed trade.
- Such brutal floggings were at this time considered essential to the maintenance of discipline in the British navy and on ships engaged in the slave trade. Flogging is not an Ibo and Edo from of punishment, as it is, for example, farther north in the Hausa country.