A Slave on 3 continents

Olaudah Equiano
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• Olaudah Equiano was born into a wealthy West
African family in 1745. His family was Ibo. They
lived far from the sea, in an area now part of
• Olaudah Equiano's father was a village chief. He
had seven children and many slaves, so
Equiano grew up in a slave society. But it was a
different kind of slavery, as Equiano noted in his
With us the slaves do no
more work than other
members of the community,
than even their master; their
food, clothing and lodging
were nearly the same as ours,
except that they were not
permitted to eat with those
who were free-born; and there
was scarcely any other
difference between them than
a superior degree of
importance, which the head of
a family possesses.
Enslaved in Africa
When he was eleven, Equiano was captured by African slave traders:
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. The slave traders separated Equiano from his sister and sold him
several times, from one African master to another. Equiano's first owner treated him well. But he was determined
to escape. "I was strengthened by the mortifying circumstance of not daring to eat with the free-born children."
He was soon sold again, and then again, when a wealthy widow purchased him. With her family, Equiano
discovered how slavery differed from one African society to another:
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 drank before her with her son. This filled me with astonishment, and I could scarcely avoid expressing
my surprise that the young gentleman should suffer me, who was bound, to eat with him who was free. Indeed,
everything here made me forget that I was a slave. Equiano soon began to think the family would adopt him. His
contentment was shattered early one morning when he was awoken and taken away yet again. Eventually he
found himself on the Africa's Atlantic coast for the first time in his life. There he saw a slave ship anchored
But he had no idea what lay ahead. No Africans had ever returned from the Americas to tell of their fate.
When I looked around the ship 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. . . I
asked if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair?"
Passage to America
• The journey from Africa to America was called
"The Middle Passage." It was the middle leg of
the triangular slave trade which began and
ended in Europe. No African expected the
misery and horror it held. Slavers packed three
or four hundred Africans into a lower deck— the
ship's cargo.
• The cargo hold was tiny— a person couldn't
even stand up in it. The air in the hold was hot
and stale. The smell of sweaty bodies and
human waste made the air even more
• 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 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. Disease and death were common. Up to 25 percent
of a slave ship's Africans died during the voyage. The captain and
crew struggled to keep their valuable cargo alive. They forced the
Africans to dance on deck for exercise. Sometimes they force-fed
Africans who would rather die than suffer further.
A slave in America
• The slave ship carrying Olaudah Equiano and hundreds of other
Africans finally reached port. Their destination was the English
colony of Barbados. Soon they were put up for sale:
• 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.
• No one purchased Equiano, who was still just a
boy of 12. So he was shipped north to a
plantation in Virginia. There he was shocked to
see the instruments used to control and
punishment slaves:
• A black woman slave was cruelly loaded with
various kinds of iron machines; she had one on
her head which locked her mouth so fast that
she could barely speak, and could not eat or
Slave Sailor
Equiano was soon sold again. His new owner was a lieutenant in the British navy named Michael
Henry Pascal. Pascal gave him a new name: Gustavus Vassa. Equiano refused to answer to this
name at first. Pascal slapped him with each refusal, and soon he relented.
Under Pascal, Equiano learned to be a sailor. He spent much time in England, where managed to
educate himself as well. He even fought for Britain in the Seven Years' War.
I began to consider myself as happily situated, for my master treated me always extremely well;
and my attachment and gratitude to him were very great. I soon grew a stranger to terror of every
kind, and was, in that respect at least almost an Englishman. After seven years, Equiano had
grown comfortable with his fate. So he was shocked once again when his owner sold him. His
buyer was Captain James Doran to the West Indies. But Equiano challenged the sale:
I told him my master could not sell me to him, nor to anyone else. 'Why,' said he, 'did not your
master buy you?' I confessed he did. 'But I have served him,' said I, 'many years, and he has
taken all my wages and prize-money, . . . besides this I have been baptized, and by the laws of
the land no man has a right to sell me.' And I added that I had heard a lawyer and others at
different times tell my master so. But Doran was not persuaded:
Captain Doran said he had a method on board to make me [behave]. I was too well convinced of
his power over me to doubt what he said; and my former sufferings in the slave-ship presenting
themselves to my mind, the recollection of them made me shudder.
Free Again
Doran brought Equiano back to the Caribbean and sold him to a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia named
Robert King.
King treated Equiano well. But Equiano had tasted freedom and couldn't accept a slave's life anymore. His urge for
freedom grew even greater when King put him to work aboard a Caribbean slave ship.
It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St. Kitts, for the slaves to be branded with the initial
letters of their master's name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed on the most trifling
occasions they were loaded with chains; and often instruments of torture were added. But Equiano refused to give
up. He began trading glasses and other objects on the side. Eventually he saved 40 pounds (equal to about
$3,700 today). That was enough to purchase his freedom.
Before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master
and completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced.
As a freeman, Equiano continued working as a sailor for years. He traveled widely, but his personal struggle
against racism and slavery continued. One day, a ship's captain decided to sell Equiano:
I simply asked him what right he had to sell me? But, without another word, he made some of his people tie ropes
round each of my ankles, and also to each wrist, and another rope around my body, and hoisted me up. Thus I
hung, without any crime committed, and without judge or jury; merely because I was a free man, and could not by
the law get any redress from a white person in those parts of the world. I was in great pain from my situation, and
cried and begged very hard for some mercy, but all in vain. Not one white man on board said a word on my behalf.
Equiano hung from the mast all night long. In the morning, he begged to be released. Since his body was blocking
the sails, the crew brought him down. The ship's carpenter persuaded the captain to put Equiano ashore. There he
thanked God for "this unexpected deliverance" and found another ship bound for Jamaica.
Eventually Equiano turned to the abolitionist cause. He became a public speaker in his adopted home of England.
In 1789, he wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus
Vassa, The African. It was an immediate best seller— the first anti-slavery book to reach a wide audience. Equiano
became England's leading spokesperson for blacks and the abolition of slavery.
Olaudah Equiano died in 1797. Ten years later, Britain and the United States abolished the slave trade.