Olaudah Equiano (1745-97)


Figure 1.--

Almost all first-hand accounts of the Africab slave trade come from the slavers. In some cases slavers who turned against the trade, but in almost all cases European white men who participated in it. I know of no accounts by the Arabs involved, although they may exist. But what is especially lacking is accounts by the Africans who were enslaved. Most of those individuals are lost to history, in part because families were broken up and in part because they were illiterate and not permitted schooling once they arrived in the New World. One of the rare exceptions is Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian boy, captured and enslaved when he was 11 years old. Equiano is an exception because he no only mananaged to buy his freedom, but educated himself and wrote an account of his experiences. There are a number of slave naratives, but Equiano's account is particularly important because it includes details on his capture and the Middle Passage, transport across the Atlantic to his new slave life. Other slave narratives are accounts of lives as slaves in the South, mostly during the 19th century. They are also important, but Equiano's book is generaly seen as the definitive account of the Middle Passage.

First Hand Accounts

Almost all first-hand accounts of the Africab slave trade come from the slavers. In some cases slavers who turned against the trade, but in almost all cases European white men who participated in it. I know of no accounts by the Arabs involved, although they may exist. But what is especially lacking is accounts by the Africans who were enslaved.

Slave Accounts

Most slaves are individuals who lost to history, in part because families were broken up and in part because they were illiterate and not permitted schooling once they arrived in the New World. One of the rare exceptions is Olaudah Equiano. Equiano is an exception because he no only mananaged to buy his freedom, but educated himself and wrote an account of his experiences. Other slave narratives are accounts of lives as slaves in the South, mostly during the 19th century. They are also important.t

Childhood

Olaudah was a Nigerian boy. He was born about 1745. The only information about his childhood comes from his book. The area he cam from was Eboe which was described as in Guina. We believe that must of WestvAfrica was known as the Guina Coast and not just modern Guina. Ibo (or Igbo) is an important language in modern southern Nigeria. Equiano claims that he was the son of a chief. That may be true, but it is also the kind of thing that might be written to make the account more interesting. One day while he and his sister were outside their village, they were captured by other Africans. He was about 11 years old and it would have been about 1756. They had to march to the coast. There they were sold to a slaver and loaded aboard the ship. He writes upon reaching the coast, "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, 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 was 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 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."

The Middle Passage

There are a number of slave naratives, but Equiano's account is particularly important because it includes details on his capture and the Middle Passage, transport across the Atlantic to his new slave life. Equiano's book is generaly seen as the definitive account of the Middle Passage. Equiano's account is not only an important historical document today, but was extensively used by the early abolistionist movement to describe the horrors of the Aftrican slave trade. Equiano wrote, "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. The wretched situation was again aggrevated by the galling of their chains. .... The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Slavery

There is verification for Equiano's life once he was sold into slavery. Equiano was sold to a Royal Navy captain Michael Pascal. As a boy of 11, he would have been used as Pascal's personal servant. Pascal as slave owners usually did gave Quiano a new name to help make his mreak from the past permanent. He used the name Gustavus Vassa as a kind of joke. Equiano was in fact lucky. Life with Pascal and the Royal Navu was very different than that of a plantation slave. Quiano learned about the life of a seaman and traveled widely. Pascal even set him to school while they were in London. Itvwas here that he learned to read and write. While he was Pascal's personal servant, he would have also been trained as a powder monkey for times in which Pascal's ship had to fight a battle. He was involved in battle, but complained that he was cheated out of his share of the prize money. He was sold to another captain who sold him to a Quaker merchant on Montserrat. He feared that he might be made a plantation slave, but as a result of his education, King made him a gauger. While in Montserrat he witnessed the terrible tortures inflicted upon slaves. Equiano managed to earn money through trading. He saved his earnings and managed to buy his freedo after 3 years. He paid 40. He then returned to England.

Free Life

once in England he tried various occupations, but returned to the sea. He claims to have served with a young Horatio Nelson. He made enough money to get involved in a colonization project in CentraL AMerica. Here he had his money stolen and he was almost reenslaved. He returned to England and became an ardent abolitionist. He moved to England where he had a daughter with an English woman. He made a substantial amount of money when he published his biography and died in comfortable circumstances.

Recent Scholarship

A recent biographer has called into question Equiano's African birth. Apparaently a 1759 baptismal records and a 1773 ship's muster indicate that he was born in South Carolina. [Carretta] These documents appear real, but some historians question their accuracy.

Sources

Carretta, Vincent. Equiano the African.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African Written by Himself (1789).






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Created: 1:53 AM 9/11/2005
Last updated: 1:53 AM 9/11/2005