This document supplements Episode 2 of the History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit slate.com/academy.
Olaudah Equiano, the biographical anchor of the second episode in our History of American Slavery podcast series, was a sailor, merchant, explorer, and a formerly enslaved person who bought his freedom at the age of 21. He publishedThe Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789. The book—a model for later slave narratives—packs memories of Africa, observations of the cruel treatment of enslaved workers in the West Indies, tales of travel to Italy, Turkey, Central America, and the Arctic, and the story of Equiano’s conversion to Christianity into one incident-filled memoir.
Read about Equiano’s epic book tour and his influence on the British abolitionist movement in an excerpt from our guest Adam Hochschild’s book, Bury the Chains.
Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be
afraid, for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my
song; he also is become my salvation.
And in that shall ye say, Praise the Lord, call upon his
name, declare his doings among the people. Isaiah xii. 2, 4.
Printed for and sold by the Author, No. 10, Union-Street,
Sold also by Mr. Johnson, St. Paul's Church-Yard; Mr. Murray, Fleet-Street; Messrs. Robson and Clark, Bond-Street; Mr. Davis, opposite Gray's Inn, Holborn; Messrs. Shepperson and Reynolds, and Mr. Jackson, Oxford Street; Mr. Lackington, Chiswell-Street; Mr. Mathews, Strand; Mr. Murray, Prince's-Street, Soho; Mess. Taylor and Co. South Arch, Royal Exchange; Mr. Button, Newington-Causeway; Mr. Parsons, Paternoster-Row; and may be had of all the Booksellers in Town and Country.
[Entered at Stationer's Hall.]
To the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain.
Permit me, with the greatest deference and respect, to lay at your feet the following genuine Narrative; the chief design of which is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen. By the horrors of that trade was I first torn away from all the tender connexions that were naturally dear to my heart; but these, through the mysterious ways of Providence, I ought to regard as infinitely more than compensated by the introduction I have thence obtained to the knowledge of the Christian religion, and of a nation which, by its liberal sentiments, its humanity, the glorious freedom of its government, and its proficiency in arts and sciences, has exalted the dignity of human nature.
I am sensible I ought to entreat your pardon for addressing to you a work so wholly devoid of literary merit; but, as the production of an unlettered African, who is actuated by the hope of becoming an instrument towards the relief of his suffering countrymen, I trust that such a man, pleading in such a cause, will be acquitted of boldness and presumption.
May the God of heaven inspire your hearts with peculiar benevolence on that important day when the question of Abolition is to be discussed, when thousands, in consequence of your Determination, are to look for Happiness or Misery!
My Lords and Gentlemen,
Your most obedient,
And devoted humble Servant,
March 24, 1789.
His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.
His Royal Highness the Duke of York.
The Right Hon. the Earl of Ailesbury
Mr. William Abington, 2 copies
Mr. John Abraham
James Adair, Esq.
Reverend Mr. Aldridge
Mr. John Almon
Mr. Joseph Armitage
Mr. Joseph Ashpinshaw
Mr. Samuel Atkins
Mr. John Atwood
Mr. Thomas Atwood
J.C. Ashworth, Esq.
His Grace the Duke of Bedford
Her Grace the Duchess of Buccleugh
The Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of Bangor
The Right Hon. Lord Belgrave
The Rev. Doctor Baker
Matthew Baillie, M.D.
Miss J. Baillie
David Barclay, Esq.
Mr. Robert Barrett
Mr. William Barrett
Mr. John Barnes
Mr. John Basnett
Mrs. Baynes, 2 copies
Mr. Thomas Bellamy
Mr. J. Benjafield
Mr. William Bennett
Mr. Samuel Benson
Reverend Mr. Bentley
Mr. Thomas Bently
Sir John Berney, Bart.
Alexander Blair, Esq.
James Bocock, Esq.
Mrs. E. Bouverie
—— Brand, Esq.
Mr. Martin Brander
F.J. Brown, Esq. M.P. 2 copies
W. Buttall, Esq.
Mr. Thomas Burton, 6 copies
Mr. W. Button
The Right Hon. Lord Cathcart
The Right Hon. H.S. Conway
Lady Almiria Carpenter
James Carr, Esq.
Charles Carter, Esq.
Mr. James Chalmers
Captain John Clarkson, of the Royal Navy
The Rev. Mr. Thomas Clarkson, 2 copies
Mr. R. Clay
Mr. William Clout
Mr. George Club
Mr. John Cobb
Mr. Thomas Cooper
Richard Cosway, Esq.
Mr. James Coxe
Ottobah Cugoano, or John Stewart
The Right Hon. the Earl of Dartmouth
The Right Hon. the Earl of Derby
Sir William Dolben, Bart.
The Reverend C.E. De Coetlogon
John Delamain, Esq.
Mr. William Denton
Mr. T. Dickie
Mr. William Dickson
Mr. Charles Duly, 2 copies
Andrew Drummond, Esq.
Mr. George Durant
The Right Hon. the Earl of Essex
The Right Hon. the Countess of Essex
Sir Gilbert Elliot, Bart. 2 copies
Lady Ann Erskine
G. Noel Edwards, Esq. M.P. 2 copies
Mr. Durs Egg
Mr. Ebenezer Evans
The Reverend Mr. John Eyre
Mr. William Eyre
Mr. George Fallowdown
Mr. John Fell
F.W. Foster, Esq.
The Reverend Mr. Foster
Mr. J. Frith
W. Fuller, Esq.
The Right Hon. the Earl of Gainsborough
The Right Hon. the Earl of Grosvenor
The Right Hon. Viscount Gallway
The Right Hon. Viscountess Gallway
—— Gardner, Esq.
Mr. John Gates
Mr. Samuel Gear
Sir Philip Gibbes, Bart. 6 copies
Mr. Edward Gilbert
Mr. Jonathan Gillett
W.P. Gilliess, Esq.
Mr. William Grant
Mr. John Grant
Mr. R. Greening
John Grove, Esq.
Reverend Mr. Gwinep
The Right Hon. the Earl of Hopetoun
The Right Hon. Lord Hawke
Right Hon. Dowager Countess of Huntingdon
Thomas Hall, Esq.
Hugh Josiah Hansard, Esq.
Mr. Moses Hart
Mr. William Hepburn
Mr. J. Hibbert
Mr. Jacob Higman
Sir Richard Hill, Bart.
Reverend Rowland Hill
Captain John Hills, Royal Navy
Edmund Hill, Esq.
The Reverend Mr. Edward Hoare
William Hodges, Esq.
Reverend Mr. John Holmes, 3 copies
Mr. Martin Hopkins
Mr. Thomas Howell
Mr. R. Huntley
Mr. J. Hunt
Mr. Philip Hurlock, jun.
Mr. T.W.J. Esq.
Mr. James Jackson
Mr. John Jackson
Reverend Mr. James
Mrs. Anne Jennings
Mr. William Jones
Thomas Irving, Esq. 2 copies
Mr. William Justins
The Right Hon. Lord Kinnaird
William Kendall, Esq.
Mr. William Ketland
Mr. Edward King
Mr. Thomas Kingston
Reverend Dr. Kippis
Mr. William Kitchener
Mr. John Knight
The Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of London
Mr. John Laisne
Mr. Lackington, 6 copies
Mr. John Lamb
Bennet Langton, Esq.
Mr. S. Lee
Mr. Walter Lewis
Mr. J. Lewis
Mr. J. Lindsey
Mr. T. Litchfield
Edward Loveden Loveden, Esq. M.P.
Charles Lloyd, Esq.
Mr. William Lloyd
Mr. J.B. Lucas
Mr. James Luken
Henry Lyte, Esq.
His Grace the Duke of Marlborough
His Grace the Duke of Montague
The Right Hon. Lord Mulgrave
Sir Herbert Mackworth, Bart.
Sir Charles Middleton, Bart.
Mr. Thomas Macklane
Mr. George Markett
James Martin, Esq. M.P.
Master Martin, Hayes-Grove, Kent
Mr. William Massey
Mr. Joseph Massingham
John McIntosh, Esq.
Paul Le Mesurier, Esq. M.P.
Mr. James Mewburn
Mr. N. Middleton,
T. Mitchell, Esq.
Mrs. Montague, 2 copies
Miss Hannah More
Mr. George Morrison
Thomas Morris, Esq.
Morris Morgann, Esq.
His Grace the Duke of Northumberland
Edward Ogle, Esq.
James Ogle, Esq.
Robert Oliver, Esq.
Mr. D. Parker,
Mr. W. Parker,
Mr. Richard Packer, jun.
Mr. Parsons, 6 copies
Mr. James Pearse
Mr. J. Pearson
J. Penn, Esq.
George Peters, Esq.
Mr. W. Phillips,
J. Philips, Esq.
Mr. Charles Pilgrim
The Hon. George Pitt, M.P.
Mr. Thomas Pooley
Patrick Power, Esq.
Mr. Michael Power
Joseph Pratt, Esq.
The Right Hon. Lord Rawdon
The Right Hon. Lord Rivers, 2 copies
Lieutenant General Rainsford
Reverend James Ramsay, 3 copies
Mr. S. Remnant, jun.
Mr. William Richards, 2 copies
Mr. J.C. Robarts
Mr. James Roberts
Mr. C. Robinson
George Rose, Esq. M.P.
Mr. W. Ross
Mr. William Rouse
Mr. Walter Row
His Grace the Duke of St. Albans
Her Grace the Duchess of St. Albans
The Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of St. David's
The Right Hon. Earl Stanhope, 3 copies
The Right Hon. the Earl of Scarbrough
William, the Son of Ignatius Sancho
Mrs. Mary Ann Sandiford
Mr. William Sawyer
Mr. Thomas Seddon
W. Seward, Esq.
Reverend Mr. Thomas Scott
Granville Sharp, Esq. 2 copies
Captain Sidney Smith, of the Royal Navy
Mr. John Simco
John Smith, Esq.
Mr. George Smith
Mr. William Smith
Reverend Mr. Southgate
Mr. William Starkey
Thomas Steel, Esq. M.P.
Mr. Staples Steare
Mr. Joseph Stewardson
Mr. Henry Stone, jun. 2 copies
John Symmons, Esq.
Henry Thornton, Esq. M.P.
Mr. Alexander Thomson, M.D.
Reverend John Till
Mr. Samuel Townly
Mr. Daniel Trinder
Reverend Mr. C. La Trobe
Clement Tudway, Esq.
Mr. John Vaughan
The Right Hon. Earl of Warnick
The Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester
The Hon. William Windham, Esq. M.P.
Mr. C.B. Wadstrom
Mr. George Walne
Reverend Mr. Ward
Mr. S. Warren
Mr. J. Waugh
Josiah Wedgwood, Esq.
Reverend Mr. John Wesley
Mr. J. Wheble
Samuel Whitbread, Esq. M.P.
Reverend Thomas Wigzell
Mr. W. Wilson
Reverend Mr. Wills
Mr. Thomas Wimsett
Mr. William Winchester
John Wollaston, Esq.
Mr. Charles Wood
Mr. Joseph Woods
Mr. John Wood
J. Wright, Esq.
Mr. Thomas Young
Mr. Samuel Yockney
The author's account of his country, their manners and customs, &c.
The author's birth and parentage—His being kidnapped with his sister—Horrors of a slave ship
The author is carried to Virginia—Arrives in England—His wonder at a fall of snow
A particular account of the celebrated engagement between Admiral Boscawen and Monsieur Le Clue
Various interesting instances of oppression, cruelty, and extortion
Favourable change in the author's situation—He commences merchant with threepence
The author's disgust at the West Indies—Forms schemes to obtain his freedom
Three remarkable dreams—The author is shipwrecked on the Bahama-bank
The author arrives at Martinico—Meets with new difficulties, and sails for England
Some account of the manner of the author's conversion to the faith of Jesus Christ
Picking up eleven miserable men at sea in returning to England
Different transactions of the author's life—Petition to the Queen—Conclusion
The author's account of his country, and their manners and customs—Administration of justice—Embrenche—Marriage ceremony, and public entertainments—Mode of living—Dress—Manufactures Buildings—Commerce—Agriculture—War and religion—Superstition of the natives—Funeral ceremonies of the priests or magicians—Curious mode of discovering poison—Some hints concerning the origin of the author's countrymen, with the opinions of different writers on that subject.
I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity; nor is this the only disadvantage under which they labour: it is also their misfortune, that what is uncommon is rarely, if ever, believed, and what is obvious we are apt to turn from with disgust, and to charge the writer with impertinence. People generally think those memoirs only worthy to be read or remembered which abound in great or striking events, those, in short, which in a high degree excite either admiration or pity: all others they consign to contempt and oblivion. It is therefore, I confess, not a little hazardous in a private and obscure individual, and a stranger too, thus to solicit the indulgent attention of the public; especially when I own I offer here the history of neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant. I believe there are few events in my life, which have not happened to many: it is true the incidents of it are numerous; and, did I consider myself an European, I might say my sufferings were great: but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favourite of Heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life. If then the following narrative does not appear sufficiently interesting to engage general attention, let my motive be some excuse for its publication. I am not so foolishly vain as to expect from it either immortality or literary reputation. If it affords any satisfaction to my numerous friends, at whose request it has been written, or in the smallest degree promotes the interests of humanity, the ends for which it was undertaken will be fully attained, and every wish of my heart gratified. Let it therefore be remembered, that, in wishing to avoid censure, I do not aspire to praise.
That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along the coast above 3400 miles, from the Senegal to Angola, and includes a variety of kingdoms. Of these the most considerable is the kingdom of Benen, both as to extent and wealth, the richness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its king, and the number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants. It is situated nearly under the line, and extends along the coast about 170 miles, but runs back into the interior part of Africa to a distance hitherto I believe unexplored by any traveller; and seems only terminated at length by the empire of Abyssinia, near 1500 miles from its beginning. This kingdom is divided into many provinces or districts: in one of the most remote and fertile of which, called Eboe, 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: and our subjection to the king of Benin was little more than nominal; for every transaction of the government, as far as my slender observation extended, was conducted by the chiefs or elders of the place. The manners and government of a people who have little commerce with other countries are generally very simple; and the history of what passes in one family or village may serve as a specimen of a nation. My father was one of those elders or chiefs I have spoken of, and was styled Embrenche; a term, as I remember, importing the highest distinction, and signifying in our language a mark of grandeur. This mark is conferred on the person entitled to it, by cutting the skin across at the top of the forehead, and drawing it down to the eye-brows; and while it is in this situation applying a warm hand, and rubbing it until it shrinks up into a thick weal across the lower part of the forehead. Most of the judges and senators were thus marked; my father had long born it: I had seen it conferred on one of my brothers, and I was also destined to receive it by my parents. Those Embrence, or chief men, decided disputes and punished crimes; for which purpose they always assembled together. The proceedings were generally short; and in most cases the law of retaliation prevailed. I remember a man was brought before my father, and the other judges, for kidnapping a boy; and, although he was the son of a chief or senator, he was condemned to make recompense by a man or woman slave. Adultery, however, was sometimes punished with slavery or death; a punishment which I believe is inflicted on it throughout most of the nations of AfricaA: so sacred among them is the honour of the marriage bed, and so jealous are they of the fidelity of their wives. Of this I recollect an instance:—a woman was convicted before the judges of adultery, and delivered over, as the custom was, to her husband to be punished. Accordingly he determined to put her to death: but it being found, just before her execution, that she had an infant at her breast; and no woman being prevailed on to perform the part of a nurse, she was spared on account of the child. The men, however, do not preserve the same constancy to their wives, which they expect from them; for they indulge in a plurality, though seldom in more than two. Their mode of marriage is thus:—both parties are usually betrothed when young by their parents, (though I have known the males to betroth themselves). On this occasion a feast is prepared, and the bride and bridegroom stand up in the midst of all their friends, who are assembled for the purpose, while he declares she is thenceforth to be looked upon as his wife, and that no other person is to pay any addresses to her. This is also immediately proclaimed in the vicinity, on which the bride retires from the assembly. Some time after she is brought home to her husband, and then another feast is made, to which the relations of both parties are invited: her parents then deliver her to the bridegroom, accompanied with a number of blessings, and at the same time they tie round her waist a cotton string of the thickness of a goose-quill, which none but married women are permitted to wear: she is now considered as completely his wife; and at this time the dowry is given to the new married pair, which generally consists of portions of land, slaves, and cattle, household goods, and implements of husbandry. These are offered by the friends of both parties; besides which the parents of the bridegroom present gifts to those of the bride, whose property she is looked upon before marriage; but after it she is esteemed the sole property of her husband. The ceremony being now ended the festival begins, which is celebrated with bonefires, and loud acclamations of joy, accompanied with music and dancing.
We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets. Thus every great event, such as a triumphant return from battle, or other cause of public rejoicing is celebrated in public dances, which are accompanied with songs and music suited to the occasion. The assembly is separated into four divisions, which dance either apart or in succession, and each with a character peculiar to itself. The first division contains the married men, who in their dances frequently exhibit feats of arms, and the representation of a battle. To these succeed the married women, who dance in the second division. The young men occupy the third; and the maidens the fourth. Each represents some interesting scene of real life, such as a great achievement, domestic employment, a pathetic story, or some rural sport; and as the subject is generally founded on some recent event, it is therefore ever new. This gives our dances a spirit and variety which I have scarcely seen elsewhereB. We have many musical instruments, particularly drums of different kinds, a piece of music which resembles a guitar, and another much like a stickado. These last are chiefly used by betrothed virgins, who play on them on all grand festivals.
As our manners are simple, our luxuries are few. The dress of both sexes is nearly the same. It generally consists of a long piece of callico, 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. Among the rest tobacco pipes, made after the same fashion, and used in the same manner, as those in TurkeyC.
Our manner of living is entirely plain; for as yet the natives are unacquainted with those refinements in cookery which debauch the taste: bullocks, goats, and poultry, supply the greatest part of their food. These constitute likewise the principal wealth of the country, and the chief articles of its commerce. The flesh is usually stewed in a pan; to make it savoury we sometimes use also pepper, and other spices, and we have salt made of wood ashes. Our vegetables are mostly plantains, eadas, yams, beans, and Indian corn. The head of the family usually eats alone; his wives and slaves have also their separate tables. Before we taste food we always wash our hands: indeed our cleanliness on all occasions is extreme; but on this it is an indispensable ceremony. After washing, libation is made, by pouring out a small portion of the food, in a certain place, for the spirits of departed relations, which the natives suppose to preside over their conduct, and guard them from evil. They are totally unacquainted with strong or spirituous liquours; and their principal beverage is palm wine. This is gotten from a tree of that name by tapping it at the top, and fastening a large gourd to it; and sometimes one tree will yield three or four gallons in a night. When just drawn it is of a most delicious sweetness; but in a few days it acquires a tartish and more spirituous flavour: though I never saw any one intoxicated by it. The same tree also produces nuts and oil. Our principal luxury is in perfumes; one sort of these is an odoriferous wood of delicious fragrance: the other a kind of earth; a small portion of which thrown into the fire diffuses a most powerful odourD. We beat this wood into powder, and mix it with palm oil; with which both men and women perfume themselves.
Enroll now in a different kind of summer school. Slate's Jamelle Bouie, Rebecca Onion, and our nation's leading academics and historians on our foundational institution. Included in your Slate Plus membership!
In our buildings we study convenience rather than ornament. Each master of a family has a large square piece of ground, surrounded with a moat or fence, or enclosed with a wall made of red earth tempered; which, when dry, is as hard as brick. Within this are his houses to accommodate his family and slaves; which, if numerous, frequently present the appearance of a village. In the middle stands the principal building, appropriated to the sole use of the master, and consisting of two apartments; in one of which he sits in the day with his family, the other is left apart for the reception of his friends. He has besides these a distinct apartment in which he sleeps, together with his male children. On each side are the apartments of his wives, who have also their separate day and night houses. The habitations of the slaves and their families are distributed throughout the rest of the enclosure. These houses never exceed one story in height: they are always built of wood, or stakes driven into the ground, crossed with wattles, and neatly plastered within, and without. The roof is thatched with reeds. Our day-houses are left open at the sides; but those in which we sleep are always covered, and plastered in the inside, with a composition mixed with cow-dung, to keep off the different insects, which annoy us during the night. The walls and floors also of these are generally covered with mats. Our beds consist of a platform, raised three or four feet from the ground, on which are laid skins, and different parts of a spungy tree called plaintain. Our covering is calico or muslin, the same as our dress. The usual seats are a few logs of wood; but we have benches, which are generally perfumed, to accommodate strangers: these compose the greater part of our household furniture. Houses so constructed and furnished require but little skill to erect them. Every man is a sufficient architect for the purpose. The whole neighbourhood afford their unanimous assistance in building them and in return receive, and expect no other recompense than a feast.
As we live in a country where nature is prodigal of her favours, our wants are few and easily supplied; of course we have few manufactures. They consist for the most part of calicoes, earthern ware, ornaments, and instruments of war and husbandry. But these make no part of our commerce, the principal articles of which, as I have observed, are provisions. In such a state money is of little use; however we have some small pieces of coin, if I may call them such. They are made something like an anchor; but I do not remember either their value or denomination. We have also markets, at which I have been frequently with my mother. These are sometimes visited by stout mahogany-coloured men from the south west of us: we call them Oye-Eboe, which term signifies red men living at a distance. They generally bring us fire-arms, gunpowder, hats, beads, and dried fish. The last we esteemed a great rarity, as our waters were only brooks and springs. These articles they barter with us for odoriferous woods and earth, and our salt of wood ashes. They always carry slaves through our land; but the strictest account is exacted of their manner of procuring them before they are suffered to pass. Sometimes indeed we sold slaves to them, but they were only prisoners of war, or such among us as had been convicted of kidnapping, or adultery, and some other crimes, which we esteemed heinous. This practice of kidnapping induces me to think, that, notwithstanding all our strictness, their principal business among us was to trepan our people. I remember too they carried great sacks along with them, which not long after I had an opportunity of fatally seeing applied to that infamous purpose.
Our land is uncommonly rich and fruitful, and produces all kinds of vegetables in great abundance. We have plenty of Indian corn, and vast quantities of cotton and tobacco. Our pine apples grow without culture; they are about the size of the largest sugar-loaf, and finely flavoured. We have also spices of different kinds, particularly pepper; and a variety of delicious fruits which I have never seen in Europe; together with gums of various kinds, and honey in abundance. All our industry is exerted to improve those blessings of nature. Agriculture is our chief employment; and every one, even the children and women, are engaged in it. Thus we are all habituated to labour from our earliest years. Every one contributes something to the common stock; and as we are unacquainted with idleness, we have no beggars. The benefits of such a mode of living are obvious. The West India planters prefer the slaves of Benin or Eboe to those of any other part of Guinea, for their hardiness, intelligence, integrity, and zeal. Those benefits are felt by us in the general healthiness of the people, and in their vigour and activity; I might have added too in their comeliness. Deformity is indeed unknown amongst us, I mean that of shape. Numbers of the natives of Eboe now in London might be brought in support of this assertion: for, in regard to complexion, ideas of beauty are wholly relative. I remember while in Africa to have seen three negro children, who were tawny, and another quite white, who were universally regarded by myself, and the natives in general, as far as related to their complexions, as deformed. Our women too were in my eyes at least uncommonly graceful, alert, and modest to a degree of bashfulness; nor do I remember to have ever heard of an instance of incontinence amongst them before marriage. They are also remarkably cheerful. Indeed cheerfulness and affability are two of the leading characteristics of our nation.
Our tillage is exercised in a large plain or common, some hours walk from our dwellings, and all the neighbours resort thither in a body. They use no beasts of husbandry; and their only instruments are hoes, axes, shovels, and beaks, or pointed iron to dig with. Sometimes we are visited by locusts, which come in large clouds, so as to darken the air, and destroy our harvest. This however happens rarely, but when it does, a famine is produced by it. I remember an instance or two wherein this happened. This common is often the theatre of war; and therefore when our people go out to till their land, they not only go in a body, but generally take their arms with them for fear of a surprise; and when they apprehend an invasion they guard the avenues to their dwellings, by driving sticks into the ground, which are so sharp at one end as to pierce the foot, and are generally dipt in poison. From what I can recollect of these battles, they appear to have been irruptions of one little state or district on the other, to obtain prisoners or booty. Perhaps they were incited to this by those traders who brought the European goods I mentioned amongst us. Such a mode of obtaining slaves in Africa is common; and I believe more are procured this way, and by kidnapping, than any otherE. When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary, if on this occasion he yields to the temptation with as little firmness, and accepts the price of his fellow creatures liberty with as little reluctance as the enlightened merchant. Accordingly he falls on his neighbours, and a desperate battle ensues. If he prevails and takes prisoners, he gratifies his avarice by selling them; but, if his party be vanquished, and he falls into the hands of the enemy, he is put to death: for, as he has been known to foment their quarrels, it is thought dangerous to let him survive, and no ransom can save him, though all other prisoners may be redeemed. We have fire-arms, bows and arrows, broad two-edged swords and javelins: we have shields also which cover a man from head to foot. All are taught the use of these weapons; even our women are warriors, and march boldly out to fight along with the men. Our whole district is a kind of militia: on a certain signal given, such as the firing of a gun at night, they all rise in arms and rush upon their enemy. It is perhaps something remarkable, that when our people march to the field a red flag or banner is borne before them. I was once a witness to a battle in our common. We had been all at work in it one day as usual, when our people were suddenly attacked. I climbed a tree at some distance, from which I beheld the fight. There were many women as well as men on both sides; among others my mother was there, and armed with a broad sword. After fighting for a considerable time with great fury, and after many had been killed our people obtained the victory, and took their enemy's Chief prisoner. He was carried off in great triumph, and, though he offered a large ransom for his life, he was put to death. A virgin of note among our enemies had been slain in the battle, and her arm was exposed in our market-place, where our trophies were always exhibited. The spoils were divided according to the merit of the warriors. Those prisoners which were not sold or redeemed we kept as slaves: but how different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies! With us they do no more work than other members of the community, even their masters; their food, clothing and lodging were nearly the same as theirs, (except that they were not permitted to eat with those who were free-born); and there was scarce any other difference between them, than a superior degree of importance which the head of a family possesses in our state, and that authority which, as such, he exercises over every part of his household. Some of these slaves have even slaves under them as their own property, and for their own use.
As to religion, the natives believe that there is one Creator of all things, and that he lives in the sun, and is girted round with a belt that he may never eat or drink; but, according to some, he smokes a pipe, which is our own favourite luxury. They believe he governs events, especially our deaths or captivity; but, as for the doctrine of eternity, I do not remember to have ever heard of it: some however believe in the transmigration of souls in a certain degree. Those spirits, which are not transmigrated, such as our dear friends or relations, they believe always attend them, and guard them from the bad spirits or their foes. For this reason they always before eating, as I have observed, put some small portion of the meat, and pour some of their drink, on the ground for them; and they often make oblations of the blood of beasts or fowls at their graves. I was very fond of my mother, and almost constantly with her. When she went to make these oblations at her mother's tomb, which was a kind of small solitary thatched house, I sometimes attended her. There she made her libations, and spent most of the night in cries and lamentations. I have been often extremely terrified on these occasions. The loneliness of the place, the darkness of the night, and the ceremony of libation, naturally awful and gloomy, were heightened by my mother's lamentations; and these, concuring with the cries of doleful birds, by which these places were frequented, gave an inexpressible terror to the scene.
We compute the year from the day on which the sun crosses the line, and on its setting that evening there is a general shout throughout the land; at least I can speak from my own knowledge throughout our vicinity. The people at the same time make a great noise with rattles, not unlike the basket rattles used by children here, though much larger, and hold up their hands to heaven for a blessing. It is then the greatest offerings are made; and those children whom our wise men foretel will be fortunate are then presented to different people. I remember many used to come to see me, and I was carried about to others for that purpose. They have many offerings, particularly at full moons; generally two at harvest before the fruits are taken out of the ground: and when any young animals are killed, sometimes they offer up part of them as a sacrifice. These offerings, when made by one of the heads of a family, serve for the whole. I remember we often had them at my father's and my uncle's, and their families have been present. Some of our offerings are eaten with bitter herbs. We had a saying among us to any one of a cross temper, 'That if they were to be eaten, they should be eaten with bitter herbs.'
We practised circumcision like the Jews, and made offerings and feasts on that occasion in the same manner as they did. Like them also, our children were named from some event, some circumstance, or fancied foreboding at the time of their birth. I was named Olaudah, which, in our language, signifies vicissitude or fortune also, one favoured, and having a loud voice and well spoken. I remember we never polluted the name of the object of our adoration; on the contrary, it was always mentioned with the greatest reverence; and we were totally unacquainted with swearing, and all those terms of abuse and reproach which find their way so readily and copiously into the languages of more civilized people. The only expressions of that kind I remember were 'May you rot, or may you swell, or may a beast take you.'
I have before remarked that the natives of this part of Africa are extremely cleanly. This necessary habit of decency was with us a part of religion, and therefore we had many purifications and washings; indeed almost as many, and used on the same occasions, if my recollection does not fail me, as the Jews. Those that touched the dead at any time were obliged to wash and purify themselves before they could enter a dwelling-house. Every woman too, at certain times, was forbidden to come into a dwelling-house, or touch any person, or any thing we ate. I was so fond of my mother I could not keep from her, or avoid touching her at some of those periods, in consequence of which I was obliged to be kept out with her, in a little house made for that purpose, till offering was made, and then we were purified.
Though we had no places of public worship, we had priests and magicians, or wise men. I do not remember whether they had different offices, or whether they were united in the same persons, but they were held in great reverence by the people. They calculated our time, and foretold events, as their name imported, for we called them Ah-affoe-way-cah, which signifies calculators or yearly men, our year being called Ah-affoe. They wore their beards, and when they died they were succeeded by their sons. Most of their implements and things of value were interred along with them. Pipes and tobacco were also put into the grave with the corpse, which was always perfumed and ornamented, and animals were offered in sacrifice to them. None accompanied their funerals but those of the same profession or tribe. These buried them after sunset, and always returned from the grave by a different way from that which they went.
These magicians were also our doctors or physicians. They practised bleeding by cupping; and were very successful in healing wounds and expelling poisons. They had likewise some extraordinary method of discovering jealousy, theft, and poisoning; the success of which no doubt they derived from their unbounded influence over the credulity and superstition of the people. I do not remember what those methods were, except that as to poisoning: I recollect an instance or two, which I hope it will not be deemed impertinent here to insert, as it may serve as a kind of specimen of the rest, and is still used by the negroes in the West Indies. A virgin had been poisoned, but it was not known by whom: the doctors ordered the corpse to be taken up by some persons, and carried to the grave. As soon as the bearers had raised it on their shoulders, they seemed seized with someF sudden impulse, and ran to and fro unable to stop themselves. At last, after having passed through a number of thorns and prickly bushes unhurt, the corpse fell from them close to a house, and defaced it in the fall; and, the owner being taken up, he immediately confessed the poisoningG.
The natives are extremely cautious about poison. When they buy any eatable the seller kisses it all round before the buyer, to shew him it is not poisoned; and the same is done when any meat or drink is presented, particularly to a stranger. We have serpents of different kinds, some of which are esteemed ominous when they appear in our houses, and these we never molest. I remember two of those ominous snakes, each of which was as thick as the calf of a man's leg, and in colour resembling a dolphin in the water, crept at different times into my mother's night-house, where I always lay with her, and coiled themselves into folds, and each time they crowed like a cock. I was desired by some of our wise men to touch these, that I might be interested in the good omens, which I did, for they were quite harmless, and would tamely suffer themselves to be handled; and then they were put into a large open earthen pan, and set on one side of the highway. Some of our snakes, however, were poisonous: one of them crossed the road one day when I was standing on it, and passed between my feet without offering to touch me, to the great surprise of many who saw it; and these incidents were accounted by the wise men, and therefore by my mother and the rest of the people, as remarkable omens in my favour.
Such is the imperfect sketch my memory has furnished me with of the manners and customs of a people among whom I first drew my breath. And here I cannot forbear suggesting what has long struck me very forcibly, namely, the strong analogy which even by this sketch, imperfect as it is, appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the patriarchs while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis—an analogy, which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other. Indeed this is the opinion of Dr. Gill, who, in his commentary on Genesis, very ably deduces the pedigree of the Africans from Afer and Afra, the descendants of Abraham by Keturah his wife and concubine (for both these titles are applied to her). It is also conformable to the sentiments of Dr. John Clarke, formerly Dean of Sarum, in his Truth of the Christian Religion: both these authors concur in ascribing to us this original. The reasonings of these gentlemen are still further confirmed by the scripture chronology; and if any further corroboration were required, this resemblance in so many respects is a strong evidence in support of the opinion. Like the Israelites in their primitive state, our government was conducted by our chiefs or judges, our wise men and elders; and the head of a family with us enjoyed a similar authority over his household with that which is ascribed to Abraham and the other patriarchs. The law of retaliation obtained almost universally with us as with them: and even their religion appeared to have shed upon us a ray of its glory, though broken and spent in its passage, or eclipsed by the cloud with which time, tradition, and ignorance might have enveloped it; for we had our circumcision (a rule I believe peculiar to that people:) we had also our sacrifices and burnt-offerings, our washings and purifications, on the same occasions as they had.
As to the difference of colour between the Eboan Africans and the modern Jews, I shall not presume to account for it. It is a subject which has engaged the pens of men of both genius and learning, and is far above my strength. The most able and Reverend Mr. T. Clarkson, however, in his much admired Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, has ascertained the cause, in a manner that at once solves every objection on that account, and, on my mind at least, has produced the fullest conviction. I shall therefore refer to that performance for the theoryH, contenting myself with extracting a fact as related by Dr. MitchelI. "The Spaniards, who have inhabited America, under the torrid zone, for any time, are become as dark coloured as our native Indians of Virginia; of which I myself have been a witness." There is also another instanceJ of a Portuguese settlement at Mitomba, a river in Sierra Leona; where the inhabitants are bred from a mixture of the first Portuguese discoverers with the natives, and are now become in their complexion, and in the woolly quality of their hair, perfect negroes, retaining however a smattering of the Portuguese language.
These instances, and a great many more which might be adduced, while they shew how the complexions of the same persons vary in different climates, it is hoped may tend also to remove the prejudice that some conceive against the natives of Africa on account of their colour. Surely the minds of the Spaniards did not change with their complexions! Are there not causes enough to which the apparent inferiority of an African may be ascribed, without limiting the goodness of God, and supposing he forbore to stamp understanding on certainly his own image, because "carved in ebony." Might it not naturally be ascribed to their situation? When they come among Europeans, they are ignorant of their language, religion, manners, and customs. Are any pains taken to teach them these? Are they treated as men? Does not slavery itself depress the mind, and extinguish all its fire and every noble sentiment? But, above all, what advantages do not a refined people possess over those who are rude and uncultivated. Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous. Did Nature make theminferior to their sons? and should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, No. Let such reflections as these melt the pride of their superiority into sympathy for the wants and miseries of their sable brethren, and compel them to acknowledge, that understanding is not confined to feature or colour. If, when they look round the world, they feel exultation, let it be tempered with benevolence to others, and gratitude to God, "who hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earthK; and whose wisdom is not our wisdom, neither are our ways his ways."
ASee Benezet's "Account of Guinea" throughout.
BWhen I was in Smyrna I have frequently seen the Greeks dance after this manner.
CThe bowl is earthen, curiously figured, to which a long reed is fixed as a tube. This tube is sometimes so long as to be born by one, and frequently out of grandeur by two boys.
DWhen I was in Smyrna I saw the same kind of earth, and brought some of it with me to England; it resembles musk in strength, but is more delicious in scent, and is not unlike the smell of a rose.
ESee Benezet's Account of Africa throughout.
FSee also Leut. Matthew's Voyage, p. 123.
GAn instance of this kind happened at Montserrat in the West Indies in the year 1763. I then belonged to the Charming Sally, Capt. Doran.—The chief mate, Mr. Mansfield, and some of the crew being one day on shore, were present at the burying of a poisoned negro girl. Though they had often heard of the circumstance of the running in such cases, and had even seen it, they imagined it to be a trick of the corpse-bearers. The mate therefore desired two of the sailors to take up the coffin, and carry it to the grave. The sailors, who were all of the same opinion, readily obeyed; but they had scarcely raised it to their shoulders, before they began to run furiously about, quite unable to direct themselves, till, at last, without intention, they came to the hut of him who had poisoned the girl. The coffin then immediately fell from their shoulders against the hut, and damaged part of the wall. The owner of the hut was taken into custody on this, and confessed the poisoning.—I give this story as it was related by the mate and crew on their return to the ship. The credit which is due to it I leave with the reader.
IPhilos. Trans. Nº 476, Sect. 4, cited by Mr. Clarkson, p. 205.
The author's birth and parentage—His being kidnapped with his sister—Their separation—Surprise at meeting again—Are finally separated—Account of the different places and incidents the author met with till his arrival on the coast—The effect the sight of a slave ship had on him—He sails for the West Indies—Horrors of a slave ship—Arrives at Barbadoes, where the cargo is sold and dispersed.
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 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 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 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. 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 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 eat any thing 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 I 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 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 ancles. 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 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 soon after missed the chicken, inquired after it; and on my relating the accident (for I told her the truth, because my mother would 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 had 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 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; 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 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 any thing 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 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 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, clung to each other in mutual embraces, unable to do any thing but weep. Our meeting affected all who saw us; and indeed I must acknowledge, in honour of those sable 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 for ever! I was now more miserable, 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. 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 have yet seen in Africa. It was extremely rich, and there were many rivulets which flowed through it, and supplied a large pond in the centre of the town, where the people washed. Here I first saw and tasted cocoa-nuts, 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 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 drank 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 every thing 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 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 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 a people who did not circumcise, and ate 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 some time 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 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 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, &c. &c. were in great abundance, and of incredible size. There were also vast quantities of different gums, though not used for any purpose; and every where a great deal of tobacco. The cotton even grew quite wild; and there was plenty of redwood. 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.
|LC Class||HT869.E6 A3 1794|
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, first published in 1789 in London, is the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano. The narrative is argued to be a variety of styles, such as a slavery narrative, travel narrative, and spiritual narrative. The book describes Equiano's time spent in enslavement, and documents his attempts at becoming an independent man through his study of the Bible, and his eventual success in gaining his own freedom and in business thereafter.
- Slavery in West Africa and how the experience differed from slavery in the Americas
- The African slave's voyage from Africa (Bini) to the Americas and England
- The journey from slavery to freedom and parallel journey from heathenism to Christianity
- Institutional slavery can raise the master as above man as the slave is forced beneath, both corrupting the master with power and crippling the slave with the lack thereof
Prior to Chapter 1, Equiano writes: "An invidious falsehood having appeared in the Oracle of the 25th, and the Star of the 27th of April 1792, with a view to hurt my character, and to discredit and prevent the sale of my Narrative." Like many literary works written by black people during this time, Equiano's work was discredited as a false presentation of his slavery experience. To combat these accusations, Equiano includes a set of letters written by white people who "knew me when I first arrived in England, and could speak no language but that of Africa." In his article, Preface to Blackness: Text and PretextHenry Louis Gates Jr. discusses the use of prefaces by black authors to humanize their being, which in turn made their work credible. In this section of the book, Equiano includes this preface to avoid further discrediting. Other notable works with a "preface to blackness" include the poems of Phyllis Wheatley.
Equiano opens his Narrative by explaining the struggle that comes with writing a memoir. He is very passionate about the hardships that memoir writers go through. He explains that they often have to defend themselves from those who remain critical about the truth of their work. He apologizes to his readers in advance for not having the most exciting story, but hopes that it serves to be helpful to other slaves in his position. He states, "I am neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant." He begins his story with a description of his homeland and the district in which he was born. He was born in the kingdom of Benin. Benin was a part of Guinea. The specific district that he represented was Eboe, which is in the same area as what is now Nigeria. Within the district, Equiano was born in Essake, a small province, in 1745. He goes into detail concerning his district and the isolation of his province.
Eboe, Equiano’s district, was very established when it came to rules and laws of governing. Their system of marriage and law were strictly enforced. His father was an elder in the district, and he was in charge of punishing criminals and resolving issues of conflict within the society. Within the district, women were held to higher standards than men. Marriage was seen as extremely important. The bride’s family was responsible for providing gifts for the family of the husband, and the wife was seen as "owned by her husband".
Dancing was a huge part of the culture within the kingdom. All dancing as separated into four divisions of groups of people, and they all represented an important part of life and an important event in life. The kingdom was made up of many musicians, singers, poets, dancers, and artists. The people of the kingdom lived a simple life. Nothing was luxurious. Clothes and homes were very plain and clean. The only type of luxuries in their eyes were perfumes and on occasions alcohol. Women were in charge of creating clothing for the men and women to wear. But, as far as occupation goes, agriculture was the primary occupation. The kingdom sat on rich soil, thus allowing for health food and abundant growth. Slaves were also present in the kingdom, but in Eboe, only slaves who were prisoners of war or convicted criminals were traded.
Some hardships came with an unusual amount of locusts and nonstop random wars with other districts. If another district’s chief waged war and won, then they would acquire all slaves, but in losses, the chief would be put to death. Religion was extremely important in the Equiano’s society. The people of Eboe believed in one "Creator". They believed that the Creator lived in the sun and was in charge of major occurrences: life, death, and war. They believed that those who died transmigrated into spirits, but their friends and family who did not transmigrate protected them from evil spirits. They believed in circumcision. Equiano compared this practice of circumcision to that of the Jews.
Equiano goes on to explain the customs of his people. Children were named after events or virtues of some sort. Olaudah meant fortune, but it also served as a symbol of command of speech and his demanding voice. Two of the main themes of the Eboe religion were cleanliness and decency. Touching of women during their menstrual cycle and the touching of dead bodies were seen as unclean. As Equiano discusses his people, he explains the fear of poisons within the community. Snakes and plants contained poisons that were harmful to the Eboe people. He describes an instance where a snake once slithered through his legs without harming him. He considered himself extremely lucky.
Equiano makes numerous references to the similarity between the Jews and his people. Like the Jews, not only did his people practise circumcision, but they also practised sacrificing, burnt offerings, and purification. He explains how Abraham’s wife was African, and that the skin colour of Eboan Africans and modern Jews differs due to the climate difference. At the end of the first chapter, Equiano asserts that Africans were not inferior people. The Europeans saw them as inferior because they were ignorant of the European language, history, and customs. He explains that it is important to remember that the ancestors of the Europeans were once uncivilized and barbarians at one point or another. He states, "Understanding is not confined to feature or colour."
Equiano begins the chapter by explaining how he and his sister were kidnapped. The pair are forced to travel with their captors for a time, when one day the two children are separated. Equiano becomes the slave-companion to the children of a wealthy chieftain. He stays there for about a month, when he runs away after accidentally killing one of his master's chickens. Equiano hides in the shrubbery and woods surrounding his master's village, but after several days without food, steals away into his master's kitchen to eat. Exhausted, Equiano falls asleep in the kitchen and is discovered by another slave who takes Equiano to the master. The master is forgiving and insists that Equiano shall not be harmed.
Soon after, Equiano is sold to a group of travellers. One day, his sister appears with her master at the house and they share a joyous reunion. However, soon afterward she and her company departs, and Equiano never sees his sister again. Equiano is eventually sold to a wealthy widow and her young son. Equiano lives almost as an equal among them and is very happy until he is again taken away and forced to travel with "heathens" to the seacoast.
Equiano is forced onto a slave ship and spends the next several weeks on the ship under terrible conditions. He points out the "closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship" suffocates them; some slaves even preferred to drown, and one was saved but to be flogged later, as he had chosen to die rather that accept to be a slave. At last they reach the island of Barbados, where Equiano and all the other slaves are separated and sold. The author mentions the impact of their selling away, as "on the signal given, (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where they are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. [...] The noise and clamour [...] serve not a little to increase the apprehension of the Terrified Africans."
Throughout the whole passage, Equiano refers to white people as cruel, greedy and mean, and is very surprised by the way they relate to each other, as they are even cruel between them, not only to the slaves. However, as he meets more white people and learns about their culture he comes to the conclusion that the white men are not inherently evil but that institutional slavery has made them cruel and callous.
Equiano was lonely at the new plantation and didn’t have anyone to talk to. He did his work by himself. One day, when he was in the kitchen, he saw one of the women slaves with an iron muzzle on, and that shocked him. As he continued looking around the house he saw a watch on the wall and a painting. He was paranoid by both of these objects because he thought they were spying for the Master. This shows just how little he knew about the common technology of the time. On the plantation he was called Jacob, instead of his real name. One day, a man, whose name is Michael Henry Pascal, came to the Master's house and wanted to purchase Equiano. He paid thirty to forty pounds for him and Equiano left to work on a ship. He liked it a lot better on the ship because the other people aboard were nicer to him and he ate better than he did previously. He was renamed again to Gustavus Vassa, which he didn’t like but got used to so he didn’t get punished. On the ship Equiano made a friend whose name was Richard Baker. Richard became a companion and interpreter for Equiano because he didn’t understand the language everyone else was speaking. They became very close. Richard died in 1759 and it was hard on Equiano.
It has now been two or three years since Equiano first came to England. He has spent the majority of his time at sea. He didn’t mind the work he was doing and has spent so much time there he almost considered himself an Englishman. He could speak English decently, but he could perfectly understand everything that was being said to him. He also started viewing the others on the ship as superiors to him instead of barbaric and scary. He wanted to be like them. Equiano went to London with his Master and was sent to serve for the Guerins. He liked it there and they provided him an education. He got baptized with the help of Miss Guerins. After a while his Master got called back to sea, so Equiano had to leave school to work for his Master. They went to Gibraltar, which allowed him to get cheap fruit and tell the story of losing his sister. A person who lived in the area told him that he saw his sister and took him to her, but it ended up not being his sister. Equiano met Daniel Queen while working for his Master and he quickly became a big part of his life. He taught him a variety of things like religion, education, and how to shave. Equiano viewed him almost like a father and tried to repay him with sugar or Tabaco whenever he could afford it. The ship left to go to London in December because they heard talk to peace and the end of the war. When they got there his Master gave him away to Captain Doran, even though he didn’t want to go.
In the middle of May, Equiano was summoned by Captain Doran and was told he had been sold to a new Master, whose name was Mr. Robert King. King wanted to purchase him because he liked his character and how much of a hard worker he is. Other people offered King up to one hundred guineas for Equiano. King was good to Equiano and said he would put him in school and fit him for a clerk. King fed his slaves well and sometimes got criticized by others for it. King’s philosophy was: the better fed the slave; the harder the slave would work. King had Equiano do a new job on the ship, which is called gauging. Gauging is measuring the depth of the boat or a compartment of a boat. He also put Equiano in charge of the Negro cargo on the ship. While working for King, Equiano saw clerks and other white men rape women, which made him angry, especially because he couldn’t do anything about it.
Chapter 6 opens with Equiano explaining that he has seen a lot of bad and unfair things happen as a slave. He recounts a specific event that happened in 1763. He and a companion were trying to sell limes and oranges that were in bags. Two white men came up to them and took the fruit away from them. They begged them for the bags back and explained that it was everything they owned, but the white men threatened to flog them if they continued begging. They walked away because they were scared, but after a while they went back to the house and asked for their stuff back again. The men gave them two of the three bags back. The bag that they kept was all of the companions fruit, so Equiano gave him about one-third of his fruit. They went off to sell the fruit and ended up getting 37 bits for it, which was surprising. During this time Equiano started working as a sailor and selling and trading items like gin and tumblers. When he was in the West Indies, he witnessed a free mulatto man, whose name is Joseph Clipson, be taken in and made a slave by a white man. Equiano says that happens a lot in that area. He decides that he can’t be free until he leaves the West Indies. With the money he is earning from selling items he is saving it to buy his freedom.
Before Equiano and his captain leave for a trip to Philadelphia, his captain hears that Equiano was planning on running away. His Master reminds him how valuable he is and how he will just find him and get him back if he tries to run away. Equiano explains that he didn’t plan on running away and if he wanted to run away he would have done it by now given all the freedom the Master and the captain give him. The captain confirms what Equiano said and decided it was just a rumor. Equiano tells the Master then that he is interested in buying his freedom eventually.
When they get to Philadelphia, he goes and sells what his Master gave him and also talked to Mrs. Davis. Mrs. Davis is a wise woman who reveals secrets and foretells events. She tells him he wouldn’t be a slave for long. The ship continues on to Georgia and while they are there, Doctor Perkins beats Equiano up and leaves him laying on the ground unable to move. Police pick him up and put him in jail. His captain finds out when he doesn’t come back the night before and gets him out of jail. He also has the best doctors treat him. He tries to sue Doctor Perkins, but a lawyer explains that there is not a case because Equiano is a black man. Equiano slowly recovers and gets back to work.
Equiano is getting close to purchasing his freedom with all the money he has saved from selling items. The ship was supposed to go to Montserrat, where he thought he would get the last of the money he needed, but they get an order to go to St. Eustatia and then Georgia instead. He sells some more items and earned enough money to buy his freedom. He goes to the captain to consult with him about what to say to his Master. The captain says to come by on a certain morning when he and the Master will be having breakfast. He goes in that day and proposes to purchase his own freedom for 70 pounds. With a little convincing from the captain, he agrees, and Equiano is granted complete freedom. The narrative ends with Equiano’s Montserrat in full text.
Controversy about origins
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vass, The African, originally published in 1789, played a large role in "[altering] public opinion" towards the slave trade in Britain. Equiano was viewed as "an authority" in relation to the slave trade. His claim to being born in Eboe, now southern Nigeria, and being captured and traded as a child gave him definite credibility. But his credibility came to question in the 1790s in order to destroy the negative opinion on the slave trade. There were rumours that Equiano was actually born in the West Indies, but these claims were thrown away for being "politically motivated."
Decades after The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, was published and newly edited in 1967 by Paul Edwards a debate was sparked on the validity of the origins of Equiano’s story.
In 1999, Vincent Carretta published findings of two records which raised questions regarding Equiano's account of being born in Africa. In particular, he located two documents disproving Equiano credibility. Carretta found Equiano's baptismal record dated February 9, 1759 from a church in Westminster (England), where Equiano was recorded as "Gustavus Vassa, a Black born in Carolina, 12 years old", and a naval muster roll from 1773 where Equiano likewise identified his birthplace as "South Carolina". These documents were enough for Carretta to believe that Equiano's claims about his early life were "probably fictitious". Aside from contradicting Equiano's account directly, these records suggested that, even if Equiano were born in Africa, he would have been at most seven or eight years old when he was sold into slavery (given that he must have been purchased by Michael Henry Pascal in Virginia no later than December 1754); to Carretta, this cast doubt on reliability of Equiano's first-hand descriptions of his home "country" and "countrymen". Carretta believes that his findings are possible evidence that Equiano had borrowed his account of Africa from others. Carretta goes on to say the timing of the publication of The Interesting Narrative was not an accident, noting "the revelation that Gustavus Vassa was a native-born Igbo originally named Olaudah Equiano appears to have evolved during 1788 in response to the needs of the abolitionist movement."
Carretta explains that Equiano presumably knew what parts of his story could be corroborated by others, and, more importantly if he was combining fiction with fact, what parts could not easily be contradicted.
"Equiano’s fellow abolitionists were calling for precisely the kind of account of Africa and the Middle Passage that he supplied. Because only a native African would have experienced the Middle Passage, the abolitionist movement needed an African, not an African-American, voice. Equiano’s autobiography corroborated and even explicitly drew upon earlier reports of Africa and the Middle Passage by some white observers, and challenged those of others."
Paul E. Lovejoy disputes Carretta’s claim that Vassa was born in South Carolina because of Vassa’s knowledge of the Igbo society. Lovejoy refers to Equiano as Vassa because he never used his African name until he wrote his narrative. Lovejoy believes Vassa's description of his country and his people is sufficient confirmation that he was born where he said he was, and based on when boys received the ichi scarification, that he was about 11 when he was kidnapped, as he claims, which suggests a birth date of about 1742, not 1745 or 1747. Lovejoy thoughts on the baptismal record are that Vassa couldn't have made up his origins because he would have been too young. Lovejoy goes on to say:
"If Carretta is correct about Vassa's age at the time of baptism, accepting the documentary evidence, then he was too young to have created a complex fraud about origins. The fraud must have been perpetrated later, but when? Certainly the baptismal record cannot be used as proof that he committed fraud, only that his godparents might have."
Lovejoy also believes that Equiano’s godparents, the Guerins and Pascals, wanted people to think that Vassa was creole born, and not a native African, because he had mastered English so well by then or for other reasons relating to perceived higher status for creoles.
In 2007, Carretta wrote a response to Lovejoy’s claims about the Equiano’s Godparents saying: "Lovejoy can offer no evidence for such a desire or perception." Carretta went on to say: "Equiano’s age on the 1759 baptismal record to be off by a year or two before puberty is plausible. But to have it off by five years, as Lovejoy contends, would place Equiano well into puberty at the age of 17, when he would have been far more likely to have had a say in, and later remembered, what was recorded. And his godparents and witnesses should have noticed the difference between a child and an adolescent."
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first widely read slave narratives. Eight editions were printed during the author's lifetime, and it was translated into Dutch and German. The structure and rhetorical strategies of the book were influential and created a model for subsequent slave narratives. The different kinds of aspects and ideas in his narrative, such as travel, religion, and slavery, cause some readers to debate what kind of narrative his writing is: a slavery narrative, a spiritual narrative, or a travel narrative.
The work has proven so influential in the study of African and African-American literature that it is frequently taught in both English literature and History classrooms in universities. The work has also been republished in the influential Heinemann African Writers Series.
- ^The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African – Written By Himself at project Gutenberg.
- ^ abCollins, Janelle (2006). "Passage to Slavery, Passage to Freedom: Olaudah Equiano and the Sea". Midwest Quarterly. Retrieved 11 November 2015.
- ^ abLouis Gates Jr, Henry (2012). The Classic Slave Narratives. New American Library. p. 3. ISBN 9780451532138.
- ^Louis Gates Jr., Henry. "Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext". Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction.
- ^Carey, Brycchan. "Olaudah Equiano: An Illustrated Biography". Brycchan Carey homepage. Retrieved 3 December 2014.
- ^Public Broadcasting Service. "Africans in America:Part 1-Olaudah Equiano". www.pbs.org. Resource Bank: Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 5 December 2014.
- ^The Equiano Project (2007). "Olaudah Equiano: 1745–1797". www.equiano.org. Worcestershire Records Office. Retrieved 1 December 2014.
- ^"Equiano in Africa". IMDb. Retrieved 4 January 2015.
- ^ abcdefgEquiano, Olaudah (2013). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. United States of America: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 355–387. ISBN 978-0-393-91885-4.
- ^Layson, Hanna; Tikoff, Valentina. "Olaudah Equiano and the Eighteenth-Century Debate over Africa and the Slave Trade". Digital Collections for the Classroom. Newberry Library. Retrieved 12 November 2017.
- ^Blackburn, Robin. "The True Story of Equiano". The Nation.
- ^"Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-made Man".
- ^Chambers, Douglas. ""Almost and Englishmen: Vincent Carretta". H-Net. H-Atlantic. Retrieved 12 November 2017.
- ^""Almost an Englishman": Carretta's Equiano"(PDF).
- ^ abcCarretta, Vincent (2007). "Response to Paul Lovejoy's 'Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African'". Slavery & Abolition. 28 (1): 116.
- ^Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a self-made man. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- ^Lovejoy, Paul E. (2006). "Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African". Slavery And Abolition. 27 (3): 318.
- ^ abLovejoy, Paul E. (2006). "Construction of Identity: Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa?". Historically Speaking. 7 (3): 9.
- ^Lovejoy, Paul E. (2006). "Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African". Slavery And Abolition. 27 (3): 337.
- ^Carretta, Vincent (2007). "Response to Paul Lovejoy's 'Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African'". Slavery & Abolition. 28 (1): 118.
- Equiano, Olaudah (2001), Sollors, Werner, ed., The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African written by himself; authoritative text, contexts, criticism (1st ed.), New York: Norton, ISBN 0393974944, LCCN 00058386
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1989). The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195060751.