Equiano – A Slave Narrative


Whatever reading I do in connection with a trip usually takes place before we leave. I definitely did some in advance of our Curaçao adventure. Rarely have I had the energy and the motivation to do follow-up reading on our return. This trip broke that mold, though, and I want to tell you about what I’ve been immersing myself in since we’ve been back.

In our visit to the slavery museum in Willemstad, the island’s capital and only city, we came upon a display that featured a book written by a former slave, entitled The Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African. My primary exposure to slave narratives is the classic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, so this one, published toward the end of the 18th century, sounded intriguing.

I’m fortunate enough to have access to the riches of the University of Chicago Library, so off I went to pluck a copy — there were several — from its shelves, assuming I had unearthed some rare gem. Just out of curiosity, I checked — forgive me — Amazon to see if the book was known beyond academia. To my embarrassment, but to your good fortune, the book is available in paperback for $6.95, so I hope this brief account will inspire you to enjoy its full richness.

There may exist other slave narratives that explore the same territory, but Equiano was in the rare position of having been old enough when he was kidnapped to remember both his African homeland and the barbaric passage to the Americas on the kind of slave ship that we’ve all seen in diagrams — imprisoned human beings lying side by side on the ship’s decks.

To recap briefly the story of our protagonist, known both by his African name, Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, as his owners renamed him: He was kidnapped from an Ibo village at around age 11, passed through the hands of several owners while still in Africa before he was shipped to the island of Barbados. It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that Africans themselves were involved in the slave trade. Equiano’s captors and early owners were all Black. Even his own father owned slaves.

In Barbados, he was fortunate to have been bought by a ship’s captain, who launched him on a life at sea for many decades, mainly the Caribbean islands, the coast of South America and his beloved England. He had a few encounters with a more brutal form of slavery practiced in the US during several voyages to Georgia, when even as a freeman – more about that in a moment – he barely escaped attempts to have him resold into slavery.

Through the kindness of sailors who were his shipmates and British women who took him under their wing during his stays in England, he learned to read and write to the point where he was able to produce this volume, written in a high 18th century style, quite a feat for someone who knew not a word of English almost into his teens.

Equiano dreams of buying his freedom one day, based on a promise from his master that he would free him if he could come up with the sale price, a feat he never thought his slave would be capable of. From then on when he goes to sea, he is paid a proper wage which is his own to keep, but, as I indicated earlier, even in his supposedly free state, he is cheated and mistreated in ways that allow him no recourse. Nonetheless, in his later years he becomes a respected spokesman for the anti-slavery movement. Although it is not covered in his memoir, he marries a white woman in England and fathers a daughter.

It happens that just before reading Equiano’s memoir, I had been immersed in the world of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, a novel filled with tales of sea battles and shipwrecks. Although it’s not the primary reason for reading Equiano’s book, you will be deeply entertained by his even more engagingtales of a man who spent much of his life at sea but never learned to swim, and therefore came close to drowning on a number of occasions. However, his life on shipboard sheltered him from some of the most punishing aspects of the plantation system, particularly as it existed in the U.S.

I mentioned earlier that one of the things that attracted me to this book was the unique opportunity it provided to read an account of life and death on the slave ships that transported millions of Africans from their homelands to the Americas, so I’ll close with some samples from that dark period of Equiano’s life:

“I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation to my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, …. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me…

“The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time…. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air became unfit for respiration…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.”

“One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together, preferring death to such a life somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea; immediately another quite dejected fellow … followed their example; and I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew, who were instantly alarmed.”

We may have read and heard descriptions of these horrific conditions before, but to have them recounted by someone who himself had lived that horror was wrenching.

So, this is the journey I’ve been on since I glimpsed this slim volume in a showcase in the Curacao Slavery Museum. That name is misleading in a way that I must challenge. The bulk of the display space is devoted to honoring the rich culture and history of the African continent, extending back into Biblical times. My eyes are full of the images of exquisitely carved wooden sculptures that helped shape the aesthetic of modern art. My friend and working partner Lou Bradley taught me a lesson that has had a profound impact on my view of African American history. She railed against a common assumption that her people’s story begins in slavery. Lou advocated instead for an approach like the museum’s that reached back into the proud history and culture that preceded slavery. Equiano traces that journey from pride to subjugation and I invite and encourage you to join him.   

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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