During the course of his life under enslavement, Olaudah Equiano was sold 10 times enduring three name changes by his various masters. He was baptised as Gustavus Vassa. His life was one of adventurer, entrepreneur, merchant, explorer, abolitionist, and seaman.
Olaudah Equiano was born in what is today Nigeria, kidnapped from his African village at the age of eleven, and sold to a Virginia planter. He was later bought by a British naval Officer, Captain Pascal, as a present for his cousins in London.
Equiano bought his freedom after ten years of enslavement throughout the North American continent, where he assisted his merchant master and worked as a seaman. Equiano recalls his childhood in Essaka, where he was adorned in the tradition of the “greatest warriors.” He is unique in his recollection of traditional African life before the beginning of the European slave trade and detailed accounts of the horrors of the middle Passage.
Equiano was extremely well travelled for his time. He not only travelled throughout the Americas, Turkey and the Mediterranean; but also participated in major naval battles during the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War), as well as in the search for a Northwest passage led by the Philips stores to the expedition to resettle London’s poor Blacks in Sierra Leone, a British colony on the west coast of Africa.
Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in what is today Nigeria. As a young boy he and his sister were kidnaped-gagged, tied, and taken from their home. After a few days the children were separated and Equiano was alone. During his life as a slave, Equiano was sold ten times and underwent three name changes. The following passage was taken from his autobiography.
The first objects which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast were the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and awaiting its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief. As well as the multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow. No, I no longer doubted my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.
When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believed were some of those who brought me on board. They were receiving their pay. They seemed to take pity on me, and talked to me in order to cheer me. I was not cheered. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by these white men with horrible red faces, and loose hair. They told me I was not. One of these white men, to again cheer me up, brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass; but, being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand. One of the blacks therefore took it from him and gave it to me. I relented and took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, threw me into convulsions. I had never tasted anything so strange and strong.
Soon after, the blacks who brought me on board went off the ship. I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining its shore. But I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; for I was soon put down under the decks. There I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life. The loathsomeness of the stench was so overwhelming I could not eat or drink. I only wished for death to end my misery. But soon, to my great consternation, two of the white men offered me food. When I refused, one of them held me fast by the hands and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.
I had never seen such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shown toward us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves. One white in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in consequence of it.
In a little time after, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of them what was to be done with us. They gave me to understand that we were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them. Somehow I was a little relieved, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation might not end so badly. But every time I was put back down in that hold, my relief would subside. …The stench… the stench. The closeness of the place, the heat of the climate, the number of us forced to live in those conditions with scarcely room to turn, almost suffocated us. The air soon brought on a sickness among us slaves, of which many died. The shrieks of the women, the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. I was soon reduced so low that, happily for myself, it was thought necessary to keep me almost always on deck. And because of my extreme youth, I was not put in fetters.
One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea. Immediately, another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was like me suffered to be out of irons, also followed their example. I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew, who in a moment threw them down into the hold. Then, here was such a noise and confusion amongst the white people on deck as I never heard before, to get the boat out to go after the slaves. However, two of the wretches were already drowned. But they did get the other, and afterwards flogged him unmercifully for thus attempting…to prefer death to slavery.
In this manner we continued to undergo more hardships than I now can or want to relate, hardships caused by, inseparable from this accursed trade… that caused, still causes so many of us… to prefer death to slavery. Death… to slavery.
After having endured the horrors of Middle Passage, Equiano had to toil ten years in slavery before he was able to buy his freedom. However by the time he bought his freedom, he had taught himself to read and write. He became extremely well travelled for his time. He not only travelled throughout the Americas, Turkey and the Mediterranean; but also participated in major naval battles during the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War), as well as in the search for a Northwest passage, and in the expedition to resettle London’s poor Blacks in Sierra Leone, a British colony on the west coast of Africa. He also became an influential abolitionist, presenting an anti-slavery petition to England’s Queen Charlotte which precipitated Britain’s move to regulate the Slave Trade and its eventual abolition.
Voice-over by Barry “Shabaka” Henley