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1 Olaudah Equiano Information in this presentation can be found at

2 Childhood Olaudah Equiano was born into a wealthy West African family in His family was Ibo. They lived far from the sea, in an area now part of Nigeria. Olaudah Equiano's father was a village chief. He had seven children and many slaves, so Equiano grew up in a slave society. But it was a different kind of slavery, as Equiano noted in his autobiography:

3 With us the slaves do no more work than other members of the community, than even their master; their food, clothing and lodging were nearly the same as ours, except that they were not permitted to eat with those who were free-born; and there was scarcely any other difference between them than a superior degree of importance, which the head of a family possesses.

4 Enslaved in Africa When he was eleven, Equiano was captured by African slave traders: One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us. The slave traders separated Equiano from his sister and sold him several times, from one African master to another. Equiano's first owner treated him well. But he was determined to escape. "I was strengthened by the mortifying circumstance of not daring to eat with the free-born children." He was soon sold again, and then again, when a wealthy widow purchased him. With her family, Equiano discovered how slavery differed from one African society to another: The next day I was washed and perfumed, and when meal-time came, I was led into the presence of my mistress and ate and drank before her with her son. This filled me with astonishment, and I could scarcely avoid expressing my surprise that the young gentleman should suffer me, who was bound, to eat with him who was free. Indeed, everything here made me forget that I was a slave. Equiano soon began to think the family would adopt him. His contentment was shattered early one morning when he was awoken and taken away yet again. Eventually he found himself on the Africa's Atlantic coast for the first time in his life. There he saw a slave ship anchored offshore. But he had no idea what lay ahead. No Africans had ever returned from the Americas to tell of their fate. When I looked around the ship and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people, of every description, chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck, and fainted... I asked if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair?"

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6 Passage to America The journey from Africa to America was called "The Middle Passage." It was the middle leg of the triangular slave trade which began and ended in Europe. No African expected the misery and horror it held. Slavers packed three or four hundred Africans into a lower deck— the ship's cargo. The cargo hold was tiny— a person couldn't even stand up in it. The air in the hold was hot and stale. The smell of sweaty bodies and human waste made the air even more unpleasant.

7 The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. Disease and death were common. Up to 25 percent of a slave ship's Africans died during the voyage. The captain and crew struggled to keep their valuable cargo alive. They forced the Africans to dance on deck for exercise. Sometimes they force-fed Africans who would rather die than suffer further.

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9 A slave in America

10 The slave ship carrying Olaudah Equiano and hundreds of other Africans finally reached port. Their destination was the English colony of Barbados. Soon they were put up for sale: On a signal given (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehension of terrified Africans, who may well be supposed to consider them as the ministers of that destruction to which they think themselves devoted. In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again.

11 No one purchased Equiano, who was still just a boy of 12. So he was shipped north to a plantation in Virginia. There he was shocked to see the instruments used to control and punishment slaves: A black woman slave was cruelly loaded with various kinds of iron machines; she had one on her head which locked her mouth so fast that she could barely speak, and could not eat or drink

12 Slave Sailor Equiano was soon sold again. His new owner was a lieutenant in the British navy named Michael Henry Pascal. Pascal gave him a new name: Gustavus Vassa. Equiano refused to answer to this name at first. Pascal slapped him with each refusal, and soon he relented. Under Pascal, Equiano learned to be a sailor. He spent much time in England, where managed to educate himself as well. He even fought for Britain in the Seven Years' War. I began to consider myself as happily situated, for my master treated me always extremely well; and my attachment and gratitude to him were very great. I soon grew a stranger to terror of every kind, and was, in that respect at least almost an Englishman. After seven years, Equiano had grown comfortable with his fate. So he was shocked once again when his owner sold him. His buyer was Captain James Doran to the West Indies. But Equiano challenged the sale: I told him my master could not sell me to him, nor to anyone else. 'Why,' said he, 'did not your master buy you?' I confessed he did. 'But I have served him,' said I, 'many years, and he has taken all my wages and prize-money,... besides this I have been baptized, and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me.' And I added that I had heard a lawyer and others at different times tell my master so. But Doran was not persuaded: Captain Doran said he had a method on board to make me [behave]. I was too well convinced of his power over me to doubt what he said; and my former sufferings in the slave-ship presenting themselves to my mind, the recollection of them made me shudder.

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15 Free Again Doran brought Equiano back to the Caribbean and sold him to a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia named Robert King. King treated Equiano well. But Equiano had tasted freedom and couldn't accept a slave's life anymore. His urge for freedom grew even greater when King put him to work aboard a Caribbean slave ship. It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St. Kitts, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master's name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed on the most trifling occasions they were loaded with chains; and often instruments of torture were added. But Equiano refused to give up. He began trading glasses and other objects on the side. Eventually he saved 40 pounds (equal to about $3,700 today). That was enough to purchase his freedom. Before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master and completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced. As a freeman, Equiano continued working as a sailor for years. He traveled widely, but his personal struggle against racism and slavery continued. One day, a ship's captain decided to sell Equiano: I simply asked him what right he had to sell me? But, without another word, he made some of his people tie ropes round each of my ankles, and also to each wrist, and another rope around my body, and hoisted me up. Thus I hung, without any crime committed, and without judge or jury; merely because I was a free man, and could not by the law get any redress from a white person in those parts of the world. I was in great pain from my situation, and cried and begged very hard for some mercy, but all in vain. Not one white man on board said a word on my behalf. Equiano hung from the mast all night long. In the morning, he begged to be released. Since his body was blocking the sails, the crew brought him down. The ship's carpenter persuaded the captain to put Equiano ashore. There he thanked God for "this unexpected deliverance" and found another ship bound for Jamaica. Eventually Equiano turned to the abolitionist cause. He became a public speaker in his adopted home of England. In 1789, he wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. It was an immediate best seller— the first anti-slavery book to reach a wide audience. Equiano became England's leading spokesperson for blacks and the abolition of slavery. Olaudah Equiano died in Ten years later, Britain and the United States abolished the slave trade.


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