Boarding a Slave-Ship


This extract, taken from Chapter Two of the Interesting Narrative, describes the young Equiano’s entry into a slave ship on the coast of Africa.

The first object which saluted m eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave-ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, which I am yet at a loss to describe, nor the then feelings of my mind. When I was carried on board I was immediately handled, and tossed up, to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I was got into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, which was very different from any I had ever heard, united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country. When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of Black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate, and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some Black people about me, who I believed were some of those who brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair? They told me I was not; and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass; but, being afraid of him, I would not take it out his hand. One of the Blacks therefore took it from him and gave it to me, and I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, threw me into the greatest consternation at the strange feeling it produced, having never tasted any such liquor before. Soon after this, the Blacks who brought me on board went off, and left me abandoned to despair. I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly: and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo. I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced any thing of this kind before; and although, not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it; yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not; and, besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water; and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself. In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of these what was to be done with us? They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them. I was then a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate: but still I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shewn towards us Blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves. One white man 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; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more; and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner.

Equiano’s first stop on the slave ship was Barbados, where he and his enslaved shipmates, who could not be sold on the island, were sent to Virginia on another slave ship.  Equiano spent a few weeks weeding grass and gathering stones on a plantation. Equiano was purchased by Pascal, the commander of a merchant ship, to be his personal servant.  Pascal renamed him Gustavus Vassa after the king of Sweden, which name Equiano kept for the rest of his life.

Pascal and Olaudah Equiano traveled extensively and served together in North America during the French and Indian war.  They were both with General James Wolfe at Quebec in 1759 where the British won the decisive battle of the war.  Equiano lived in England where he received some schooling and worked as a shipping clerk and amateur navigator on the ship of his second master, the Quaker Robert King of Philadelphia, trading chiefly between North America and the West Indies. Holding to his Quaker principles, Robert King allowed Equiano to purchase his freedom for 40 pounds sterling in 1766 when he was 21 years old. As a British laborer he toured the Mediterranean, sailed to the Arctic and Central America, converted to Calvinism and joined the British antislavery movement.

As an abolitionist Equiano helped organize a colony for emancipated British slaves in Sierra Leone in 1787.  Afterwards, he wrote his autobiography and supported himself for the rest of his life by selling copies of it in conjunction with the antislavery movement.

In April of 1792 he married a white woman, Miss Susan or Susanna Cullen, at Cambridge, England.  The marriage notice recognized him “as the champion and advocate for procuring the suppression of the slave trade.  He is believed to have fathered a daughter for his legacy. His marriage to the English woman caused him to rethink race miscegenation.  He was the first person to suggest that white people should marry Black people and Black people marry white, thus breaking down the barriers between white and Black and creating a homogenized population eliminating race prejudices and the need for slavery.  A century later this very same idea was enthusiastically articulated by Frederick Douglass.

It is believed that Equiano died in April 1797. Abolitionist Granville Sharp wrote a brief eulogy for him, noting that he “was a sober, honest man—and I went to see him when he lay on his death bed, and had lost his voice so that he could only whisper.”  Equiano is important because he conveys one of the few first-hand extraordinary testimonies about the Atlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage.