Amazing Grace - OLAUDAH EQUIANO

Slave-traders used inhuman devices to capture, and control, their victims. They kept track of their cargo as though people were commodities, like guns or sugar:

  • An accounting from the snow (a type of two-masted vessel) Molly includes the names of human beings who were purchased at Bonny.

Deplorable conditions existed onboard slave ships as captives crossed the Atlantic. How were people, including children, able to endure such a crowded and foul environment? What goes through a child's mind as he or she is kidnapped from home and turned into a slave?

Olaudah Equiano, born in 1745 (in what is now Nigeria), answered those questions. (Follow this link for tips on reading old printed books and manuscripts. Scroll down 80% for a description of the letter "s" as it appears in the middle of a word.) The son of a chief - and later one of Britain's leading abolitionists - Equiano was one of the first Africans to live through chattel slavery and write about it. The following are some first-hand observations from his book.

  • Children were kidnapped from their homes, often when their parents were not there. A similar event happened to Olaudah and his sister. He was eleven years old.
  • The first time the young lad set eyes on a slave ship, he was terrified.  
  • He thought he was brought on board to be eaten by the white men:
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 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?
  • Conditions on board ship were so bad he would have jumped overboard had he been able. 
  • During the crossing, the stench below deck, nearly unbearable on the coast, became "pestilential." 
  • Some of the captives jumped into the water, committing suicide. More would have followed had the crew not stopped them.
  • He, and the other captured Africans, were sold as slaves on the Caribbean island.

Olaudah Equiano spent many years at sea as the slave of a naval man. Although he became a freeman in 1766, for the sum of forty pounds sterling, he never saw his parents or sister again.

Thanks to the Library of Congress, you can read an early edition of Equiano's narrative. Initially published in 1789 - when he was Britain's leading abolitionist - Equiano's book asks compelling questions. Here are two examples:

  • How could white people consider Africans inferior when many 'haughty' Europeans were themselves descended from barbarians?
  • "Is this what your God meant when he said do unto others...?"
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