African Slave Narratives Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The nascent American abolitionist movement of the late eighteenth century was given important impetus by the small number of slave narratives written by African Americans. A larger number of such narratives would appear throughout the nineteenth century, including from such well-known African American writers as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; but in the eighteenth century there were only a few. These narratives were important because their first-person accounts of, in many cases, capture in Africa, the torturous passage across the Atlantic Ocean, and bondage in America made many people in both Europe and America aware of the realities of slavery for the first time.

Two of the best known such eighteenth-century narratives are by Olaudah Equiano and Venture Smith. Both men were born in West Africa in the first half of the century, enslaved as children, sold in America, and eventually bought their own freedom in the 1760s—a rare event in the history of American slavery. Equiano became a seaman and settled in Great Britain, while Smith established a farm in Connecticut.

Both men’s works established the important features of the slave narrative: for those born in Africa, the harrowing journey known as the Middle Passage, in which Africans were packed like cattle into the hulls of slave ships, where many did not survive the filthy and disease-ridden journey across the Atlantic; the debasement of being sold at market, again like livestock, with husbands often separated from wives and parents from children; and life in bondage, with scarcely any prospects for an independent life. Equiano and Smith were two of the very fortunate few, both extremely enterprising and with masters who would consent to free them for a price. Equiano’s autobiography was first published in Great Britain, where it is regarded as having influenced the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Smith’s memoir was published in Connecticut. Both accounts bolstered the argument of abolitionists that Africans were not inherently inferior to Europeans.

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