The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship. . . . These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board.”

Summary Overview

First published in London, Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, is widely considered the first slave narrative for its presentation of Equiano’s journey from free African to chattel slave to ardent abolitionist. The narrative introduced European and American readers to ideas about life and slavery in Africa and humanized the experience of enslaved Africans. Equiano’s vivid depiction of the horrors of the Middle Passage, the route along which enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas, helped raise awareness of the brutality of the slave trade. The narrative thus contributed to the abolition of the slave trade in parts of the world, particularly in Equiano’s adopted homeland of Great Britain, where it was published in nine editions through 1794. Equiano’s narrative was also published in the young United States and was translated into many languages, including Russian, Dutch, and German.

Defining Moment

The Atlantic slave trade began in the early 1500s, not long after Europeans began explorations of the Americas in earnest. A tradition of slavery already existed in West Africa, where women and children in particular were sought after as slaves, leaving captured adult men to endure what became known as the Middle Passage—the grueling transatlantic voyage to the Caribbean, Brazil, or southern portions of British North America, where they were sold primarily as agricultural laborers. In time, women and children were also taken to the Americas. By the time Equiano’s autobiography was published, an estimated ten to twenty million Africans had been kidnapped and sold into slavery; as many as half of them died before even reaching the African coast.

The Middle Passage, so called because it considered the middle leg of the triangular trade routes that carried finished goods from Europe to West Africa and raw materials from the Americas back to Europe, was an indisputably hellish journey. Men, women, and children were crammed into small, unsanitary spaces, often chained together. Disease spread quickly, causing numerous deaths; a live person might remain chained to a deceased person for some time before the corpse was unceremoniously thrown overboard. Survivors endured beatings, rapes, and other brutish treatment on the roughly three-month voyage.

Slavery was considered an economic and social necessity and a simple fact of life by many Europeans and Americans for centuries. Antislavery sentiment began to grow in the eighteenth century, however, particularly among religious groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists. In 1777, Vermont became the first state to formally abolish slavery. Ten years later, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade organized in London. Early antislavery organizations such as this focused mostly on ending the slave trade rather than abolishing the institution of slavery altogether and, as such, worked to persuade the public and government leaders of the evils of the practice. Late in the decade, debates on the slave trade were taking place in Parliament; they soon followed in the US Congress. Because the vast majority of abolitionists were white Europeans, enslaved Africans did not yet have a direct voice to express the suffering they underwent on the Middle Passage. The publication of Equiano’s autobiography in 1789 gave a new, sharper focus on the horrors of the slave trade from the perspective of one who lived through it.

Author Biography

By his own account, Equiano was born in 1745 as one of the Ibo people of what is now southeastern Nigeria. At the age of eleven, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped and sold as slaves in Africa. He spent several months with masters on that continent before he was transported aboard a slave ship to the Americas and sold. Barely a teenager, Equiano was passed over by slave owners in Barbados and sent on to Virginia. There, he was sold to British naval officer Michael Henry Pascal. From this master Equiano acquired his alternate name, Gustavus Vassa, and through Pascal’s family in London, his first formal education.

He sailed with Pascal on several trips before returning to England. There, Pascal sold Equiano and the young man was taken to Monserrat. In 1763, he was again sold to American merchant Robert King, who trained him as a clerk. King and Equiano agreed to a price for the latter’s freedom, and by 1766, Equiano had earned enough money to purchase his liberty. Finding the danger of reenslavement in the colonies too high, Equiano returned to London and again worked aboard merchant vessels. He traveled the world as a sailor and even joined a crew searching for a northwest passage from Europe to Asia.

At sea, Equiano discovered that all sailors were equal. He even commanded a ship when the captain took ill and died. His experiences at sea, combined with his Calvinist convictions, made him a fervent abolitionist, and he began lecturing on that topic in Britain. He then wrote and published his autobiography. In 1792, Equiano married an Englishwoman named Susanna Cullen, with whom he had two daughters before her death in 1795. Equiano himself died two years later.

In the early twenty-first century, newly uncovered historical documents that suggested that Equiano was not, in fact, a native of West Africa, but of the British colony of South Carolina, raised controversy over the author and his work. A 1759 baptismal record and 1773 ship passenger listing both noted Equiano’s place of birth as South Carolina. Historians disagree on the validity of this evidence; some have suggested, for example, that the Americas may have been listed as Equiano’s birthplace to explain his strong command of the English language. The implications of a shifted homeland are great for interpretation of Equiano’s life and narrative. Were he actually born in South Carolina, his descriptions of Africa and the Middle Passage could not possibly have been based on firsthand experience, but instead assembled through study of other sources. No other significant source exists to document the life of Equiano’s Nigeria, making it practically impossible to verify this section of the narrative independently. Regardless of the truth of the matter, however, historians continue to agree on the importance of Equiano’s work as a historical force for abolition and an informative rendering of the inhumanities of slavery and the slave trade.

Document Analysis

The excerpt presented here offers Equiano’s account of his life as a child slave in Africa, bought and sold by various owners, as he made his way to the coast, where he was sold to European slavers who transported him to the Americas. Amazement at each new development and longing for freedom throughout his voyage is described in detail in this section of Equiano’s narrative, particularly the latter half. Writing for an audience of white Britons with little if any personal knowledge of Africa or its people, Equiano included anecdotes showing the successes of his own native culture, even in the face of slavery; these depictions stand in sharp contrast to the evidence of white brutality aboard the ship on which he crossed the Middle Passage. Thus, Equiano’s narrative of his childhood and kidnap into slavery humanized the enslaved while emphasizing the negative, dehumanizing effects of the institution on those white people who engaged in it, reinforcing a theme common in antislavery literature of his day.

Equiano opens this portion of his autobiography by discussing his experiences as a slave in Africa. He references his separation from his sister, with whom he had been kidnapped and initially enslaved. This was the second separation of the siblings and came after an unexpected reunion. As such, it was particularly grueling and reinforced the divisions that slavery, whether in Africa or abroad, could place upon family units.

Yet Equiano’s initially ended up with a family who treated him well. Bought by a merchant in the prosperous town of Tinmah, Equiano enthusiastically describes the many luxuries of the location: rivers, coconuts, pleasant houses, even the commodity crop sugar cane, for which so many Africans were forced into labor in the Caribbean. This last reference may have been intended as a reminder that sugar cane could be grown easily and profitably by free workers in Africa, a popular argument among antislavery organizations. Equiano’s stay in Tinmah was a pleasant one, made more so by a friendship with the son of a wealthy widow who had bought the young Equiano. In this home, Equiano enjoyed regular bathing and fine meals with his mistress and her family, receiving such good treatment that he nearly forgot that he was a slave. The people of Tinmah spoke a similar language to Equiano’s, allowing him to fit in so well that he eventually believed he might be adopted by the family. By emphasizing the successes of African civilization and even the tolerability of the African style of slavery in this portion of the narrative, Equiano prepares the reader for a significant jolt with the introduction of cruel white slave traders.

Equiano’s relatively easy life came to an abrupt end when he was sold and hustled out of the house back onto the road with no warning, in a reminder of the powerlessness of slaves. In retrospect, Equiano wrote that “it seemed as if fortune wished to give me this taste of joy, only to render the reverse more poignant.” He again emphasizes the “hardship and cruelty” of the slave trade. Equiano was taken yet farther from his home; his reference to “the uncircumcised” may not have been a specific commentary on the groups’ social practice, but rather a way to identify and dismiss them as others foreign to his own way of life. Over the next six months or so, Equiano traveled through unfamiliar land, being bought and sold by various masters. In total, Equiano later estimated his full journey from his home to the slave ship at some one thousand miles, more than enough to explain the shifting cultural patterns he encountered. The author again emphasizes the agricultural fertility of West Africa, listing a number of plentiful crops that included those slaves were forced to grow in the Americas, such as tobacco and cotton. The complete narrative contains a lengthier description of some of the practices that Equiano considered alien to his own. Such descriptions offer ethnographic historians a limited but interesting view on the variations in African societies during this period.

Taken together, Equiano’s account of his period as a slave in Africa seems designed to encourage abolitionist sentiment among his readers. In this section, Equiano suffers emotionally and psychologically but experiences no direct threats to his physical well-being; the people he encounters may be strange, with some cultural practices unfamiliar to him, but they are still black Africans who spoke a mutually comprehensible language. The author’s youth at the time of his enslavement also makes him a sympathetic figure, and he describes treatment from his masters that is suitable to his age and abilities. In contrast, youth proved no such protection on the plantations of the Caribbean and British North America.

Equiano’s journey through Africa ended when he arrived at the coast, where he had his first encounter with both the vast Atlantic Ocean and with a slave ship—a ship that he describes as filling him “with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror.” Most likely Equiano’s location at this point was the port of Bonny, a slave-trading center along the southern coast of what is now Nigeria. Historians have postulated that the specific slave ship that Equiano took was the Ogden based out of Liverpool, England, a relatively small two-mast ship that carried a crew of thirty-two to oversee some three hundred to four hundred enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage. Slave ships, as Equiano notes, typically waited near shore to gather their human cargo over time; the Ogden’s wait extended as long as eight months prior to the ship’s departure for its two- to four-month crossing of the Atlantic. During this time, enslaved persons brought in by local traders trickled slowly on board, remaining there for days, weeks, or months before the ship embarked. Equiano observes a “multitude of black people of every description chained together, everyone of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow” shortly after he boards the Ogden. Although the author believed these captives were distressed over their encounter with a cooking pot in which they believed they would be cooked, they were more likely despondent over their presence aboard the oppressive ship. By then, the ship almost certainly faced disease outbreaks brought on by the presence of so many people in close, unsanitary quarters.

Equiano’s first encounter with white Europeans was no less shocking. The same African traders who had taken him to the coast took him out to the ship, where the boy got his first glimpse of his new captors; Equiano was immediately convinced that the goal of these strange people was to murder him and eat him, a fear only confirmed when he observed a large copper pot boiling onboard. At least some Africans believed that European slave traders, with their drastically different physical appearances and language, were in fact cannibals. Equiano, frightened and shaken by the unfamiliarity of his situation, simply assumed that these slave traders were planning to eat him and fainted in terror.

Although this fear may seem naïve, historian Vincent Carretta has pointed out that it seems more realistic when taking in account the fact that practically none of the people who boarded a slave ship ever returned to their homes. Further, as Equiano’s readers would have known, eighteenth-century sailors did occasionally resort to cannibalism when no other alternative but starvation existed; in these instances, black shipmates were more likely to be chosen to die than white ones. Alternatively, Equiano’s presentation of this possibility may connect to the claim common in late eighteenth-century antislavery rhetoric that equated the eating of the products of slave labor, such as Caribbean sugar, with eating the blood of the slaves who produced these goods. Such a comment also turned on its head the European belief that Africans were barbaric cannibals.

The African slave traders who had brought Equiano to the ship revived him from his faint and, upon being asked, assured him that he would not be eaten “by those white men with horrible looks.” Equiano briefly humanizes one of the feared crew members by noting that the man offered him a small amount of alcohol to help him recover from his faint, but at the same time, he comments that he was too afraid of the man to take the drink from him. Instead, the man gave it to one of the black slave traders, who passed it on to Equiano. Because Equiano was unaccustomed to liquor, however, the drink failed to have the intended effect and instead sent him “into the greatest consternation.”

Soon after, the African traders left, compounding Equiano’s fear and despair at his situation. With the men went his last connection, however tenuous, to his place of birth, along with any belief he may have clung to that he would not have to face the unknown aboard the white-controlled slave ship. At this point, Equiano thinks longingly of his time among African masters, believing—correctly—that that situation was better than the one in store for him aboard the ship. Crew members then took him below deck, exposing him for the first time to a small hold notable for, in Equiano’s words, its “loathsomeness,” and to the sight and sound of enslaved people chained together in the cramped quarters. The combination of these factors sickened Equiano, and he woefully hoped for death to release him from his situation.

More immediately, however, the smell of so many bodies in such a small space took away the boy’s appetite, and he declined food given to him by the sailors. Refusal to eat was a common form of rebellion aboard slave ships. The ship’s crew had a vested monetary interest in keeping its human cargo alive and reasonably healthy, and thus they expected slaves to eat at least twice each day; the slaves, on the other hand, were frequently so distressed over their plight that they attempted to commit suicide through self-starvation. Given the wretched conditions in which enslaved people made the Middle Passage, suicide likely seemed an attractive option to the apparently endless days spent chained in a reeking, disease-ridden cargo hold.

Slave ship sailors had little tolerance for such resistance, however. In response to Equiano’s refusal to eat, two of the ship’s crew tied him to a piece of equipment and beat him. The flogging was so severe and so unlike anything Equiano experienced, he even considered overcoming his fear of the sea, with which he had no acquaintance coming from interior Africa, and leaping into the waters. Suicide by slaves on the Middle Passage in this manner was relatively common and seems to have been especially so of the Ibo people. Later in the complete narrative, Equiano returns to this theme of longed-for death by drowning, commenting that he “envied them the freedom they enjoyed.”

To prevent these deaths from taking place, slave ship sailors typically placed what Equiano refers to as netting, a rope barrier along the sides of the vessel that effectively penned in those onboard. Even enslaved people who managed to have the freedom to walk the decks could not readily throw themselves overboard. Equiano comments that he has seen enslaved people who nevertheless attempted to drown themselves “most severely cut for” their efforts, referencing an event described in detail later in his account in which three of his enslaved shipmates managed to get past the nettings and leap into the sea. Two of them successfully drowned themselves, but the third was taken back on board by the crew and beaten severely. These onboard actions point to the development of a culture of resistance even before arrival in the Americas. Plantation slaves then built on these ideas by striving to slow or stop work, damaging crops and machinery, attempting escape, and occasionally formally organizing into rebel groups.

The brutality of slave ship crews was largely, but not exclusively, limited to black resisters. Equiano goes on to recount an incident aboard the ship in which a white sailor was beaten so severely that he later died and was thrown overboard. The author does not recount what had caused the man to receive this punishment, but the event emphasizes the point frequently made by abolitionists that slavery brutalized the enslaver as well as the enslaved. Equiano bluntly states, “I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty,” a reminder both of the humanity with which enslaved Africans were treated in their native land and of the inhumanity common among European and American slave traders and owners.

Despite these conditions, enslaved people forced to traverse the Middle Passage managed to form a sort of traveling community. Equiano reports that discovering others of his own Ibo people “in a small degree gave ease to my mind.” Separated from their own families, enslaved people developed relationships with others of their own particular region or those who spoke a mutually intelligible language. Very young and far from his home, Equiano had no practical knowledge of what was happening to him or why he was being transported—although he does seem to have by now been reassured that he was not immediately destined for the large copper cooking pot—and so queried some of the other Ibo people he met. Learning that they were being sent to work came as a relief to the Equiano, for he says, “If it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate.” Equiano at this point had no way of knowing that the labors of enslaved workers in the Americas were much more strenuous and degrading than those of native African slaves, who often worked alongside their masters and were treated, as Equiano commented earlier in his narrative, much the same as family. Nevertheless, he remained afraid of his white captors and of their demonstrated brutality. He peppered the other Ibo with questions about the sailors’ origins and cultural characteristics, apparently amazed by each response.

Interestingly, even at a young age, the workings of the ship seemed to intrigue Equiano; the knowledge he gained from this ship and others allowed him to escape the grueling work and miserable existence of a plantation, a place that became synonymous with slavery. Equiano asked his shipmates about the ship, wondering how it could cross the sea. In return, he received a rudimentary explanation of the rigging of the sails, but his fellow Ibo had no knowledge of the ship’s anchor, which Equiano describes as “some spell or magic.” The explanations thrilled the young boy but still concerned him; if the ship was filled with spirits, was it not likely that those spirits might want to sacrifice him?

Later in his narrative of the voyage, Equiano tells of a sailor who allowed him to peer through the ship’s quadrant, a device used to determine a ship’s latitude by figuring the relative height of the sun and stars. The view of the clouds further convinced him that the ship was otherworldly and even magical. Writing decades later and well informed about the workings of a ship, the adult author seems willing to gently poke fun at his younger self over his beliefs in the ship’s magical properties. Yet Equiano’s true fear comes through as he again expresses his wish to be away from the spirit-filled, foreign ship. The barriers placed on slaves aboard ship prevented this from coming true, however. Even though Equiano, as a child and apparently ill much of the voyage, was frequently permitted to walk along the deck, the nettings and the close eye of the crew kept him firmly on the ship. In time, the narrative took Equiano to Barbados, and from there, his journey through slavery and freedom continued into history.

Essential Themes

Coming amid growing debate over the abolition of the slave trade, Equiano’s firsthand account of the realities of slavery and the slave trade from the perspective of the enslaved African—for that is how the narrative was received and interpreted in its day—thrust a unique and galvanizing factor into contemporary political society. Equiano, who traveled widely to promote his book between its initial 1789 publication and 1795, sold thousands of copies, making the account a best seller. Equiano’s narrative had even been illegally reprinted and distributed in the United States. Contained as a prelude to the complete piece was a list of subscribers, connecting the work to the antislavery petitions then being sent to the British government. Indeed, these abolitionist sentiments were clear. Equiano stated baldly in the opening paragraphs of the work that he had produced it to “[promote] the interests of humanity.”

Previous antislavery literature had avoided direct discussion of the Middle Passage, which the excerpt above clearly explores; by introducing a multitude of readers to the conditions with his lucid, vivid prose, Equiano generated increasingly broad support for the abolitionist cause. Heated debate over the legality of the slave trade rose during the early 1790s as abolition groups argued fervently for its end and merchants and traders argued just as strenuously for its continuation. Antislavery members of Parliament unsuccessfully proposed bills to bar the practice, and the House of Commons eventually found that the slave trade should phased out gradually. Little real change took place, however, until changes in the composition of Parliament and fears of a widespread slave revolt like one that had taken place in Haiti in 1791 made the British legislature suddenly amenable to abolition. Britain ended the slave trade in 1807.

In 1790, the Congress of the United States also explored the question of the slave trade. Although that body failed to abolish the practice, it did bar foreign ships from conducting the slave trade on US soil and specifically found that the legislature did have the right to require more humane treatment of enslaved people aboard transport ships. After a constitutional ban on the discussion of slavery at the national level ended in 1807, Congress resumed its debate over the slave trade, voting to end the practice that same year.

Equiano’s autobiography has also had far-reaching influence as a literary work as one of the first popular examples of the slave narrative, a particular form of black autobiography of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since a revival of scholarly interest in Equiano in the 1980s, historians and literary critics alike have frequently pointed to the author as the forefather of this format. Drawing on the structure of the spiritual autobiography, with which Equiano’s narrative is also often associated, he developed a three-part structure of enslavement, release, and freedom not unlike that of sin, repentance, and spiritual conversion used in the former. This overall structure and theme informed later works, most notably Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in the United States in 1845. The popularity of Douglass’s work soon subsumed that of Equiano’s, and Equiano’s work fell out of print in the mid-eighteenth century.

Bibliography
  • “The African Slave Trade and the Middle Passage.” Africans in American. WGBH Educational Foundation, 1999. Web. 16 May 2012.
  • Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
  • ---, ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1996. Print.
  • Collins, Janelle. “Passage to Slavery, Passage to Freedom: Olaudah Equiano and the Sea.” Midwest Quarterly 47.3 (2006): 209–23. Print.
  • Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African. Ed. Shelley Eversley. New York: Modern Lib., 2004. Print.
  • Howard, Jennifer. “Unraveling the Narrative.” Chronicle of Higher Education 52.3 (2005): A11. Print.
  • Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. New York: Simon, 1997. Print.
  • Wiley, Michael. “Consuming Africa: Geography and Identity in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative.” Studies in Romanticism 44.2 (2005): 165–79. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Carretta, Vincent. “Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on an Eighteenth-Century Question of Identity.” Slavery and Abolition 20.3 (1999): 96–105. Print.
  • Carretta, Vincent, and Philip Gould, eds. Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2011. Print.
  • Costanzo, Angelo. Surprizing Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings of Black Autobiography. Westport: Greenwood, 1987. Print.
  • Fichtelberg, Joseph. “Word Between Worlds: The Economy of Equiano’s Narrative.” American Literary History 5.3 (1993): 459–80. Print.
  • Potkay, Adam. “Olaudah Equiano and the Art of Spiritual Autobiography.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 27.4 (1994): 677–90. Print.

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