Olaudah Equiano: The Experiences of a Slave at Sea

We have available to us numerous accounts in which storms, piracy, war and harsh conditions upon the sea are abundantly displayed throughout the ages, one experience which is seldom accounted is of sailing upon the oceans as a slave. Olaudah Equiano gives us an extremely rare vantage point in his Interesting Narrative which recounts his capture from West Africa, being boarded onto a slave ship bound for the Americas, bought and sold numerous times before finally purchasing his freedom.

Equiano was perhaps eight years old when he was captured by slave traders in 1753 in Igboland, part of present day Nigeria. He and his sister were taken along the slave trade routes to the coast where the two were separated, Equiano loaded on a slave vessel bound for the new world. He provides a first hand account of the middle passage, the journey taken by newly captured slaves from Africa to the Americas. He witnessed and suffered conditions that were pestilential with an intolerably loathsome stench, of the filth and the smells which resulted in sickness and death of many of those confined. As a child Equiano himself was removed from these conditions to the fresh air of the deck, he posed no threat to his captors.

The ship sailed for Barbados then to Virginia where he was purchased, renamed Gustavus Vassa and taken to England. As an officer in the Royal Navy his owner took him aboard ships that saw action in the seven years war in Nova Scotia, off the coast of France, the coast of Portugal and in the Mediterranean. After his participation in the seven years war he was taken to the Caribbean where he was sold to an owner of vessels that plied the Atlantic trade.

As a slave on commercial vessels he was allowed to partake in small personal business ventures from which he managed to save enough money such that, in 1766, he was able to purchase his freedom. He continued to work for his former owner on trading ventures from the Caribbean to the American colonies and to England. During these years he experienced all the hazards of life at sea including storms, threats of piracy and was shipwrecked in the Bahamas. He returned to England and worked at various landbound employments in personal service and as a hairdresser, during these years he took the opportunity to embark on an education. He returned to the sea in 1768 sailing to the ports of North Europe, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. In 1773 he entered into the service of an exploratory expedition that was searching for a Maritime North East passage to Asia.

As a free man aboard a trading ship, Equiano was not able to escape the threat of being taken back into slavery. In 1774 a shipmate and former slave, John Annis, was illegally taken from England and into slavery, Equiano attempted to take action on Annis’ behalf but was unsuccessful. He himself was involved in the transport of slaves in the Caribbean and he narrowly escaped capture that would have returned him to slavery.

On his return to England he was employed in an effort to resettle former slaves in Sierra Leone, however was sacked when he decried of the corruption he encountered in the scheme. He engaged in efforts to end the slave trade and the practise of slavery in the empire during which time he wrote and published the account of his life in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. In his last years he directed his efforts in promoting this work throughout England, he died in London in 1797.

There has been some question as to whether Equiano was born in Africa, or in South Carolina and the middle passage to America was perhaps fabricated, based on the experiences of others. Regardless, Equiano provides us with a rare account of the life and events of one who experienced first hand the vagaries and violence of slavery.

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