Equiano’s Travels: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African
Equiano’s Travels: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African
Equiano’s Travels: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African
by Olaudah Equiano
THE LITERARY WORK
A memoir set primarily in Africa, England, and North America from 1745 to 1787; published in English in 1789.
A well-traveled former slave recounts his experiences as a slave and as a free man, on trading ships and on land.
Olaudah Equiano led one of the most intriguing existences in the last century of the transatlantic slave trade. Born in 1745 to the chieftain of an Igbo village in Nigeria, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of 11. By the time he was 21 he had served England’s navy in its war against the French and worked on trading ships in the West Indies and the southern United States, surviving the countless dangers of sea and slavery. He acquired the slave name Gustavus Vassa, later buying his way out of bondage. Equiano managed to save enough money to purchase his freedom, after which he continued to work as a sailor, participating in an early expedition to the Arctic Ocean and visiting the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The ex-slave also aided the abolitionist cause while in London. He was appointed to a post on a project for the black poor going to Sierra Leone, a colony founded by Britain in Africa for freed slaves. He himself did not travel to Sierra Leone, though he had earlier attempted, unsuccessfully, to be ordained and sent to Africa as a missionary. In fact, Equiano left the Sierra Leone project after a conflict with white participants. He and other blacks in England went on to form the Sons of Africa, a group that would enter into public debate on issues such as slavery. His memoir was published in 1789, as the international debate over slavery reached its zenith; both his condemnations of slavery and his unflinching descriptions of slave life proved to be valuable ammunition for the abolitionist cause.
The slave trade in Africa
The European slave trade, which flourished between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, took an estimated 12 million Africans from their native countries to work on the plantations of the West Indies. Thousands of these captives never made it to the Indies, dying on the transatlantic journey, while the survivors faced life in bondage on foreign shores. In many ways the slave trade devastated the cultures of West and Central Africa. It was not conducted by the Europeans alone; the active collaboration of Africans themselves was essential to the trade in slaves. In fact, Europeans rarely ventured into the continent’s interior, relying on African slave-catchers to bring captives to their coastal forts.
Two aspects of African culture helped the European slave-traders. First, slavery was a significant part of most African societies before the Europeans arrived. In Africa, however, slaves occupied a very different place from that in the Americas: “It was not unknown for them to gain their freedom, marry into their captor’s society and rise in economic and social status” (Shillington, p. 175). Many of the slaves in Africa were partly incorporated into their owner’s family, even if they remained subordinate members. In his memoir, Equiano contrasts the treatment of slaves in his home community with that in the West Indies:
With us they do no more work than other members of the community, even their master; their food, clothing and lodging were nearly the same as theirs, (except that they were not permitted to eat with those who were freeborn)… Some of these slaves have even slaves under them as their own property and for their own use.
(Equiano, Equiano’s Travels, p. 10)
During the brief period when Equiano himself was a slave in Africa, he remembers being treated kindly among people who spoke his own language. Racism, the harshness of plantation work, and foreign tongues militated against similar conditions in the Americas. Nevertheless, Africans had a well-developed understanding of slavery before leaving their shores. The arrival of the Europeans profoundly altered, but did not create, African slavery.
The second aspect of African culture exploited by the Europeans was its political division into kingdoms—the primary source of slaves, both those who stayed in Africa and those who ended up in the Americas, was warfare between African peoples. The army that lost a battle was often taken captive. Before the transatlantic trade, these captives were either ransomed back to their people, or taken to serve as slaves for the victors; after the Europeans arrived, these captives were more likely to find themselves on a ship bound for the New World. In the long run, this change debilitated western Africa: for three centuries, thousands of Africa’s youngest and strongest people were bled from the continent, sapping Africa’s strength and productive potential. In the short run, however, selling captives to the Europeans seemed wise. For a chieftain of, say, the kingdom of Dahomey, the difference between white slave trader and black meant nothing compared to the difference between Dahomey and its African foes. If the white foreigners offered good prices for captives, it made perfect sense to sell them, rather than keep them as personal slaves.
Thus, the coastal trade in slaves depended on wars waged in the interior of Africa. Expanding or declining kingdoms willingly sold captives as slaves; stable kingdoms frequently did not. For example, when the kingdom of Benin was growing in the late fifteenth century, it participated in the slave trade; it also traded in slaves in the eighteenth century, when it had to defend its borders against newly rising powers. In between, when it was strong and stable, Benin did not send slaves to the coast. While Western historians once believed that wars between Africans were often waged for the sole purpose of capturing slaves for the European market, modern analysts disagree. They have concluded that although raids for slaves did happen occasionally, other reasons for war—disputes over land, tribute, or economic power—remained more prevalent among the African peoples.
However, the European presence added significant new elements to African warfare. When Europeans began trading guns for slaves in the eighteenth century, war grew more vicious and more deadly. Larger kingdoms tended to profit and become more powerful at the expense of smaller powers and isolated communities, many of which disappeared altogether. Finally, the European presence created new types of jobs, most importantly the position of the African middlemen who bought slaves from the inland kingdoms and marched them to the coast, where European buyers awaited. Although Equiano is vague about details (understandably, since he was not yet a teenager at the time), it is likely that some of these middlemen bought him from his first African master and took him to the coast.
The slave ship
Few aspects of the slave trade horrify the modern imagination more than the slave ship. For the newly purchased slave, it must have been a terrifying initiation into this new life. Many, of course, had never seen or even heard of the ocean or of white people. In addition to rough treatment at the hands of Europeans, new slaves often found themselves surrounded by many other Africans whose languages they did not understand. The experience was both mystifying and anxiety-ridden. James Penny, captain of British slave ships, reported that new slaves “frequently express fears, from an apprehension of being eaten” (Penny in Craton, Walvin, and Wright, p. 35).
Such apprehensions were nothing compared to the physical misery of life on a slave ship. It is difficult for modern historians to get a precise fix on the conditions of slaves on board: accounts from the time are highly colored by the teller’s views of slavery. Undoubtedly, slavers exaggerated their accounts of treating slaves kindly, but one must also suspect that the horrifying accounts of abolitionists are less than even-handed. Slavers who paid as much as £25 for a slave were unlikely to treat their new property in a way that would kill him or her and ruin the investment. Usually, slaves were allowed to come up on deck for fresh air and allowed—or forced—to exercise. Some attention to their health and hygiene was common. However, two unchanging facts ensured a terrifying voyage for slaves on board. First, the Atlantic crossing (called the Middle Passage) was often dangerous. Hurricanes and tornadoes often threatened the safety of a ship, while prolonged periods without wind were just as dangerous, straining the ship’s slender provisions of food and water. Disease ran rampant among slaves and crew: historians estimate that between a twelfth and a third of slaves died at sea, their bodies thrown overboard. Second, the traders treated the slaves not as human beings but as property, no better than a cargo of cows or horses, a philosophy that led to inhumanities. Traders often overpacked their ships to offset the inevitable mortality on the voyage. Slave captains were allowed to do whatever was necessary to quell slave mutinies. And if anything went wrong on the journey, the slaves were the first to suffer. The most infamous example of this is the Zong case of 1783. An epidemic was decimating the slaves aboard the Zong and, in order to collect insurance money, the ship’s captain threw more than 130 sick slaves overboard. This combination of brutality and cold commercial calculation encapsulates the real horror of the slave ship.
Slavery and freedom for Africans
Conditions for slaves in the West Indies were atrocious. For the plantation slave, life was brutal and frequently short: at least a third of newly arrived slaves died within a year. Hours were long, work intensive, free time almost non-existent. Perhaps worse than these daily torments, colonial law made slaves’ lives precarious by depriving them of almost all rights. Slaves had little recourse when mistreated; and at the end of any legitimate course of action that they could take sat a jury of white men. No black person was allowed to testify against a white person. For slaves to get any justice, they had to plead for the support of their owner, who would pursue the matter as a crime against his property, rather than against another person. Slaves mistreated by their owners had slim hope of justice.
While their legal situation was precarious, the reality of life in the West Indies was more mixed. Many slaves, Equiano among them, received or created opportunities to engage in trade, fishing, farming, and manual labor for their own profit: they had to turn over only part of the proceeds to their owners. Those few slaves who, like Equiano, worked on ships plying the West Indies could make a lucrative side-job out of selling goods themselves at the bustling port markets. The legal situation of slavery, however, made such operations unsafe. Because slaves had no legal right to property, much less to sue, they frequently had to depend on the good will of the white people with whom they traded. Equiano’s narrative is spiced with complaints against whites who took his goods without payment, or who attacked him with impunity. His only recourse was to seek protection or justice from his master.
Actually the protection that a decent master provided sometimes made slavery a more attractive option than freedom. Manumission, as the legal release from slavery is called, was uncommon: free blacks rarely constituted more than 3 percent of a given area’s population. In addition, manumission was most often granted to the aged and sick, to long-time personal servants, and to the children that a slave owner had fathered with female slaves. While almost all slaves must have yearned for freedom in principle, they must also have known that the freedom offered an African in the West Indies was a paltry thing. In practice, freedom hardly affected the African’s legal status, except for the worse: “Manumission itself brought few practical benefits, while it deprived the ex-slaves of their master’s full legal responsibility for their welfare and protection” (Craton, p. 182). Freed slaves suddenly had to find some way to make a living on their own, and they had to contend with a racist society without even the uncertain help of a master. In 1730 the island of Bermuda passed a law requiring all freed slaves to leave the island within six months of manumission; those who did not would be imprisoned and sold again. Thus, freed and enslaved Africans were more alike than not: the openly stated goal of eighteenth-century West Indian whites was to maintain and even expand white superiority—legally, socially, and economically.
From its beginnings, the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans had troubled the moral sense of many Europeans. But the exponential development of transatlantic colonialism, and the incredible profits to be had from American plantations, had resulted in the sacrifice of such morality to economics. However, over the course of the eighteenth century, new economic and philosophical developments lent ever-increasing weight to arguments against slavery. England began the century at the forefront of all European nations in the exporting and exploiting of slaves; by 1800 the English were leading the charge to end the slave trade, and then slavery itself. England outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and sent its naval forces to the West African coast to enforce the ban; it abolished slavery in its colonies in 1834. Behind this surprising about-face were some historical developments that led the English to blend practical considerations with the philanthropic.
Technological development proved to be the key economic determinant in the decline of slavery. First, new manufacturing techniques made sugar easier to produce; the market was flooded and sugar prices plummeted, diminishing the political and economic clout of plantation owners. The crucial long-term development, however, was the Industrial Revolution—the decadeslong, often cataclysmic event by which manufacturing and trade replaced agriculture as Europe’s central economic business. By the end of the eighteenth century England’s factories had grown enough in economic importance to challenge the power of the West Indian colonial interests. And to factory owners, slavery made much less sense than emancipation. They found paid labor more efficient and lucrative. On plantations, in exchange for a slave’s labor, land owners provided the slave with food, clothing, and the like—at minimal cost, since slaves could, for instance, raise their own food. Manufacturing did not allow for such cost-saving measures. Furthermore, paying wages to workers enabled them to become buyers of the manufactured products. Factory owners required two things: raw materials for making goods and constantly expanding markets in which to sell the finished products. The West Indies would be an ideal market—but only if its inhabitants were free to earn wages they could spend on manufactured products. Africa likewise enticed those searching for new markets. The continent also had vast stores of natural resources, but the depletion of the population through slavery interfered with the gathering of these resources for European manufacturers, thus impeding the growth of trade. All these interests became more and more difficult to overlook when manufacturing began to replace plantation agriculture as the cornerstone of British wealth.
In the late twentieth century these economic battles have largely been forgotten, except by specialists. What is remembered now is the other catalyst for emancipation: the abolitionists. The Industrial Revolution created an atmosphere in which arguments about the evils of slavery would be heard; slavery was no longer so crucial to British wealth that morality could hold no sway. Two intellectual trends of the eighteenth century further added power to the arguments of the abolitionists. The first was the Enlightenment, a movement that stressed the rationality, perfectibility, and equality of all human beings. Enlightenment thinkers rejected coercion and raw power as the basis of politics, and advanced the idea of the “noble savage,” the notion that “uncivilized” people are naturally good. If earlier centuries had justified slavery by claiming that Africans were naturally inferior and barbaric, Enlightenment thinkers were more inclined to see a lack of European culture as evidence of superior morality. These philosophical ideas were bolstered by new developments in Christian religion. The rise of Evangelical denominations, particularly the Methodists, proved crucial. Evangelicals desired to do Christ’s work by improving the world in practical ways. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, one of the most obvious ways to improve the world was by ending slavery. The key to Evangelicalism was conversion: the individual believer received a sudden and immediate sense of God’s love. The result was absolute commitment to religion and philanthropy: “Spiritual rebirth was accompanied by a flooding love of all men and by a sense of mission” (Craton, p. 249). This intense commitment explains the vigor with which English reformers like John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and Granville Sharp pursued the cause of abolition through speeches, debates, pamphlets, letters, boycotts, and parliamentary actions.
Success came in spurts for the abolitionists. The famous Somerset Case of 1772 (described below) seemed to outlaw slavery on English soil. Although the actual decision was more ambiguous, it was a critical victory for emancipation. The next three decades saw an unrelenting struggle to abolish the slave trade, which succeeded in 1807. Between 1807 and the late 1820s abolitionists hoped to improve conditions in the colonies to the point that slavery would wither away on its own; when this did not occur, they agitated for legal emancipation, which, as mentioned, was granted in 1834.
QUAKERS: THE VANGUARD OF ABOLITION
The Quakers, or the Society of Friends, occupy a special place in the history of religious abolitionism. The Quaker faith was not only older than the later Evangelical sects, having begun in the seventeenth century; it was also marked by extremely progressive practices, such as pacifism, the use of female preachers, and a firm belief in human equality. While some owned slaves as late as 1776, Quakers formed almost the entire vanguard of the early movement for abolition. In 1671 the Quaker George Fox pleaded with other Quakers to treat slaves humanely and to eventually free them. In 1727 the Quakers formally condemned slavery.
The Quakers were also highly influential in spreading abolitionism to members of the newly developing Evangelical sects. Two books, Historical Account of Guinea by the Quaker Anthony Benezet and an anonymous Quaker pamphlet called The Case of Our Fellow Creature, the Oppressed African, brought many non-Quakers to the cause of abolition. Of the twelve members who formed the first governing committee of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, nine were Quakers.
Equiano was lucky to have been owned by a Quaker. Although it was unusual for a Quaker to own slaves, it is clear from Equiano’s narrative that this master was not deaf to the arguments of his religion. He treated his slaves kindly, allowing Equiano to improve himself by trade and education, and eventually consenting when Equiano asked to buy his own freedom.
It is important not to overlook the slaves’ own contributions to ending slavery. For the most part the newly enslaved lacked the power for anything but passive or suicidal resistance. Many committed suicide, while occasional mutinies on slave ships were tantamount to organized mass suicide. Once in the colonies, however, resistance could be more effective: slave rebellions and escapes belied the slave owners’ claims that Africans were happy in chains. Also, a select group of educated ex-slaves worked alongside white Europeans to agitate for abolition through speeches and writings. Most important among this small group was Olaudah Equiano.
Equiano’s account of his life ends before he reaches 40, and the bulk of the book is concerned with his first 25 years. This is only to be expected. Equiano’s first concern is to convey to his readers the horrors of slavery; his experiences as a free man are to him less important. But, while his book intends to persuade, it is less dogmatic and argumentative than many abolitionist tracts. Equiano’s account contains passages of invective against slavery; for the most part, however, the narrative allows its author’s experiences to speak for themselves.
In the first chapter, the account describes Equiano’s early life in Africa. Born into the family of an Igbo chieftain, Equiano recalls in idyllic terms his boyhood in what is now eastern Nigeria. He extols the virtue and industry of African culture, and describes what he remembers of religious and social customs.
The dress of both sexes is nearly the same. It generally consists of a long piece of calico or muslin, wrapped loosely round the body somewhat in the form of a highland plaid. This is usually dyed blue….
Each master of a family has a large square piece of ground, surrounded with a moat or fence or enclosed with a wall made of red earth tempered, which when dry is as hard as brick.
Agriculture is our chief employment, and everyone, even the children and women, are engaged in it. Thus we are all habituated to labour from our earliest years …we are unacquainted with idleness….
We have fire-arms, bows and arrows, broad two-edged swords and javelins…even our women are warriors…
The natives believe that there is one Creator of all things….We practised circumcision like the Jews…. I have before remarked that the natives of this part of Africa are extremely cleanly. This…was with us a part of religion, and therefore we had many purifications and washings; indeed almost as many…as the Jews.
(Equiano’s Travels, pp. 4, 5, 7, 9, 10-12)
Equiano’s life changes cataclysmically when, at age ten, he is kidnapped and carried down the river. After spending some time as a slave in another village, he is sold to English slavers. Equiano stresses the emotional, rather than the physical suffering that accompanies the Atlantic crossing. Africans are torn from their native lands without being told why; families are split up; and the white crew members aboard the slave ship are cruel. For a man whose life would be bound up with the sea, this is a horrible introduction to sailing.
Equiano is not sold at the ship’s auction in the West Indies, so he is sent to Virginia, where he is eventually bought by an officer in the British navy, Michael Pascal. At this point, his life takes a slight turn for the better. He begins to learn English, and enjoys some amenities. Equiano describes his voyage from Virginia to England with fondness: “I had sails to lie on and plenty of good victuals to eat, and everybody on board used me very kindly, quite contrary to what I had seen of any white people before” (Equiano’s Travels, p. 35). This kind treatment continues in England, where he remembers playing with the children of his owner’s friends.
In 1757 his master resumes active naval service, and Equiano accompanies him. At 16 years of age he becomes a veteran of war at sea. With Pascal, he sails to the Mediterranean to fight the French. His brief but forceful description of an engagement with three French vessels in the pitch of night is among the most vivid passages of his memoir. His job is to carry powder from kegs to cannon: “I was a witness of the dreadful fate of many of my companions who, in the twinkling of an eye, were dashed in pieces and launched into eternity…. I expected therefore every minute to be my last” (Equiano’s Travels, pp. 48-49).
After his military exploits Equiano faces trauma of a different kind. Returned to England, he and his master begin to argue. As a participant on the victors’ side of a battle, Equiano believes he is entitled to a share of the spoils; since his master has never given him his share, Equiano feels he should be freed. His position is bolstered by a commonly held, but not universally enforced, belief that a slave who enters England automatically becomes free. However, regardless of issues of justice, Pascal has physical control of Equiano. Although the slave tries to arrange his escape, he is sold to another captain and carried across the Atlantic back to the West Indies.
Equiano’s relationship with Captain Pascal typifies some of the paradoxes of slave-owning. On the one hand, master and slave were bound by years of mutual experience and by affection. On the other, Pascal was unwilling to lose the financial investment he had made in Equiano; when he suspects the slave might run away, Pascal sells him back to North America. Still, Pascal shows consideration despite the inhumane circumstances: the captain to whom Pascal sold him tells Equiano that his former master tried to get him the best master he could, saying that Equiano “was a very deserving boy” (Equiano’s Travels, p. 63).
This “best” master is Robert King, a Quaker merchant. Although a slave owner, King is noted for humane treatment of his slaves; he allows Equiano to educate himself and even supports his slave’s small private trading. Equiano serves as a sailor on King’s merchant vessels, sailing all over the Caribbean and as far north as Virginia. In this capacity he has ample opportunity to observe and experience the cruel treatment of slaves. He devotes Chapter Seven of his book to a thorough outline of these abuses: the painful punishments for even the smallest offenses; arbitrary cruelty; lack of legal redress for mistreated slaves; whites who harass or ridicule slaves for fun; theft of a slave’s meager belongings; unfair business dealings; and outright thuggery.
His own master, Mr. King, is a fair man, though. Not only does he allow Equiano to carry personal items for trade, but King even advances some goods for Equiano to sell. By selling gin, pork, glasses, and whatever else he can turn to profit, Equiano amasses enough money to buy his freedom: 40 pounds. His master, while surprised that Equiano accumulates the money so quickly, agrees to accept that sum. “Accordingly he signed the manumission that day, so that before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master and completely free” (Equiano’s Travels, p. 97).
As it turns out, this state of complete freedom has much in common with the state of slavery that preceded it. Equiano stays on as a sailor on his former master’s vessels, now earning 36 shillings a month. The first anecdote he relates about his new life reveals the difficulties that await freed Africans. After a fight with a slave Equiano must hide from that slave’s master, who is upset at the damage done to his human property. He remains in hiding for five days, until his captain intercedes and convinces the slave owner not to pursue the matter. A free African could be in a more dangerous position than a slave whose master was less cooperative.
Equiano longs to return to England. After a few more voyages for Mr. King—including one cut short by a harrowing shipwreck—he secures passage on a vessel bound for England: “I bade adieu to the sound of the cruel whip and all other dreadful instruments of torture; adieu to the offensive sight of the violated chastity of the sable females …; adieu to oppressions (although to me less severe than most of my countrymen)” (Equiano’s Travels, p. 121).
Arriving in England, Equiano pursues various interests, which he describes in quick succession. He apprentices himself to a hairdresser, learns to play the French horn, and sails to Turkey and around the eastern Mediterranean. He is also associated with Dr. Charles Irving, who has devised a way of removing salt from sea water. This last
“SEA HORSES” ON A FROZEN OCEAN
The Phipps expedition to the Arctic Ocean was one of the final attempts by the English to find a Northwest Passage—that is, to locate a route to India by sailing over the top of the world. This effort, which had been going on since the sixteenth century, was doomed to failure by the fact—obvious today—that the North Pole is perpetually frozen; but the English of the eighteenth century were less sure of this.
Equiano joined the voyage as a personal servant of Dr. Charles Irving, who was there to operate his water-purifying machine. Although the trip was a commercial failure, it provided Equiano with some of his book’s most striking incidents. He describes the walruses (which he calls sea horses), whales, and polar bears that approached the ship; at one point, two boats of sailors were even attacked by a group of walruses. Even more strange and compelling are his descriptions of the frozen north itself: “We had generally sunshine and constant daylight, which gave cheerfulness and novelty to the whole of this striking, grand, and uncommon scene; and to heighten it still more, the reflection of the sun from the ice gave the clouds a most beautiful appearance” (Equiano’s Travels, p. 134).
In August, as summer faded, the ships were trapped by ice. After 11 days of panic, constant struggle, and prayer, a fortuitous change in the weather freed them, and they sailed home at all possible speed, abandoning the dream of a northwest trade route to India.
tie leads Equiano all the way to the Arctic Ocean, as part of John Phipps’s expedition to the north in 1773.
After the Phipps expedition, Equiano’s book describes a trip with Dr. Irving to coastal South America, where Irving establishes a plantation with the help of Musquito (also spelled Miskito) Indians. Upon leaving this settlement Equiano is nearly kidnapped and sold into slavery again. He escapes from an unscrupulous ship’s captain only by luck and his wits. The final chapter presents Equiano’s concluding thoughts, including a rousing condemnation of slavery.
Air too pure—slaves in England
Throughout his memoirs Equiano expresses a burning desire to be in England. From his first visit, he is enchanted by the place. He bemoans having to leave it; and, when in the West Indies, dreams and schemes of ways to return. To some extent, this fondness is a response to the kind people he met there, and perhaps the greater opportunities for education available in England. However, there was a more specific reason for Equiano to long for England: legal tradition seemed to suggest that slavery could not exist in England and that any slave brought there was automatically free. The legal position was far from clear, however, and until total emancipation in 1834, many Africans in England were functional slaves. The fight over whether slavery could legally exist there proved to be an important battle for abolitionists.
English law, with its emphasis on caution, moderation, and the careful use of precedent, provided contradictory evidence about the legality of slavery. The first case involved not an African, but a Russian. Rushworth’s Historical Collections states “[t]hat in the 11th [year of the reign of] of Elizabeth , one Cartwright brought a slave from Russia, and would scourge him; for this he was questioned, and it was resolved, that England was too pure an air for slaves to breathe in” (Rushworth, p. 468). This ringing evocation of moral purity and equality continued to sound down to abolitionist times. Later cases, however, complicated matters. In 1677 and 1694 court rulings upheld the rights of slave owners in England; subsequent decisions in 1702 and 1706 denied slavery outright. The matter was further complicated by the issue of Christianity: since the decisions that supported slavery used the fact that Africans were heathen to justify their enslavement, some abolitionists argued that baptism freed a slave.
In short, the legal status of slavery in England was profoundly muddied. In 1729 the Law Officers of the Crown attempted to clarify matters by categorically ruling that neither being in England nor being baptized would free a slave. While this should have ended the controversy, it had quite the opposite effect. The abolitionist cause was gathering strength. Countless slaves fled from their masters, to be sheltered by sympathetic Englishmen.
The struggle to outlaw slavery in England bore its first fruits in the Jonathan Strong case of 1767. Granville Sharp encountered a young slave, Jonathan Strong, wandering the streets of London. Strong had been beaten and abandoned by his master. Sharp nursed the slave back to health, only to be sued for robbery by the original owner. Sharp threw himself into the study of English law and came to the conclusion that it did not permit slavery. He prepared a case, which he won by default, as the slave owner did not appear. A similar and more famous case decided the issue in 1772. In this later case, judge Lord Mansfield ruled in favor of the slave James Somerset, whose lawyers argued from the basis of the original 1569 decision. At issue again was whether slavery could exist in England. Somerset had claimed that the minute he set foot on English ground he was no longer enslaved and so could not be returned to the West Indies. From this case on, no English court would support the rights of slave owners to remove their alleged slaves from England.
The practical consequences of the Somerset decision were less sweeping than the rhapsodic celebrations of it by abolitionists would suggest. Lord Mansfield vacillated in later decisions on slavery; he ruled against slaves who sought wages from their owners, and repeatedly stressed the limited scope of the Somerset case. Slaves could not, for example, sue their owners for kidnapping, although the logic of the Somerset case suggested that they should be able to, for now that they were in England they were free. As far as other slaves were concerned, the Somerset victory was a moral one with little effect on their daily lives. In practical terms, most of the thousands of slaves in England continued to be subject to their masters’ desires: if they tried to resist returning to the West Indies, they were simply seized and forced to comply. Most had no option but to remain in captivity. In the long run, however, the Somerset case struck a blow against the slave-owning class. It demonstrated the practical strength of the abolitionist cause and, more importantly, established that the basic philosophy of English law was opposed to slavery. If England itself could not abide slavery, why should slavery be allowed in England’s colonies?
Sources and literary context
The most important context for Equiano’s book is the literature of the abolitionist movement. His account belongs on a shelf alongside the countless tracts, pamphlets, polemics, and speeches published by men like Granville Sharp and John Wesley. Equiano’s memoirs tend to be less argumentative than others, for good reason: Equiano had real experience with slavery, and could let his experiences speak for themselves.
Within the abolitionist canon, Equiano’s Travels belongs to a select subgroup: the slave narrative. A very few former slaves were positioned to be effective spokespeople for abolition. Equiano is the most famous in a small group that includes such figures as Ottobah Cugoano, Ignatius Sancho, Francis Barber, and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw. Although small in number, these African writers had a profound impact on the abolitionist cause. The slave owners’ claim that Africans were irredeemably barbaric met a powerful rebuke in a man like Equiano, through his personal energy and vigorous writing.
Equiano’s experiences also make his memoir distant kin to another type of book, far removed from issues of slavery. The memoir takes its place alongside the literature of sea voyages and adventure that gained such popularity in the eighteenth century—an age of vigorous trade and exploration.
After the period of life covered by his memoirs, Equiano settled into an active routine of fighting for abolition. It was he who alerted Granville Sharp of the infamous Zong case (in which slaves were thrown overboard) in 1784, and he entered into close communication with the leaders of the fight against slavery. In 1786 Equiano also became briefly involved in the attempt to set up a colony in Africa to which slaves could return once they had been freed. The colony, organized by Joseph Irwin, was called Sierra Leone. By October 1786, 700 former slaves had applied for the expedition, and four ships were prepared. On the advice of Granville Sharp and General James Edward Oglethorpe (founder of the colony of Georgia in North America), Irwin appointed Equiano as Commissary for Stores on the expedition to Sierra Leone, which made him responsible for acquiring and distributing provisions to the Africans.
The expedition was troubled from the start. Rumors swept through the community of former slaves that the ships were actually bound for the West Indies or Australia: hundreds backed out. Fever swept the ships, delaying the departure. As two of the ships waited in port for the arrival of another two, leaders of the voyage began quarreling. Equiano accused Irwin of corruption and dishonesty; in addition, he complained that Irwin and the ship’s priest, Reverend Fraser, condescended to the Africans. In return, Irwin and Fraser complained that Equiano was insolent and insubordinate, complaints that were only strengthened when Equiano published his accusations in the letters section of various English newspapers. Before the expedition sailed, Equiano was dismissed and ordered ashore. He never returned to Africa.
Undoubtedly, both sides had some cause for grievances. Irwin, while probably not grossly dishonest, was in charge of a hastily organized venture troubled by bad luck from the start; it must have frustrated Equiano to see this important cause floundering. On the other hand, his vigorous, principled complaints struck Irwin as counterproductive, if not willfully harmful. In any case, the incident had few long-term consequences. Equiano continued to work effectively for the abolitionist cause until his death in 1797, and the Sierra Leone colony was established.
Equiano published his memoir in 1789. Partly from the contemporary interest in slavery, and partly because Equiano traveled extensively in England to promote the book, Equiano’s Travels became a bestseller in its day. In 1792, during an eight-month stay in Ireland, Equiano sold 1,900 copies of his book.
Reviews were almost universally favorable. The Monthly Reviewer said that “the Narrative wears an honest face; and we have conceived a good opinion of the man, from the artless manner in which he has detailed the variety of adventures and vicissitudes which have fallen to his lot” (Shyllon, p. 234). The General Magazine and Impartial Reviewer concurred: “The Narrative appears to be written with much truth and simplicity, and the reader, unless perchance he is either a West-India planter or Liverpool merchant, will find his humanity often severely wounded by the shameless barbarity practised towards the author’s hapless countrymen in all our colonies” (Edwards, p. 18).
As the Impartial Reviewer suggests, hostility to Equiano came primarily from those devoted to maintaining slavery. Their primary weapon was libel. They attempted to cast aspersions on his character and credibility, recalling the Sierra Leone incident. Anonymous persons even spread the rumor that he had not been born in Africa at all, but was in fact a native of a Dutch colony. However, such claims were instantly discredited, and the newspapers that printed them were forced to retract them and apologize.
Craton, Michael. Sinews of Empire. New York: Anchor, 1974.
Craton, Michael, James Walvin, and David Wright, eds. Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation. New York: Longman, 1976.
Edwards, Paul. Unreconciled Strivings: Three Afro-British Authors of the Georgian Era. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.
Equiano, Olaudah. Equiano’s Travels: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African. Ed. Paul Edwards. London: Heinemann, 1967.
File, Nigel, and Chris Power. Black Settlers in Britain, 1555-1958. London: Heinemann, 1988.
Rushworth, John. Historical Collections of Private Passages of State, Weighty Matters in Law, Remarkable Proceedings in Five Parliaments. Vol. 2. London: John Rushworth, 1721-1722.
Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Shyllon, Folarin. Black People in Britain, 1555-1833. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Walvin, James. England, Slaves and Freedom, 1776-1838. London: Macmillan, 1986.
Wyndham, H. A. The Atlantic and Emancipation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.