History. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano

In the early days of the slave trade, conceivably, 65 percent had been captives of wars. Over the next century, it has been premeditated that upwards of 75 percent were kidnapped. Many of these were the sufferers of the influential and centralized states of Dahomey and Ashanti, which had emerged in large part in response to the Atlantic slave trade. Many other Africans were captured in the plethora of small-scale and often haphazard raids and deals.

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Of the very few slave narratives we possess, the most important describes an act of kidnapping. Olaudah Equiano renamed Gustavus Vassa, wrote his memoirs in 1789 in the book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, Africa. Looking back on his childhood, Equiano described how

when the grown people in the neighborhood were gone far in the fields to labor, the children assembled together in some of the neighbors’ premises to play; and commonly, some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant or kidnapper, that might come upon us; for they sometimes took these opportunities of our parents’ absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize.

Equiano was an Ibo from the northern Ika Ibo district in what today is the eastern province of Benin, Nigeria. Tropical rain country, the area was crisscrossed by trade routes, one of the leading south by foot, thence by the River Ase and on to the major slave-trading region of the coast. The economy was agricultural, using both male and female labor. There was, however, tension throughout the region: ‘Each little group lived with its neighbor in a state of armed neutrality which periodically gave way to open warfare.’

Violent raids and attacks had forced local people to alter their daily lives. Equiano recalled that ‘when our people go out to till their land, they only go in a body, but generally take their arms with them, for fear of a surprise.’ Whenever they feared attacks, they also defended their homes, ‘driving sticks into the ground, which are as sharp at one end as to pierce the foot and are generally dipped in poison.’ Equiano was quite clear about the purpose of such military flurries: ‘they appear to have been irruptions of one little state or district on the other, to obtain prisoners or booty. When it did erupt, warfare took the form of ‘raids, ambushes, and engagements in more open country.

These engagements were conducted both with traditional African weaponry and with European arms, part of the trading system on the coast. To make good trade, Afria cans had to grab other Africans, and the commonest and apparently easiest way to do it was to raid and kidnap.

It is instructive to listen to Equiano again: ‘Perhaps they were invited to this by those traders who brought the European goods… amongst us. Such a mode of obtaining slaves in Africa is common, and I believe more are procured this way and by kidnapping than by any other.’ Equiano’s speculation on how this happened has the ring of authenticity, and is confirmed by an abundance of other evidence. ‘When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary if on this occasion he yields to the temptation with as little firmness, and accepts the price of his fellow creatures liberty with as little reluctance, as the enlightened merchant.

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The slave-trading system was not quite as neat, not quite as clearly defined, as Equiano described. But we do know that on the coast, Europeans had to pay levies and taxes, or offer gifts and commodities to the men who controlled the supply of slaves. In their turn, these African traders had to deal with their own suppliers of humanity from the interior. And so it continued, each link in this long and tortuous chain secured to the next negotiant by the appropriate price, commodity, or barter. However deep the trade penetrated into the interior and however diffused the material goods and monies made available on the coast, there came a final point where Africans were seized and enslaved.

Equiano’s fate was typical of the fate of millions. He was one of seven children, his father a prosperous man who had ‘many slaves of his own. Learning the skills of local agriculture and warfare, Equiano had reached the age of eleven when disaster struck. One day he and a sister had been left alone at home when ‘two men and a woman got over our walls and in a moment seized us both.’ The two children were bound and gagged and bundled away into the nearest woodland.

Overwhelmed by grief and tiredness, brother and sister were propelled through the woods, day after day, eventually separated, passing through communities with alien customs and languages. In places Equiano was put to work; he tried to escape, was resold a number of times, and seemed always on the move. Eventually he arrived at the coast.

Works Citied

Equiano, Olaudah. “from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the Africa. Written by Himself.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter and Richard Yarborough. 1.4 Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. 1118-1149.

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