The Narrative of Equiano

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The narrative of Olaudah Equiano reflects the impressions of a specific African on the Atlantic Slave Trade.  Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vasa, was born in the Ibo country around Benin, in the modern day Nigeria.   The British brought him to the New World in 1756.  [1]   

The English and Portuguese slave traders distinguished themselves with regard to their brutality, compared to those who held slaves in the interior of Africa, away from the African Coast.   Equiano's memoir informs the reader that Africans participated in Equiano's capture as well.  African complicity in the Slave Trade should not be dismissed, but should be viewed within the greater context of the differences between ideas of slavery within the African continent, and the chattel slavery as practiced by Europeans in the Americas. 

The preface to Equiano's ordeal mentions that his description of his life and the vivid details that he recounts are in question.  Yet, even if he did enhance the account the reflection still captures the essence of the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Moreover, from the described horrors, Equiano's account stands as a useful and instructive document on the issues related to African Diaspora.

Examining the Equiano primary source, one observes that the narrative offers comments and observations on how Equiano views his capture.  The essay highlights two major areas in which the Equiano narrative is of interest. First, Equiano discusses issues related to the complicity of fellow Africans in his capture.  Equiano emphasizes that he is within the African interior, and marches toward the African Coast. 

Most likely fellow Africans were involved in this type of movement from interior to Coast.  Second, Equiano mentions the way in which he communicates with other Africans from his "Own Nation" while he is on the ship leading to the Americas.  [2]This is very significant, because it points to a major issue, in which African Diasporan influences start right on the Slave Ship as it makes its way to the New World.  The dispersal of African language, culture, religion, intellect,   and elements of diaspora begin on the slave ship and influence generations of people of African descent. 

The Equiano restructuring begins with being captured directly from his house.[3]  At first, he does not specifically discuss the race or ethnicity of the individuals involved in his capture along with his sister.  However, at the moment he reaches the actual ship, and the African Coast, Equiano makes strong distinction between the people that captured him and the people that will take him to a destination unknown.  He specifically states that after he recovers from the ordeal of being brought on board of the ship, he discovers the "white men" which concern Equiano.   "When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who, I believed were some of those who brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain.  I asked them if we were not to be beaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair?"[4]

Equiano demonstrates that Africans may have captured him while in the African interior, but the white men controlled the ship and the means of passage across the Atlantic Ocean.  

In "Slaves and Society in West Africa, C. 1445-1700," J.D. Fage argues that African societies were extremely hierarchical. He focuses on the arguments that coastal African societies possessed slaves and that the rulers and merchants played major roles in the Atlantic Slave Trade itself.  Moreover, Fage emphasizes that the Europeans had to interact positively with the dignitaries and Kings who were responsible for providing the European desire for human labor.  Fage states. "Such dignitaries were almost universally recognized along the whole coast from the Senegal to Luanda.  Their permission had to be secured and payments made to them...before the Europeans could trade or really do anything at all." [5]  Equiano is instructive as a narrative because it reflects this same argument.  Equiano makes a strong distinction in the people employed in his capture and the people who he meets on the ship.  Equiano's first contact with white men comes from the white men on the ship, in which he is transported.  He is very disturbed and surprised by their many actions. Equiano observes the white men, and speaks specifically about their difference.  "Their complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, which were very different from any I had ever heard, united to confirm me in this belief." [6]

Equiano elaborates on his observation of the activities practiced on the slave ship itself.  Equiano's delineates that the European brand of slavery that he sees practiced is more brutal and cruel even as it is being displayed to other Europeans.  "The white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only show toward us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves." [7] This demonstrates the way in which the white slave traders began a process that moved in chattel slavery, which became much more oppressive and brutal than anything that Equiano had known before this time.  Therefore, the Equiano memoir displays a central difference between slavery as known on the African continent, and chattel slavery as delineated in the Americas.

Mungo Park's primary source also establishes distinction between the type of slavery that is experienced by Africans when they are under European constraint and slavery  in the context of the African continent.  Park describes that particularly among a certain group of slaves, a certain custom prevails which allows for slaves to become part of a household. Mungo Park further suggests that a slave code existed related to slaves held by Africans.  "Custom, however, has established certain rules with regard to the treatment of slaves, which is thought dishonorable to violate.  Thus the domestic slaves, or such as are born in a man's own house, are treated with more lenity than those which are purchased with money."  [8]  Therefore, the reasoning from this quote suggests that certain slaves of a certain class in the African Coast allowed for permeation through the family,   rather than the status of chattel slavery experienced in the New World.

The Equiano memoir delineates the specifics of the communication of themes and ideas throughout the African Diaspora.  Equiano emphasizes meeting people from his own nation on the ship.  This greatly emphasizes the way in which the African Diaspora was built through intersections and communications during the transport to the New World itself. Equiano states that,"... amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. 

I inquired of them what was to be done with us?  They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them." [9]  The Equiano example provides evidence for the shared belief system, and the intercultural as well as intra-cultural exchange that took place on slave ship vessels.  The exchange impacts the African diaspora dramatically.  The impact shifts the paradigm by viewing the analysis from a Eurocentric analysis to the analysis of the Africans specifically involved in the Slave Trade.  In "Shifting Paradigms in the Study of the African Diaspora and of Atlantic History and Culture," Kristin Mann credits other scholars with providing evidence of religious transmission of African culture from the African shores, over the ship, and onto American soil.  "Sterling Stuckey and Margret Creel  have both argued that shared belief in the religious importance of ancestors helped promote unity among slaves in the United States and contributed to the development of nationalist sentiment among them."   [10]  Shared religious beliefs provide an example of the connection between Africans making contact with one another on the slave ship driving them from the African continent to the Americas.  

Equianos' narrative is instructive for this principle as well, because the memoir is African centered, and provides a view of what happens between people while making the trek on the slave ship. Equiano emphasizes the horror that surrounds him.  He describes people committing suicide, by jumping off of the ship to drown rather than to be enslaved in a foreign land. Equiano assists as a text, because it provides an African centered view of a person surviving the Middle Passage, and bringing the culture, religion, and relationships with him. Hence, the argument which suggests that African culture survives the Slave Trade is enhanced when reading the Equiano memoir.   

            In "Are You Hip to the Jive? (Re)Writing/Righting the Pan American Discourse, " Sheila S. Walker describes the importance of an African centered view, specifically defining this view as a type of "Afrogenic" view.  "Afrogenic simply means growing out of the histories, ways of being and knowing, and interpretations and interpretive styles of African and African Diasporan peoples." [11]  Through the Equiano memoir then the reader observes the development of the Afrogenic paradigm as Equiano discusses the relationships that he has while on the slave ship.  One may postulate how those relationships develop

Therefore Equiano memoir presents two central themes that are very useful in the analysis of the experiences of enslaved Africans in their homeland.  The homeland experience includes the experience of the march from the African interior to the African Coast.   The memoir focuses on the interaction of the Africans participating on the ship, and how this interaction will go on to impact the social, cultural, political, and psychological development of the African Diaspora.  Further, the homeland experience specifically from Equiano's position also covers the horror and time spent on the slave ship before the ship moved out to the waiting waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Americas.  

[1] Olaudah Equiano, "Excerpt," The interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus vasa, the African in David Northrup ed. ,  The Atlantic Slave Trade, 2nd edition, Boston;New York; Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002, 66-70, pg.69

[2] Olaudah Equiano, "Excerpt," The interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus vasa, the African in David Northrup ed. ,  The Atlantic Slave Trade, 2nd edition, Boston; New York; Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002, 66-70, pg.69


[3] Ibid. at 66.


[4] Ibid. at 68.

[5]J.D. Fage, :Slavery and Society in Western Africa, c. 1445-c.1700," Journal of African History, 21, 3, (1980) 289-310, 298

[6] Olaudah Equiano, "Excerpt," The interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus vasa, the African in David Northrup ed. ,  The Atlantic Slave Trade, 2nd edition, Boston;New York; Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002, 66-70, pg.68

[7] Ibid. at 69

[8] Mungo Park, "Excerpt," West Africa in the 1790's in David Northrup ed., The Atlantic Slave Trade, 2nd Edition, Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002, 32-38, pg. 32

[9] Ibid. at 69

[10] Kristin Mann, "Shifting Paradigms in the Study of the African Diaspora and of Atlantic History and Culture, " Slavery and Abolition, 22:1 (2001): 3-21

[11] Sheila Walker, "Are You Hip To the Jive? (Re)Writing/Righting the Pan American Discourse," in Sheila S. Walker, ed., African Roots/American Cultures; Africa in the  Creation of the Americas, Lanham Maryland; Rowman and Littlefield, 2001, 1-44,  8

Craig Cunningham is a published author in the areas of family and criminal law.  In addition to being an attorney, he is also a professor and will educate his clients regarding their case and the law. Clients are able to reach him through several outlets such as, email, cell phone, office line and fax. He will never keep his clients in the dark. With any new developments, he will definitely keep clients informed. For more information please visit at

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