Scholars estimate that 7.7 million Africans were transported to the Americas between 1492 and 1820. Over half of them arrived on British ships during the 18th century, when the Atlantic slave trade was at its height. The majority of African slaves labored on plantations in the West Indies and in South America, but many were transported to Britain’s North American colonies. The Atlantic slave trade encompassed a broad network of African traders, European ship captains and merchants, and American planters — all of whom profited from the enslavement of human beings.
According to his autobiography, Olaudah Equiano was the youngest son of a West African chief. Sometime during the 1750s, when Equiano was eleven years old, he was kidnapped by slave traders. Read the selection of Equiano’s autobiography (1837) provided below. It seems that by the 1750s, fear of attack from neighbors or slave traders had become a fact of life in West Africa:
According to Equiano, how did African villages attempt to protect themselves from potential slave traders?
Equiano went on to describe his own capture shortly thereafter:
"One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or to make resistance, they stopped our mouths, tied our hands, and ran off with us into the nearest wood: and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night."
Several months after his capture, Equiano arrived on the African coast to begin the next, and most horrific, part of his journey: transport across the Atlantic Ocean via the Middle Passage.
When Equiano reached the African coast, he observed "the sea, and a slave-ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo." Equiano’s captors likely sold him to European traders, who brought him aboard a ship destined for the Americas. At this point Equiano’s account from his autobiography (1837) provides a glimpse of the transatlantic nature of the slave trade, with Europeans as well as Africans involved in the sale and transport of people like himself:
According to Equiano's account, how much human diversity was present in the slave ports of West Africa?
Equiano went on to describe the horrific conditions of the slave ship as it prepared to cross the Atlantic Ocean:
"At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. But this disappointment was the least of my sorrow. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable."
Compare Equiano’s account with the diagram of the British slave ship Brookes below. When doing so, remember the 5 Ws (i.e., who, what, when, where, and why) especially the questions related to “who” and “what”.
The plan for the Brookes shows enslaved Africans chained tightly together in rows, which indicates the European perception of slaves as commodities. On ships like the Brookes, most slaves were allotted spaces no larger than 6 feet by 1 foot. The slaves were packed tightly together so slave traders could maximize both space and profits. Equiano’s account provides an important description of this process from the perspective of enslaved Africans, revealing that their transport across the Atlantic was traumatic, dangerous, and, above all, degrading in ways that could not be expressed in the diagram of a slave ship.
Like many others in the Middle Passage, Equiano’s ship disembarked at Barbados in the West Indies. The island was home to a thriving slave market by the middle of the 18th century, as the selection from his autobiography (1837) below shows.
We were not many days in the merchant’s custody before we were sold after their usual manner, which is this: — On a signal given, (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of the parcel they like best. The noise and clamour with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of the terrified Africans, who may well be supposed to consider them as the ministers of that destruction to which they think themselves devoted. In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again."
Equiano was ultimately sold to a planter from Virginia. Shortly thereafter, a British sea captain purchased Equiano and renamed him Gustavus Vassa. Over the next decades, Equiano led a remarkable life. He accompanied his owner on numerous voyages across the Atlantic. While enslaved, he enrolled in an English school and learned to read and write. He even fought for the British during the French and Indian War before he was sold again and returned to the Caribbean. In 1766, Equiano purchased his freedom and ultimately settled in London. In 1789, he published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,or Gustavus Vassa, the African.
The selections above, along with the rest of Equiano’s account, provide a valuable glimpse into the transatlantic dimensions of the African slave trade, one in which Great Britain and its American colonies played an integral role. Only a small portion of African slaves (between 400,000 and 600,000 out of 7.7 million) traveled directly to Britain's North American colonies, but the colonies participated in the slave trade in other ways. For example, foodstuffs from New England supplied plantations in the West Indies. In return, crops that African slaves produced were shipped to New England. Rather than a barrier, the Atlantic Ocean was a conduit through which colonists and others exchanged goods, ideas, and, in Equiano’s case, slaves.
Equiano was quick to point out that Africans were often deprived of experiencing such opportunities under their own free will. At one point in his autobiography (1837), he appealed to Christianity and English understandings of liberty to challenge the British Empire’s reliance upon unfree Africans:
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image of Olaudah Equiano, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2iUCZMq, Image of British slave ship Brookes, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2i1IfRm, Equiano, O. (1837). The life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African:. Republished Boston, MA: I. Knapp. Retrieved December 14, 2016, from http://bit.ly/2iUxY6m, Foner, E. (2014). Give me liberty!: An American history (4th ed., Vol. 1). (pp. 129-131). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.