Centuries The Age of Exploitation Dr. Vipperman-Cohen

Week 7 – 16th-18th Centuries
The Age of Exploitation
Dr. Vipperman-Cohen
Olaudah Equiano
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano is a fascinating historical figure captured at 11 years old in Africa,
transported to Barbados, sold multiple times to new masters and eventually able to buy his
own freedom. He became a significant abolitionist in 1780s London. His memoir was
intensely popular as a slave narrative and as a published writing of an African man read
throughout Europe.
What are the events that Equiano describes in this excerpt?
What does he emphasize about his history? What about his experience might influence his
writing and/or perspective?
There are many different groups of people and cultures described. What do you think that
the text emphasizes the most about each?
What does difference look like in this text? Are there “Others” in this text?
How does this excerpt support or complicate our themes of Conquest and Exploitation in
the Americas?
How do we see the themes of Exploration, Expansion, Transformation, Trade, and Religion
in this narrative?
As we live in a country where nature is prodigal of her favours, our wants are few and easily
supplied; of course we have few manufactures. They consist for the most part of calicoes,
earthen ware, ornaments, and instruments of war and husbandry. . . . We have also markets, at
which I have been frequently with my mother. These are sometimes visited by stout mahoganycoloured men from the south west of us: . . . They generally bring us fire- arms, gunpowder, hats,
beads, and dried fish. . . . They always carry slaves through our land; . . . Sometimes indeed we
sold slaves to them, but they were only prisoners of war, or such among us as had been convicted
of kidnapping or adultery, and some other crimes, which we esteemed heinous. . . .
My father… had a numerous family. . . . I was trained up from my earliest years in the art of
war… In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my
happiness in the following manner. . . .
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 make resistance, they stopped our
mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to
carry us as far as they could, till night came on. . . . The next morning we left the house, and
continued travelling all the day.
. . . .
The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were
then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms. It was in vain that we besought them
not to part us; she was torn from me, and immediately carried away. . . . At length, after many
days traveling, during
which I had often changed masters, I got into the hands of a chieftain, in a very pleasant country.
This man had two wives and some children, and they all used me extremely well, and did all they
could to comfort me; particularly the first wife, who was something like my mother. Although I
was a great many days journey from my father’s house, yet these people spoke exactly the same
language with us. . . .
[After about a month], I was again sold. . . . and carried through a number of places, till, after
traveling a considerable time, I came to a town called Tinmah, in the most beautiful country I
had yet seen in Africa. . . .
I was sold here … by a merchant who lived and brought me there. I had been about two or three
days at his house, when a wealthy widow, a neighbor of his, came there one evening, and
brought with her an only son, a young gentleman about my own age and size. Here they saw me;
and, having taken a fancy to me, I was bought of the merchant, and went home with them. . . .
The next day I was washed and perfumed, and when meal-time came I was led into the presence
of my mistress, and ate and drank before her with her son. … Indeed everything here, and all
their treatment of me, made me forget that I was a slave. The language of these people resembled
ours so nearly, that we understood each other perfectly. . . . In this resemblance to my former
happy state I passed about two months; and I now began to think I was to be adopted into the
family, and was beginning to be reconciled to my situation, and to forget by degrees my
misfortunes when all at once the delusion vanished; for, without the least previous knowledge,
one morning early, … I was hurried away. . . .
Thus I continued to travel, sometimes by land, sometimes by water, through different countries
and various nations, till, at the end of six or seven months after I had been kidnapped, I arrived at
the sea coast. . . . The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea,
and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with
astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was
immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now
persuaded that … they were going to kill me. Their complexions too differing so much from
ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke . . . united to confirm me in this belief. . . .
When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of
black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing
dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and quite overpowered with horror and
anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted….
I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I
now wished for … death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me
eatables; and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across I
think the windlass and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. . . . I had never seen
among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shewn towards us blacks,
but also to some of the whites themselves. One white man in particular I saw, when we were
permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died
in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. . . . 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. … 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.
… The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror
almost inconceivable…
At last we came in sight of the island of Barbados, at which the whites on board gave a great
shout, and made many signs of joy to us… Many merchants and planters now came on board,
though it was in the evening. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They
also made us jump, and pointed to the land,
signifying we were to go there. We thought by this we should be eaten by those ugly men, as
they appeared to us; . . . at last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us.
They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should
see many of our country people. This report eased us much; and sure enough, soon after we were
landed, there came to us Africans of all languages.
We were conducted immediately to the merchant’s yard, where we were all pent up together like
so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age.
Source: Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, vol. 1 (London,
1789), chaps. 1, 2.

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