Olaudah Equiano

Book Review: Olaudah Equiano

 I found some books, written during the time of the slave trade, and I tried to learn why and how it had happened—what made people treat others like commodities? How did it ever become acceptable to own another human being?

One of the most enlightening books I discovered was written by one of the slaves. Olaudah Equiano was born a prince—the son of a chief—in the land of Eboe, which is now (I think) Eastern Nigeria. He was kidnapped when young, and sold as a slave and taken to the West Indies (the Caribbean) and then to the US. He managed to earn some money, and eventually bought his freedom and came to England. He learnt to read and write, married an English woman and wrote a book. This is the book I read, and it was illuminating.

The first copy I bought was a Kindle copy, and it read as if written in a different language and put through Google-translate. The language was difficult to understand, and I needed to read slowly and concentrate on extracting the meaning. But although it was slow, it also conveyed a sense of who Olaudah was, how he spoke, what he thought was important. It was hugely interesting to see how the language of 1789 has changed; for example, he spoke of making bricks that were “difficult” (meaning “hard”) enough to use for building.

I wanted to reread sections and make notes, so I later bought a paperback copy of the book. This didn’t have the charm of the ancient language, and when I read the small print, it said it was an “unabridged and slightly corrected republication” of the original. I much preferred the uncorrected version (so read the small print before you buy!)

So, what did I learn? Well, my first surprise was that in Eboe, while Olaudah was free, his family owned slaves. Slavery was common, it was how they punished people for things like adultery (though mainly only the women, as men were expected to have more than one sexual partner). This was shocking! Owning slaves was a normal part of African society.

Now, Olaudah justifies this, saying that the slaves were not mistreated, they were sometimes treated as part of the family and even, on occasion, married one of their master’s children. However, the fact is that they owned people, the slaves were not free to leave, they were forced to obey and had very few rights. It was used as a form of punishment, I guess the equivalent of today putting criminals in prison. The slaves could be sold, and although they mostly seem to have been treated well, they don’t seem to have had any rights. They were possessions.

The book describes other aspects of life in Eboe. They were very clean, they had strict hygiene rules, an organised society. When I compare this to the arguments used by slavers at the time, about removing ‘savages’ from an unstructured environment, it simply wasn’t true. These people were different, but their traditions and lifestyle were organised.

Olaudah and his sister were captured by slave-traders (Africans) and sold into slavery. It wasn’t unusual for young people to kidnapped and sold as slaves, and it was something they feared even before it happened. For a while, he was owned by people in Africa, and although he longed to be free, he was not mistreated. Then he was sold again, to international traders, and put onto a slave ship. The things he described on the ship were barbaric, we would not allow animals to be transported in such awful conditions, and it’s not surprising that many of the slaves died before they even reached their destination. Olaudah describes his fears, especially of the white men, who at first he thought might eat him.

Gradually, even the abuses of the slave-traders became ‘normal’ and Olaudah stops being terrified every time he sees a white person. He learns to speak English, and persuades someone to teach him to read.

Olaudah was sold several times, and he describes how slaves were often mistreated by their owners, their lack of rights, their complete lack of worth as humans. He describes a dispute with another owner (because sometimes he was hired out by his master, like we might let someone hire our lawnmower for a fee) and how the man said: “he would shoot me and pay for me afterwards.” The owners who hired him were less likely to treat him well, and sometimes he wasn’t fed or allowed to rest (they wanted their money’s worth!) There’s a section in the middle of the book when he describes some of the abuses, things that made difficult reading, like the owner who cut off a slave’s leg because he tried to run away. The law provided no protection, especially if the abuse was done as a means of ‘punishment’. In fact sometimes, the abused slave was expected to thank his master afterwards, to actually say thank you for teaching him to behave better. Even when a slave was abused for no reason, the law only stated: “…if any man shall out of wantonness or only out of bloody-mindedness, or cruel intention, wilfully kill a negro, or other slave, he shall pay into the public treasury £15 sterling.”

Married couples sometimes tried to hide their marriage, as an owner could force the husband to beat his wife ‘if she needed punishment’. Many children were born who were the off-spring of the owner, and they joined the slaves and were possessions, even though they were the children of the owner. Olaudah calls them “mulattoes” and they were shunned by the slaves as being “not properly black.” I have heard similar insults today, and it reminds me of the Jews, who have derogatory names for off-spring of Jew and non-Jew liaisons. Even the oppressed will oppress other people it seems. No race is above abusing another, everyone likes to think they are superior, every culture defends their own wrong practices.

All the time, Olaudah is planning to buy his freedom. He was a good sailor, and often went from island to island, and he used this to trade simple possessions like fruit or drink and gradually to build savings. He visited Philadelphia for a while, and saw Rev. George Whitfield preach. He writes:

“When I got into the church I saw this pious man exhorting the people with the greatest fervour and earnestness, and sweating as much as I ever did while in slavery on Montserrat-beach. I was very much struck and impressed with this; I thought it strange I had never seen divines exert themselves in this manner before.” Olaudah buys a Bible, and converts to Christianity.

When he had enough money, and after persuading his owner to sign the papers, he was free. He travelled to England, because the anti-slavery lobby there was gaining momentum, and he knew that a free black man in England had more rights than one in the US.

In England, he continues to work as a sailor, though he worries that hearing the crew swear all day will encourage him to swear too, and that this will mean he goes to hell. (The sermons preached in the 1700’s were slightly more ‘hell-fire-and-damnation’ than those preached today!) He describes working as a sailor, often alongside slaves even though he was a free man. When he was in Spain, some of the sailors were bitten by poisonous snakes, and were cured by the doctor who made them drink strong rum with a lot of cayenne pepper in it. (Might be a useful tip if ever bitten by poisonous snake—don’t blame me if it doesn’t work!)

After Olaudah had written his book (and become relatively well-known) he married Susannah Cullen, a woman who lived in Soham, Cambridgeshire. He added this detail to all subsequent printings of his book. The marriage certificate is in his other name: Gustavus Vassa (slaves were renamed by their owners, though he was beaten for refusing to accept new names as he grew older).

Throughout the book, Olaudah longs for the abolition of the slave trade. His dream is that instead, Britain will trade fairly with Africa, sharing wealth in exchange for resources. How sad is it, that today, in 2020, Britain still does not trade fairly with Africa. We are still unwilling to pay a fair price for our food, and clothing, we still prefer to use slaves—and we don’t feel guilty because we can’t see them—in return for ‘bargain’ prices.

I like to think the world is better, a fairer place, than it was in 1745. I like to think that all people are protected by laws, and that our complex society has moved away from making profit from other people’s abuse. But sometimes I wonder. . .

Olaudah Equiano
An educated man, Olaudah bought his freedom.