The book by Olaudah Equiano.

Memoir of a Slave


Learning About the Slave Trade

The Life of a Slave

The Life of Olaudah Equino or Gustavus Vassa, The African
The book by Olaudah Equiano.

The book by Olaudah Equiano.

a square in Savannah.

Beautiful Savannah, with echoes of the slave trade whispering in every lovely square.

Way back when the world was normal, I went to Savannah in Georgia, US. You cannot visit the southern states without hearing the echoes of the slave trade, and I wrote about it in my blogs at the time: Blog about trip to Savannah here!

 I also 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 be 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 (if owning someone and making them do unpaid work and keeping them captive can be described as ‘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 stopped 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.

Olaudah Equiano

An educated man, Olaudah bought his freedom.

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. Blog about modern day slavery here.

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. . .

I hope no one abuses you today. Be kind.

Thanks for reading.

Love, Anne x

Next week, I will write about some more slaves I have been researching–those these lived centuries before Olaudah. They have been the subject of many stories and films and historical debate, and next week I’ll tell you what I have discovered.

Thank you for reading.
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Slavery on the Plantations


I had planned to be in Italy now. In preparation, I wrote this post last year, and postdated it to be published today. It is weirdly relevant given what is happening. As I read Fanny’s book, it was fascinating to hear her say things that today would be considered blatant racism, even though she was fighting for the abolition of slavery. There is a lesson here for today. If we are protesting against racial inequality, is it okay to shop for cheap clothes, which are made by slaves in Bangladesh? Do we only want racial equality in the UK and the US? Or are we prepared to give our money to aid agencies to help fight Covid-19 amongst the poor in India, Africa, and beyond? What, I wonder, will the future think of us?

Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839

by Frances Kemble

While we were visiting the Southern States of America last year, we were very aware of echoes of the past wherever we went. We saw old plantations, fields of cotton, museums, relics from the civil war, and were ever conscious of the comparatively recent slave trade. I began to explore this a little, to try and discover some facts beyond what we could see, and one of the books that I bought was the Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. It is a brilliant book, and allows the reader to see the slave trade, as it was, through the eyes of another investigator.

Fanny Kemble was an English actress. She was fairly well-known, as both an actress and an author, and during a tour of America with her father, she met Pierce Mease Butler. They married, and she went back to live with him in America, having no idea about how, exactly, he made his money. She then discovered that Butler owned a plantation, and slaves. Fanny deplored the idea of slavery, and insisted that she be allowed to visit the plantation, and see for herself the life of the slaves owned by her husband. The book is a series of letters and extracts from her journal, describing what she discovers.

I read the book shortly after arriving home from our road trip through Georgia and the Carolinas, so much of what Fanny describes is clear in my memory. She talks about the swamps, where the trees appear to be balanced on long fingers, and she calls them ‘woods of water.’ She describes the wildlife, the climate—all of which is pretty much unchanged even today. However, read through modern eyes, Fanny herself would be classed as racist, as her language reflects the thinking of the day. A strident abolitionist, Fanny makes a strong argument for the evils of the slave trade, whilst also describing black people in unflattering terms. It is unclear whether Fanny considers the slaves to be her equal, or whether she simply thinks the owning and degradation of human beings is deplorable (which is not quite the same thing).

The living conditions of the slaves are described as dirty, with no comfort, insufficient food. However, the aspect that affects Fanny the most is the whole being owned principle. Although the slaves married, and had children (which were then considered the property of the plantation owner) this was not respected beyond the confines of the slave residencies. So a man might return home from work one day to find, without warning, that his wife or child had been sold to a new owner, many miles away. Fanny also refutes the idea of benevolent owners, saying that those people who claimed to be kind to their slaves were still treating them as animals, and doubting whether a full-grown person would prefer to be treated as a much-loved pet dog, or as a donkey–both are belittling, and both undermine the basic principle that people of all colour, are human. This was radical thinking for her times.

One part which was interesting, is when Fanny is discussing Shakespeare (which would be very relevant to an actress). She ponders the play of Othello, and how the character, who is black, is described as a Moor, not a Negro. Fanny tells her friend that the hateful speech by Iago, Othello’s enemy, would be much more realistic if his hatred of “the moor” was changed to “the negro” and would add to his criticism of Desdemona, who has married a “negro.”

To discover what happened to Fanny later, beyond the pages of the book, I had to search the internet.

Fanny later divorces Butler and returns to England. Butler squanders his money, and eventually sells 436 slaves at The Great Auction in Savannah. This was notable, and is still part of the remembered history of Savannah today, used as an example of the horrors of the slave trade. Families were wrenched apart in the sale, and local people described the wailing and crying.

I found this book exceptionally interesting, though the style of writing was not my personal taste. It gives a clear account of how someone living in the times of slavery viewed what was happening, and I loved how her own biases were unconscious, and never addressed. I wonder what Fanny would think of her own writings if she was alive today. . . and I wonder what a future Anne would think about my own views. We are all products of the society in which we live, even if we like to think our generation has ‘sussed it’. I wonder if perhaps before we shout at those who we think are racist today, we had better look into our own hearts. You might claim that you believe all people are equal–but have you ever bought cheap clothes that might have been made by slaves in Asia? When did you last donate money to help downtrodden people? Would you allow the field near your home be used to build homes for refugees? I wonder. . .

Thank you for reading
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