The story of Olaudah Equiano began in Nigeria in 1745, when he was born; by the age of 11 Equiano was a victim of kidnapping and was sold to slave traders. His fate was not to be nearly as harsh as millions of other African natives that were seized and put into bondage, as his own writing reveals. But he was a slave and suffered the indignities that accompany slavery. The remarkable part of this story is the way that he tells his own story, written descriptively and in professional narrative, and what happens to him along the way. This paper references his tale, and also the paper reviews the life of a Muslim Prince who became a slave -- Abdul Rahman Ibrahima (referred to in this paper as The Prince). In summary, the paper will conclude with the writing of Frederick Douglass, which offers perspective on slavery and is in contrast to the lives of Equiano and The Prince.
Prior to being sent on a voyage to the Americas, Equiano was taken through many African countries and occasionally he served as a slave to "a chieftain, in a very pleasant country" (Williamson, 2004). Also, he served a "wealthy widow" living in a town called Tinman, that Equiano referred to as "…the most beautiful country I had yet seen in Africa," Williamson writes in the journal Documenting the American South. Eventually Equiano is sold back to the slave traders and he is transported "sometimes by land, sometimes by water, through different countries and various nations…" until finally arriving in the Americas. His Middle Passage narrative is an excellent recounting of a journey that too many African citizens were forced to make in chains and inhuman conditions.
Equiano Recalls the Middle Passage -- 1789
Upon seeing the slave ship "riding at anchor…waiting for its cargo," Equiano believed he was going to be killed by the "bad spirits" he experienced when they "tossed" him up. Typical of his narrative, he writes that if he possessed ten thousand worlds he would have given them all away to have "exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country" (Equiano, p. 1). The many Africans on board were "chained together" and their "countenances" expressed what he referred to as "dejection and sorrow"; it was so shocking to him he fainted.
The stench he endured when he got into the hold of the slave ship was unlike anything he had ever experienced. He wished for death and he couldn't eat and when "two of the white men" tried to force him to eat, and he still refused, "…one of them flogged me severely" (p. 2). Of course the slave owners wanted to keep their captives alive because a dead African would bring them no money once they land in the Americas.
He found some comfort in the fact that some of his "own nation" were near him and they explained to him what his fate was to be -- "…carried to these white people's country to work for them" -- but moreover he shuddered with fear because he had never seen any Africans behave in such a "savage a manner" with "brutal cruelty" (p. 2).
Equiano uses words like "pestilential" to describe the powerful and "loathsome" stench in the hold. Beside the human feces and the urine that the chained slaves produced, Equiano noted that the heat and closeness of the chained humans "…produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration… and brought sickness among the slaves, of which many died" (p. 2). A reader shudders while reading Equiano's intelligently and literarily brilliant narrative: "The filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell…the shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable" (p. 2).
The author makes note of the fact that his youth allowed him some freedom on board. And when finally arriving at Barbados Equiano still wasn't certain what his fate would be. When white men came aboard and examined the slaves "attentively," making them jump and pointing to the shore, Equiano thought "…we should be eaten by these ugly men" and hence, there was "much dread and trembling" among the passengers (p. 3). When the white men brought other slaves to talk to the new arrivals, they explained that the new slaves would not be eaten, but they were there to go to work.
Once in the West Indies, Equiano is not bought by a slave owner but is put on a Dutch ship to North America. He is purchased there and works on a Virginia plantation. Next he is purchased by a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy (who is captain of a merchant ship) and while in England, Equiano (still 11 years old, according to Williamson) he becomes friends with a Caucasian boy and becomes exposed to Christianity. He goes to church, becomes comfortable with the culture in England, even wants to "imbibe" and "imitate" the cultural behavior of Europeans (Williamson, p. 1).
Lieutenant Pascal is now Captain Pascal and Equiano has become close to him, according to Williamson's report. Pascal sends Equiano to "wait upon" two sisters who, in time become is patrons and they support his education and have him baptized into the Christian faith. The relationship with Pascal continues to go well, and Williamson explains that he sails with Pascal often and is able to visit the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and West Indian Oceans. These voyages are "fraught with danger," and many battles and "sieges" take place, but Equiano's service to Pascal is faithful and hearty, according to Williamson's report.
However, Equiano is "…shocked at an abrupt betrayal during a layover in England"; Pascal seems to turn his back on the relationship and has Equiano "…roughly seized and forced into a barge," from which point Equiano is sold to Captain James Doran, the head of a ship bound for the West Indies. He tells Captain Doran that Pascal "…could not sell me to him, nor to anyone else…I have served him many years, and he has taken all my wages and prize money" (Williamson, p. 2). But in time Equiano is sold again, to a Robert King who was "charitable and humane," a Quaker merchant, and from then on he saves his money and eventually he buys his own freedom.
Prince Abdul Rahman Ibrahima
The story of The Prince begins in 1788 when he is captured in an ambush, and sold to "English slavers for a few muskets and some rum" (PBS, 2008). He is put on board one of the slave ships bound for America via the Middle Passage, he endures that and eight months later arrives in Natchez, Mississippi. The Prince (26-year-old Abdul Rahman Sori) finds himself in a terrible situation since before being put into bondage he was the "heir to the throne of one of the largest kingdoms in Africa" (PBS, 2008).
He is sold to a farmer in Mississippi named Thomas Foster and Foster apparently sincerely wants The Prince to help him get his farm established. The Prince escapes but after a few weeks in swamps in Mississippi, he comes back to Foster's farm. Once he settles in, he becomes a leader and uses his understanding of crops like cotton to "…help Foster eventually become one of the wealthiest men in Mississippi" (PBS, p. 2).
Never for a moment does The Prince accept that bondage is something he must accept. "His rightful destiny was freedom," the PBS article explains, and hence it appears to be "a gift of fate when at a crossroads twenty years into his enslavement" he meets -- in a purely serendipitous moment -- an Irish ship's surgeon whose life had been saved by Abdul Rahman's father many years before when he was marooned in Africa." This white man was seemingly the answer to The Prince's freedom, but, the PBS article continues, "…the bonds of slavery proved too strong." Notwithstanding attempts by this Irishman and others to buy The Prince's freedom Foster will not sell, and it appeared The Prince would be unable to be a free man.
An article in www.Islamicity.com goes a bit deeper into the meeting with the Irishman, Dr. John Cox. Cox was a surgeon who had been stranded sick in Africa in the late 1780s, and the doctor was "nursed back to health by Abdul Rhaman's family." In fact Cox kept trying to buy The Prince's freedom until Cox's death in 1816 and even after that Cox's son continued the efforts to free The Prince, to no avail. That is notwithstanding the fact that Cox "…partnered with a local Natchez journalist to draw national attention to his story" -- and that is the reason that The Prince (note the paragraph that follows this one) came to the attention of the Secretary of State and eventually the president of the United States.