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Understanding Slavery

A Slave on Three Continents

Enslaved in Africa
Captive Africans bound for marketWhen he was eleven, Equiano was captured by African slave traders:

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.

The slave traders separated Equiano from his sister and sold him several times, from one African master to another. Equiano's first owner treated him well. But he was determined to escape. "I was strengthened by the mortifying circumstance of not daring to eat with the free-born children."

He was soon sold again, and then again, when a wealthy widow purchased him. With her family, Equiano discovered how slavery differed from one African society to another:

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. This filled me with astonishment, and I could scarcely avoid expressing my surprise that the young gentleman should suffer me, who was bound, to eat with him who was free. Indeed, everything here made me forget that I was a slave.

Coast of Africa Equiano soon began to think the family would adopt him. His contentment was shattered early one morning when he was awoken and taken away yet again. Eventually he found himself on the Africa's Atlantic coast for the first time in his life. There he saw a slave ship anchored offshore.

But he had no idea what lay ahead. No Africans had ever returned from the Americas to tell of their fate.


Slaves loaded onto shipWhen I looked around the ship and saw a large furnace of 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 asked if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair?"

Next: Passage to America


Timeline of Olaudah Equiano's Life
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