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Understanding Slavery

A Slave on Three Continents

Free Again
Doran brought Equiano back to the Caribbean and sold him to a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia named Robert King.

King treated Equiano well. But Equiano had tasted freedom and couldn't accept a slave's life anymore. His urge for freedom grew even greater when King put him to work aboard a Caribbean slave ship.

It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St. Kitts, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master's name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed on the most trifling occasions they were loaded with chains; and often instruments of torture were added.

But Equiano refused to give up. He began trading glasses and other objects on the side. Eventually he saved 40 pounds (equal to about $3,700 today). That was enough to purchase his freedom.

Before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master and completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced.

As a freeman, Equiano continued working as a sailor for years. He traveled widely, but his personal struggle against racism and slavery continued. One day, a ship's captain decided to sell Equiano:

I simply asked him what right he had to sell me? But, without another word, he made some of his people tie ropes round each of my ankles, and also to each wrist, and another rope around my body, and hoisted me up. Thus I hung, without any crime committed, and without judge or jury; merely because I was a free man, and could not by the law get any redress from a white person in those parts of the world. I was in great pain from my situation, and cried and begged very hard for some mercy, but all in vain. Not one white man on board said a word on my behalf.

Equiano hung from the mast all night long. In the morning, he begged to be released. Since his body was blocking the sails, the crew brought him down. The ship's carpenter persuaded the captain to put Equiano ashore. There he thanked God for "this unexpected deliverance" and found another ship bound for Jamaica.

Eventually Equiano turned to the abolitionist cause. He became a public speaker in his adopted home of England. In 1789, he wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. It was an immediate best seller— the first anti-slavery book to reach a wide audience. Equiano became England's leading spokesperson for blacks and the abolition of slavery.

Olaudah Equiano died in 1797. Ten years later, Britain and the United States abolished the slave trade.

Timeline of Olaudah Equiano's Life
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