The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano

 

Olaudah Equiano frontispiece

Olaudah Equiano (c.1750-97), or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Portrait. Nigerian autobiographer.

Originally published/produced in London, 1789. Held and digitised by the British Library (Public domain).

Who has the right to write their life? This, above all, is the question that Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative poses. As a genre, autobiography rests on notions of authenticity, self-consciousness, and unique selfhood that for centuries have been claimed as exclusive characteristics of the white man. The very act of a black man – a freed enslaved man – writing his own life was radical when Equiano published The Interesting Narrative in 1789.

Even now, Equiano’s origins and identity remain matters of ongoing controversy. One scholar, Vincent Carretta, has uncovered evidence suggesting that he was in fact born in South Carolina. For Carretta, this demonstrates Equiano’s skill in drawing many real lives into the greater political project of The Interesting Narrative. But Equiano tells us that he was born at Essaka, an Igbo town in present-day Nigeria, and that at the age of 11 he was kidnapped by African traders, sold to European slavers, and transported to the West Indies. There, he was purchased by Michael Pascal, an English naval officer, who named him Gustavus Vassa, a name which Equiano at first resisted. Equiano had two further owners before, in 1766, he managed to buy his freedom for £40 (around £5000 now). The Interesting Narrative recounts this vital story of his enslavement and freedom in detail but also describes Equiano’s many remarkable adventures at sea – wrecks, battles, and even a daring expedition to the North Pole – and his conversion to Christianity. His autobiography is as much about his difficult path towards faith as it is about the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.

By the end of the 1780s, the campaign to abolish the slave trade was gaining significant momentum in Britain and Equiano, along with fellow African Ottobah Cugoano (both significant figures in the Black lobbyist group Sons of Africa), were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Indeed, The Interesting Narrative was part of this campaign, and published to coincide with the May 1789 parliamentary debate on the slave trade. Equiano travelled the country promoting both his book – which became a bestseller – and the antislavery message. Sadly, he didn’t live to see Britain abolish the slave trade in 1807, ten years after his death. (Whilst the 1807 Act prohibited British further trade in slavery, it did not secure emancipation for all enslaved peoples, which was took many further decades of political action from many spheres.)

It’s worth attending to the full title of Equiano’s autobiography: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself. This author, we’re being told, has two names, two identities: one his own, the other given him by those who enslaved him. But it’s the final words of the title that are the most significant: Written by Himself. This is a black man asserting the right and ability to record his own life and experiences; a black man claiming an autobiographic identity – sincere, reflective, self-knowing, literary – entirely opposed to the ideology of slavery’s insistence that black minds were inferior and black bodies were commodities to be bought and sold.

—David Taylor

 

Some themes and questions to consider 

  • Memoirs: How are memory and lived experience transformed by the act of shaping them into narrative?
  • Literature and Politics: How does what we read shape what we think about society?
  • Childhood: What ideas about childhood are resisted or upheld in this excerpt?

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself.

Chapter 2

After describing the customs of the country of his birth, Equiano recalls his childhood, and how he and his sister were kidnapped from their home and sold into slavery.

I hope the reader will not think I have trespassed on his patience in introducing myself to him with some account of the manners and customs of my country. They had been implanted in me with great care, and made an impression on my mind, which time could not erase, and which all the adversity and variety of fortune I have since experienced served only to rivet and record; for, whether the love of one's country be real or imaginary, or a lesson of reason, or an instinct of nature, I still look back with pleasure on the first scenes of my life, though that pleasure has been for the most part mingled with sorrow.

I have already acquainted the reader with the time and place of my birth. My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter. As I was the youngest of the sons, I became, of course, the greatest favourite with my mother, and was always with her; and she used to take particular pains to form my mind. I was trained up from my earliest years in the art of war; my daily exercise was shooting and throwing javelins; and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner:—Generally when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighbours' premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us; for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence to attack and carry off as many as they could seize. One day, as I was watching at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people come into the yard of our next neighbour but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young people in it. Immediately on this I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded by the stoutest of them, who entangled him with cords, so that he could not escape till some of the grown people came and secured him. But alas! ere long it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh. 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 as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day. For a long time we had kept the woods, but at last we came into a road which I believed I knew. I had now some hopes of being delivered; for we had advanced but a little way before I discovered some people at a distance, on which I began to cry out for their assistance: but my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack. They also stopped my sister's mouth, and tied her hands; and in this manner we proceeded till we were out of the sight of these people. When we went to rest the following night they offered us some victuals; but we refused it; and the only comfort we had was in being in one another's arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears. But alas! we were soon deprived of even the small comfort of weeping together. The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other's arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us; she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days I did not eat any thing but what they forced into my mouth. At length, after many days travelling, during which I had often changed masters, I got into the hands of a chieftain, in a very pleasant country. This man had two wives and some children, and they all used me extremely well, and did all they could to comfort me; particularly the first wife, who was something like my mother. Although I was a great many days journey from my father's house, yet these people spoke exactly the same language with us. This first master of mine, as I may call him, was a smith, and my principal employment was working his bellows, which were the same kind as I had seen in my vicinity. They were in some respects not unlike the stoves here in gentlemen's kitchens; and were covered over with leather; and in the middle of that leather a stick was fixed, and a person stood up, and worked it, in the same manner as is done to pump water out of a cask with a hand pump. I believe it was gold he worked, for it was of a lovely bright yellow colour, and was worn by the women on their wrists and ancles. I was there I suppose about a month, and they at last used to trust me some little distance from the house. This liberty I used in embracing every opportunity to inquire the way to my own home: and I also sometimes, for the same purpose, went with the maidens, in the cool of the evenings, to bring pitchers of water from the springs for the use of the house. I had also remarked where the sun rose in the morning, and set in the evening, as I had travelled along; and I had observed that my father's house was towards the rising of the sun. I therefore determined to seize the first opportunity of making my escape, and to shape my course for that quarter; for I was quite oppressed and weighed down by grief after my mother and friends; and my love of liberty, ever great, was strengthened by the mortifying circumstance of not daring to eat with the free-born children, although I was mostly their companion. While I was projecting my escape, one day an unlucky event happened, which quite disconcerted my plan, and put an end to my hopes. I used to be sometimes employed in assisting an elderly woman slave to cook and take care of the poultry; and one morning, while I was feeding some chickens, I happened to toss a small pebble at one of them, which hit it on the middle and directly killed it. The old slave, having soon after missed the chicken, inquired after it; and on my relating the accident (for I told her the truth, because my mother would never suffer me to tell a lie) she flew into a violent passion, threatened that I should suffer for it; and, my master being out, she immediately went and told her mistress what I had done. This alarmed me very much, and I expected an instant flogging, which to me was uncommonly dreadful; for I had seldom been beaten at home. I therefore resolved to fly; and accordingly I ran into a thicket that was hard by, and hid myself in the bushes. Soon afterwards my mistress and the slave returned, and, not seeing me, they searched all the house, but not finding me, and I not making answer when they called to me, they thought I had run away, and the whole neighbourhood was raised in the pursuit of me. In that part of the country (as in ours) the houses and villages were skirted with woods, or shrubberies, and the bushes were so thick that a man could readily conceal himself in them, so as to elude the strictest search. The neighbours continued the whole day looking for me, and several times many of them came within a few yards of the place where I lay hid. I then gave myself up for lost entirely, and expected every moment, when I heard a rustling among the trees, to be found out, and punished by my master: but they never discovered me, though they were often so near that I even heard their conjectures as they were looking about for me; and I now learned from them, that any attempt to return home would be hopeless. Most of them supposed I had fled towards home; but the distance was so great, and the way so intricate, that they thought I could never reach it, and that I should be lost in the woods. When I heard this I was seized with a violent panic, and abandoned myself to despair. Night too began to approach, and aggravated all my fears. I had before entertained hopes of getting home, and I had determined when it should be dark to make the attempt; but I was now convinced it was fruitless, and I began to consider that, if possibly I could escape all other animals, I could not those of the human kind; and that, not knowing the way, I must perish in the woods. Thus was I like the hunted deer:

—"Ev'ry leaf and ev'ry whisp'ring breath
Convey'd a foe, and ev'ry foe a death."

I heard frequent rustlings among the leaves; and being pretty sure they were snakes I expected every instant to be stung by them. This increased my anguish, and the horror of my situation became now quite insupportable. I at length quitted the thicket, very faint and hungry, for I had not eaten or drank any thing all the day; and crept to my master's kitchen, from whence I set out at first, and which was an open shed, and laid myself down in the ashes with an anxious wish for death to relieve me from all my pains. I was scarcely awake in the morning when the old woman slave, who was the first up, came to light the fire, and saw me in the fire place. She was very much surprised to see me, and could scarcely believe her own eyes. She now promised to intercede for me, and went for her master, who soon after came, and, having slightly reprimanded me, ordered me to be taken care of, and not to be ill-treated.

Soon after this my master's only daughter, and child by his first wife, sickened and died, which affected him so much that for some time he was almost frantic, and really would have killed himself, had he not been watched and prevented. However, in a small time afterwards he recovered, and I was again sold. I was now carried to the left of the sun's rising, through many different countries, and a number of large woods. The people I was sold to used to carry me very often, when I was tired, either on their shoulders or on their backs. I saw many convenient well-built sheds along the roads, at proper distances, to accommodate the merchants and travellers, who lay in those buildings along with their wives, who often accompany them; and they always go well armed.

From the time I left my own nation I always found somebody that understood me till I came to the sea coast. The languages of different nations did not totally differ, nor were they so copious as those of the Europeans, particularly the English. They were therefore easily learned; and, while I was journeying thus through Africa, I acquired two or three different tongues. In this manner I had been travelling for a considerable time, when one evening, to my great surprise, whom should I see brought to the house where I was but my dear sister! As soon as she saw me she gave a loud shriek, and ran into my arms—I was quite overpowered: neither of us could speak; but, for a considerable time, clung to each other in mutual embraces, unable to do any thing but weep. Our meeting affected all who saw us; and indeed I must acknowledge, in honour of those sable destroyers of human rights, that I never met with any ill treatment, or saw any offered to their slaves, except tying them, when necessary, to keep them from running away. When these people knew we were brother and sister they indulged us together; and the man, to whom I supposed we belonged, lay with us, he in the middle, while she and I held one another by the hands across his breast all night; and thus for a while we forgot our misfortunes in the joy of being together: but even this small comfort was soon to have an end; for scarcely had the fatal morning appeared, when she was again torn from me for ever! I was now more miserable, if possible, than before. The small relief which her presence gave me from pain was gone, and the wretchedness of my situation was redoubled by my anxiety after her fate, and my apprehensions lest her sufferings should be greater than mine, when I could not be with her to alleviate them. Yes, thou dear partner of all my childish sports! thou sharer of my joys and sorrows! happy should I have ever esteemed myself to encounter every misery for you, and to procure your freedom by the sacrifice of my own. Though you were early forced from my arms, your image has been always rivetted in my heart, from which neither time nor fortune have been able to remove it; so that, while the thoughts of your sufferings have damped my prosperity, they have mingled with adversity and increased its bitterness. To that Heaven which protects the weak from the strong, I commit the care of your innocence and virtues, if they have not already received their full reward, and if your youth and delicacy have not long since fallen victims to the violence of the African trader, the pestilential stench of a Guinea ship, the seasoning in the European colonies, or the lash and lust of a brutal and unrelenting overseer.

Full text

The full text of Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative can be found for free at Project Gutenburg.

Useful resources

Shackled by Language: The Representation and Self-Representation of English-Speaking Black Voices in Black Atlantic Writing

A Great Writers Inspire podcast by Cecilia Bennett.

British Library Collection for The Interesting Narrative

This collection includes the digitised pages 45–50, which correspond to part of our excerpt.

‘African Writers and Black Thought in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, by S. I. Martin

Read an article by S. I. Martin for the British Library.

Sir Hilary Beckles: ‘Britain’s Black Debt’ (lecture)

Lecture on the subject of slavery and reparations for Oxford Race and Curriculum series (2016). See also the related Voices Across Borders blog post.

Oxford Centre for Life-Writing

Read more about autobiography and biography more generally.

About the Contributor

David Taylor is associate professor of English at St. Hugh's College, University of Oxford. He specializes in eighteenth-century literature and culture and is the author of Theatres of Opposition: Empire, Revolution, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (2012) and The Politics of Parody: A Literary History of Caricature, 1760-1830. He is also the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Georgian Theatre (2014). In 2017, he curated the exhibition "Draw New Mischief: 250 Years of Shakespeare and Political Cartoons" at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.