"A MULTITUDE OF BLACK PEOPLE...CHAINED TOGETHER"
Olaudah Equiano vividly recounts the shock and isolation that he felt during
the Middle Passage to Barbados and his fear that the European slavers would
Their complexions, differing so much from ours, their long hair and the
language they spoke, which was different from any I had ever heard, united to
confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and
fears at the moment, that if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have
freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the
meanest slave of my own country. When 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 my fate. Quite overpowered with
horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I
recovered a little, I found some black people about me, and I believe some
were those who had brought me on board and had been receiving their pay. They
talked to me in order to cheer me up, but all in vain. I asked them if we
were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and
long hair. They told me I was not.
I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me as they
thought it would, threw me into the greatest consternation at the strange
feeling it produced, having never tasted such liquor before. Soon after this,
the blacks who had brought me on board went off and left me abandoned to
I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country
or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered
as friendly. I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present
situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind.
There I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never
experienced in my life. With the loathesomeness of the stench and the crying
together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the
least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to
Soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables and on my
refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across the
windlass and tied my feet while the other flogged me severely. I had never
experienced anything of this kind before. If I could have gotten over the
nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not. The crew used
to watch very closely those of us who were not chained down to the decks, lest
we should leap into the water. I have seen some of these poor African
prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for
not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself.
I inquired of these what was to be done with us. They gave me to
understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for
them. I then was a little revived, and thought if it were no worse than
working, my situation was not so desperate. But still I feared that I should
be put to death, the white people looked and acted in so savage a manner. I
have never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty, and this not
only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves.
One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck,
flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in
consequence of it, and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a
brute. This made me fear these people the more, and I expected nothing less
than to be treated in the same manner.
I asked them if these people had no country, but lived in this hollow
place? They told me they did not but came from a distant land. "Then," said
I, "how comes it that in all our country we never heard of them?"
They told me because they lived so far off. I then asked where were
their women? Had they any like themselves? I was told they had.
"And why do we not see them" I asked. They answered, "Because they were
I asked how the vessel would go? They told me they could not tell, but
there was cloth put upon the masts by the help of the ropes I saw, and then
vessels went on, and the white men had some spell or magic they put in the
water when they liked in order to stop the vessel when they liked.
I was exceedingly amazed at this account, and really thought they were
spirits. I therefore wished much to be from amongst them, for I expected they
would sacrifice me. But my wishes were in vain-
we were so quartered that it was impossible for us to make our escape.
At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made
ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we
could not see how they managed the vessel.
The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably
loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time...some of us had
been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air. But now that the whole
ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The
closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number of the
ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost
This produced copious perspirations so that the air became unfit for
respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness
among the slaves, of which many died-
falling victims of the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their
purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of
the chains, which now became insupportable, and the filth of the necessary
tubs [toilets] into which the children often fell and were almost suffocated.
The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered the whole a
scene of horror almost inconceivable.
Happily perhaps for myself, I was soon reduced so low that it was
necessary to keep me almost always on deck and from my extreme youth I was not
put into fetters. In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate
of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon the deck at the
point of death, which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries.
Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than
myself. I envied them the freedom they enjoyed, and as often wished I could
change my condition for theirs. Every circumstance I met with, served only to
render my state more painful and heightened my apprehensions and my opinion of
the cruelty of the whites.
One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied
countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring
death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped
into the sea. Immediately another quite dejected fellow, who on account of
his illness was suffered to be out of irons, followed their example. I
believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been
prevented by the ship's crew, who were instantly alarmed. Those of us that
were the most active were in a moment put down under the deck, and there was
such a noise and confusion among the people of the ship as I never heard
before to stop her and get the boat out to go after the slaves. However, two
of the wretches were drowned, but they got the other and afterwards flogged
him unmercifully for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery.
I can now relate hardships which are inseparable from this accursed
trade. Many a time we were near suffocation from the want of fresh air, which
we were often without for whole days together. This, and the stench of the
necessary tubs, carried off many.
Source: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or
Gustavus Vassa the African (London, 1789).