Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I own I am shock'd by the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures and groans,
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
William Cowper, 1788
quoted in The National Trust Magazine, Spring 2007
In my March 25th blogpost, when last we encountered Equiano, he had been recently kidnapped and separated from his sister. Over the next six months he is sold on to several different masters and traders, eventually travelling by river until he reaches the sea:
The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew, and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me...when I looked around the ship too and saw a large furnace or 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 (p.22).
Equiano is just eleven years old! Realizing the scope of the terrible situation he now finds himself in, Equiano is overcome with grief and refuses to eat, resulting in his flogging. As the ship leaves shore, all the "cargo" are forced below deck:
The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers.This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, 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 (p.25).
This shocking experience soon causes Equiano to fall ill, and because he is so young he is allowed on deck unchained. It is hardly better - here he witnesses people throwing themselves overboard. After months at sea, the ship finally reaches Barbados. My next installment from Equiano's extraordinary life will pick up the trail here in Bridgetown. All extracts from Paul Edwards (Ed.) EQUIANO'S TRAVELS: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa the African.

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