The History of American Slavery

Inside the Slave Ship

History of American Slavery, Ep 2: The Atlantic slave trade during its heyday and the remarkable life of Olaudah Equiano.

Slave ship diagram.

A diagram of a slave ship.

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In episode 2 of The History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy, hosts Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore the shape of slavery during the late 18th century. They talk about the heyday of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the birth of the British abolitionist movement. They begin their discussion by remembering the remarkable life of Olaudah Equiano, 1745?–1797.

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Our guests this episode are:

Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship
an excerpt of Rediker’s book here.

Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains
an excerpt of Hochschild’s book here.

Here are some of the links discussed in Episode 2:

Who was Olaudah Equiano?

“My life and fortune have been extremely chequered, and my adventures various,” wrote Olaudah Equiano in his autobiography. That’s an understatement! Most of Equiano’s 12-year enslavement was spent as a sailor on board merchant and slave ships, though he was enslaved for a brief time on a plantation in Virginia. Like other sailors who lived during the 18th century, Equiano saw more of the globe during and after his enslavement than most of his contemporaries, visiting various American colonies, Nova Scotia, Turkey, Portugal, Italy, even the Arctic.

Though there’s now some controversy over his true origins, Equiano wrote that he was born in Igboland (now Nigeria) in 1745. Kidnapped from his village along with a sister, he was brought to a slave ship on the coast at age 11. His narrative describes his harrowing experience during the Middle Passage.

He was sold and sold and sold, and went from ship to ship. One slaveholder named him Gustavus Vassa, after a 16th-century Swedish king—a grand name, perhaps a joke along the lines of the tradition of naming enslaved people Pompey or Cesar. Finally he was bought by a Quaker merchant, Robert King, and worked as a clerk. King allowed him to conduct trades of his own in order to save money to buy his freedom, which he eventually did for 40 pounds in 1766. He was then 21.

Equiano continued to travel, including to the West Indies and the American South, encountering and reporting the dangers involved in being a free black man in slave societies. After a prolonged spiritual crisis, he converted to Christianity. He was the commissary for the British government’s Sierra Leone expedition in 1786, traveling with a group of African Britons whom the government was trying to resettle in a colony there.

In Britain, Equiano married Susannah Cullen, an Englishwoman, and had two daughters. He joined the abolitionist movement, lecturing and speaking across the country. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African Written By Himself, was a best-seller. Copies were sold to the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, and the Duke of Cumberland; it went through nine editions between 1789 and 1794. As first-hand testimony of the nature of the beast, it was a key document used in the struggle to outlaw the British slave trade. That goal was met in 1807, 10 years after Equiano died.

Slate Plus members can read the complete Episode 2 transcript here.

Next time, on Episode 3 of The History of American Slavery, Jamelle and Rebecca remember the life of Elizabeth Freeman and talk to Emily Blanck and Douglas Egerton about slavery during the American Revolutionary War. Your homework, should you choose to accept it: Read an excerpt from Blanck’s book Tyrannicide.

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