2: Inside the Slave Ship

The Atlantic slave trade during its heyday and the remarkable life of Olaudah Equiano.

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Episode Notes

In episode 2 of the History of American Slavery, 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.

Our guests this episode are:

Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship. Read an excerpt.

Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains. Read an excerpt.

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.

Here are some of the links discussed in Episode 2:

• An two-minute animation of the Atlantic slave trade.
• You can read Equiano’s complete autobiographyThe Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African.
• Learn more about Vincent Carretta’s research into Equiano’s birthplace.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database has extensive records and data that were generated by the slave ship industry.
• How large was the trans-Atlantic slave trade? An exhibition about the abolition of the slave trade by the New York Public Library estimates that 12.5 million Africans were forcibly transferred to the Americas.
• View a graphic of the slave ship Brookes at the British Library.
• The University College London hosts a Legacies of British Slave-ownership Database that you can use to search for bold-faced British names whose family wealth may have benefitted from the slave trade.
• Plus, read a 1700 anti-slavery tract.

About the Show

With the help of acclaimed historians and writers, Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore the history of American slavery and examine how the institution came to shape our country’s politics, economy, and culture.

Don’t miss Rebecca and Jamelle’s follow-up podcast, Reconstruction.

This series was made possible by Slate Plus members. To help Slate make more projects like this, become a member now.

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