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.
(from “The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” written by himself – Published by Isaac Knapp, Boston 1837)
Olaudah Equiano and his amazing travel story
African American writers in the United States have suffered from a cultural exclusion until more recent times because they were considered authors of a lower level or separate from the body of the main authors of American literature, particularly for the first works, dating from the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The slaves were blacks who had been living in the American colonies since 1619, but their number increased greatly in the mid-seventeenth century with the flourishing development of the slave trade, due to the increase of the assets and to a greater number of abductions in Africa and subsequent sales in America.
Most of the slaves were not educated voluntarily; some were educated by their masters and few of them had an education and talent enough to allow them to devote themselves to writing and transmission of memories.
Interest in memoir literature of the African-American slaves and their popularity dates back to the period when the Quakers engaged in the liberation struggle against slavery and the period of the American Revolution, whose principles showed the social hypocrisy of the period, then faded again at the beginning of XIX century because of the strong dependence of the economy of the southern states on the use of slaves.
In the history of literature, the genre of slave autobiography is accomplished as a chronological narrative which tells the adventures of the slave and his attempts to escape prison, and the dramas associated with this arduous path. The narrative is episodic, as the concatenation of the adventures and the long journey that is undertaken to achieve freedom in the states to the north of the Americas or in Canada. Still to this day the appeal of these men who yearn for freedom and try to get away from suffering is very strong, and has influenced the major African American authors.
In the seventeenth century, we are still at the beginning of the genre, and the first works that will serve as a model for the following, influence their episodic structure (capture, escape and pursuit) and the adventurousness of the events, along with spiritual reflections, and the anti-slavery controversy together with picaresque elements.
The first account of a slave’s life was published in Boston in 1760 by Briton Hammon, and was later followed by other narratives, especially in the period of maximum intensity of the abolitionist movement in America and England. Usually in these works the story of slaves is told, their religious conversion in addition to an enhancement of the peculiarities of the character of the protagonists, who can lead them to success thanks to insight and hard work.
Equiano’s book was one of many published by British Africans or African Americans in this period. Next to his work are those of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Phyllis Wheatley, Ignatius Sancho and John Marrant.
The narrative of the first African American writers was necessarily influenced and shaped by the Western narrative tradition of autobiography, even religious, to which joins the African tradition of storytelling. Moreover, the black American writers’ autobiographies tended to be less emphatic towards the typical individualism of white literature. They reflected instead a greater sense of belonging to a group, a community or ethnic values, sometimes even because one’s belonging to a community was a necessity, in order to survive in a world and in an environment so full of adversity, and linked the condition of captivity to that of a kind of spiritual slavery influenced by a biblical culture which drew or was heavily influenced.
Much of the Equiano’s narrative is written vividly and directly. In his autobiography The incredible story of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the so-called African, he tells the story of his life following a chronological order, trying to convey to the reader the thoughts and emotions experienced in his path from freedom in Africa up to slavery in America. The story has a tripartite structure: the first part of which tells of his capture, imprisonment and transportation to the West Indies in a journey that is a descent from the original happiness lived in freedom and innocence, until his arrival in a cruel and materialistic world: the West.
He experiences wonder and fear for this new world, and soon he learns that work and money are the white world’s gods. So, day after day, he earns the money to buy his freedom.
In the second part of the book, after he has earned the right to be released, the style of the narrative changes, and reveals a new aspect of his character. He is a reborn man and has gained a strength of character that allows him to experiment in several ways in a world that now is full of possibilities and discoveries. The most important of these is his new religion: Christianity, to which he had already converted when he was a slave, but that at the time of his release can grow and develop independently.
Equiano was born around 1745 in the place now known as Southern Nigeria, in what he claimed to be a village of the Igbo, in the Niger River area.
He was imprisoned and enslaved at age 11 with his sister. He was sent, like many more millions of slaves, on a slave ship to the Americas, and arrived after months of travel, first in Barbados and later in Virginia. One of his masters, a sailor of the Royal Navy, gave him the name of Gustavus Vassa.
He learned to read, write and do arithmetic and converted to Christianity. He worked on the British ships and traveled in the Caribbean and North America. Wherever he went also he held business in his own name.
After purchasing the freedom with the money he had earned with some businesses, he went to England not to stay in the mercantilist North American world, where he could also happen to be recaptured.
He settled in this country and in 1792 he married a local white girl, and had two daughters.
In England he engaged in the abolitionist campaign and was employed by the British government in an attempt to re-colonize the Sierra Leone with the descendants of slaves. He contributed to the fight against slavery publishing his autobiography (in 1789) and tirelessly promoting his book all over England. At the time of his death he had attained some notoriety and economic prosperity. A few years after his death he was completely forgotten until the 60s, when he was rediscovered by scholars and restored to his historical and literary importance.
Translation by Silvia Accorrà (supervised by Irene Tossi)