The slave trade, yet horrific in it’s inhumanity, became an important aspect of the world’s economy during the eighteenth century. During a time when thousands of Africans were being traded for currency, Olaudah Equiano became one of countless children kidnapped and sold on the black market as a slave. Slavery existed centuries before the birth of Equiano (1745), but strengthened drastically due to an increasing demand for labor in the developing western hemisphere, especially in the Caribbean and Carolinas. Through illogical justification, slave trading became a powerful facet of commerce, regardless of its deliberate mistreatment of human beings by other human beings.
Olaudah Equiano was able to overcome this intense adversity and actually accumulate wealth by making the best of certain situations he faced throughout his experiences. Even though he was a victim of the slave trade, he willfully took advantage of the opportunity to see the world and to become a productive individual. Olaudah Equiano and his sister were kidnapped by slave traders from their native village in Isseke, Nigeria. The nature of the African village, Isseke, was labor based and emphasized the concept of earning profit from hard work. There was a strong sense of community among these villagers, as Equiano explains in his personal narrative, “Thus we are all habituated to labor from our earliest years. Everyone contributes something to the common stock; and, as we are unacquainted with idleness, we have no beggars” (39) The concept of slavery was accepted as a part of the culture and even in the fields of Isseke, Africa slaves were put to work.
“Sometimes indeed, we sold slaves to them, but they were only prisoners of war, or such among us as had been convicted of kidnapping or adultery, and some other crimes, which we esteemed heinous.” (38) Equiano’s fortune landed him in the hands of a wealthy widow who purchased him from the traders who had kidnapped him. He lived the life as a companion to the widow and her son. Luck was on his side in this transaction, many slave owners frowned upon educating and assisting slaves. “Masters” typically feared an educated slave would take measures to make a change. He explains, though, how he held status above other slave under the widow’s ownership, “There were likewise slaves daily to attend us, while my young master and I, with other boys, sported with our darts and bows and arrows, as I had been used to at home. ” (52) Equiano, a slave at the time, had the shared the power of a slave master! Equiano’s luck soon shifted when he was once again kidnapped and sold as a slave, this time he would have to endure the notoriously dreadful journey across the sea to America.
Knowing that this was a pivotal point in his life and that he would become a gudgeon to the harshness of slavery, Equiano attempted to prepare himself for what lay ahead. However, the sight of the inhumane acts he witnessed on the African coast, while being transported, were new to Equiano and instilled fear into his consciousness. Equiano, on a slave ship towards the West Indies, was on the verge of everlasting bondage. “In this manner we continued to undergo more hardships than 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 was often without for whole days together.” (57) The conditions for slaves on these transport ships was horrendous, as those in charge cared little for the well being of these Africans. Equiano was unaware of what was to come, and fear lingered in his memory of this unforgiving experience.
He explains the process of the transaction, “We were not many days in the merchant’s custody, before we were sold after their usual manner, which was: On a signal given (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best.” (58) Subsequent to being purchased at the slave auction in 1763, Equiano began his journey as a slave in the New World and was stationed on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. After being traded as a slave from master to master for some time, he came to serve for a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Following the Revolutionary war, Equiano pursued to better his situation throughout his travels, and continued to learn as much as he could while under the serfdom of Admiral Bosca wen. He continued to interpret the ethics of slavery and made efforts to change the way slave master’s treated their slaves. “But by changing your conduct, and treating your slaves as men, every cause of fear would be banished.” He explains in the name of his fellow slaves, “They would be faithful, honest, intelligent, and vigorous; and peace, prosperity, and happiness would attend you.” (100) The idea of becoming free was the ultimate dream for Equiano. When he earned money, he used it for his education.
“I therefore employed the mate of our vessel to teach me navigation, for which I agreed to give him twenty-four dollars, and actually paid him part of the money down” (108) Navigation, an important and useful skill, would also help Equiano become a will balanced individual in society. “I had long wished to be able to read and write; and for this purpose I took every opportunity to gain instruction, but had made very little progress. However, when I went to London with my master, I had soon an opportunity of improving myself, which I gladly embraced. Shortly after my arrival, he sent me to wait upon Miss Guerin’s, who had treated me with much kindness when I was there before; and they sent me to school.” (72) Equiano eventually saved enough money to buy his freedom. This was a rare occurrence, for most slaves did not earn nearly enough money to do such a thing. But Equiano developed skills that allowed him to hustle the system and became a free man.
With new found freedom, he set forth to apply it where he could, as an activist. “From that period, to the present time, my life has passed in an even tenor, and a great part of my study and attention has been to assist in the cause of much injured countrymen.” (191) Equiano became active by promoting and petitioning slavery and dedicated his life to the freedom of his enslaved people. Racial adversity has proven very difficult to overcome, even in today’s society. Olaudah Equiano used his economic intelligence to provide him with the power to accumulate wealth and buy his freedom. Equiano knew he was dealt an uneasy hand of cards at life, but he played them as skillfully and intelligently as he could, with bare instincts. He took advantage of the situations that he was forced into and was able to win his hand at the game of slavery, for he found a way to manipulate the system that opposed him, and used it to his advantage.
Works cited The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano: written by Himself.