Equiano stayed several weeks on the island before being shipped off for North America. In Virginia, he worked on a plantation for a few weeks until, his companions sold and dispersed, he was alone and had no one he could understand. One day, grieving and desiring death, he was sent to the estate master’s house to fan him. There he saw a female slave loaded with an iron muzzle so that she couldn’t speak or eat. While he fanned the gentleman, he looked about the room and saw a clock hanging on the chimney. He was afraid at its noise and thought it might tell the master if Equiano did something wrong. Then he saw a portrait that seemed to look at him and he was even more frightened, thinking it might be a spirit that the white men kept after their death. Here Equiano was called Jacob, while aboard the ship he’d been called Michael.
Equiano moves on to another stop in the triangular trade: laboring on an American plantation (while the slave traders pick up raw materials to bring back to England to be processed). Here he is introduced to yet more examples of the inhumane treatment of slaves, here in the form of painful physical bondage. As with the ship masts or the quadrant, the clock and portrait serve to emphasize how foreign this culture was to Equiano, and how much he has learned between this time and the time of writing his narrative.
Then, Equiano says, God smiled on him. One day the captain of a merchant ship, Michael Henry Pascal, arrived on business to the master’s (Mr. Campbell’s) house. He liked the look of Equiano and bought him for between 30 and 40 pounds, as a gift to his friends in England. Equiano was taken to the ship, where he was treated much more kindly: he started to think that perhaps not all white people were equally cruel. Though he didn’t know what would happen to him, he had begun to pick up a little English, and some aboard said that he was being carried back to his own country. This would prove false, but at the time it made him happy.
Equiano often has a precise recollection of the amount for which certain goods are sold. Slaves were considered goods, and by noting the price for which Pascal bought him, Equiano signals the absurdity of affixing the value of a human at thirty to forty pounds. Nonetheless, Equiano is shown to be discerning and generous, willing to judge white people based on their behavior rather than lumping them all together (as so many whites have done to Africans).
Pascal named Equiano “Gustavus Vassa.” While Equiano said he’d prefer to be called Jacob, Pascal refused, and Equiano was whipped repeatedly until he agreed to respond to the name. During the journey, the crew often joked that they’d kill and eat Equiano, though Equiano believed them to be serious.
Under threat of force, Pascal attempts to change and control who Equiano is by changing is name. Ironically, though, Gustavus Vassa was a Swedish king who led a war of liberation against Denmark in the 1500s—making it an appropriate name, then, for Equiano who works for his own and, later, other slaves’ liberation throughout his life.
One young boy aboard—Richard Baker, an American who’d gotten a good education—was kind to Equiano and they became inseparable. Baker had slaves himself, but he grew close to Equiano and they often suffered together and embraced during frightening moments aboard ship. Their friendship continued until Baker’s death in 1759, which Equiano continues to lament, remarking on the fact that a 15-year-old had a mind free of prejudice towards an ignorant stranger and slave like himself.
Here, as in other cases, the narrator writing down his memoirs intrudes in order to jump ahead to later events: the effect here is to amplify the tragic tone, given that Equiano’s first earnest friendship with a white person would end so soon. Equiano also recognizes how difficult it is for someone in a culture that judges blacks as inferior to go against such prejudice.
One night a man was lost overboard, and, amid the cries, Equiano again feared he’d be killed. The next day they saw large fishes, grampuses, which Equiano believed were rulers of the sea. Just then the wind died away, and he assumed the fish had caused this. Dick (Richard) told Equiano that these creatures would eat anyone, alarming him even more, but the captain laughed at Equiano’s fears.
In this section, Equiano’s continued fears and sufferings are juxtaposed closely, even abruptly, with examples of his curiosity and desire to learn more about everything around him. Indeed, Equiano’s narrative is proof that intense suffering and the life beyond it can coexist.
After 13 weeks they caught sight of land and reached Falmouth, where the captain got provisions for a feast. It was spring 1757 and Equiano was nearly twelve: he found the pavement and buildings in Falmouth remarkable, as well as the snow, which fell the next day. He asked a sailor what the use of snow was, and the sailor said that snow was made by the great God in the heavens, though Equiano didn’t understand.
Now Equiano reaches the final leg of the triangular trade that makes up the international slave trade: it’s in Europe that the raw materials from the West Indies are converted into finished products to be brought back to Africa. Equiano’s curiosity and desire to learn stands out here, too.
Equiano went to church, though he failed to understand what it meant. Dick began to instruct Equiano, and Equiano started to become impressed at the white people’s wisdom, as well as at the fact that they didn’t sell each other, as his own people did. But Equiano was also shocked that white people didn’t make offerings or wash their hands before eating; he also found the women’s slenderness less attractive. He often saw Pascal and Dick reading and wanted to “talk to the books” in order to discover the origin of the world, which is what he thought they were doing. He often talked to a book himself, and was frustrated at its silence.
Rather than shunning the culture of those who have enslaved him, Equiano is fascinated by it. At the same time, though, he possesses a clear capacity for judgment and critical thinking by comparing Africa with England. The anecdote about books emphasizes Equiano’s relative ignorance at this stage, but books that “talk” can also be read as a metaphor for his own process of education and self-development.
Pascal and Equiano lodged at a gentleman’s house where there was a daughter, about the age of seven, who was fond of Equiano. Then they departed again for Guernsey, home to one of the ship’s owners, a merchant, Nicholas Doberry. There, he and Dick were left for several months with the family of one of the ship’s mates. There was another little daughter who also liked Equiano, and Equiano noticed that his face didn’t become rosy like hers when he washed it; he was ashamed he couldn’t make it so. The mother, though, was kind to him and taught him as though he were her own child.
Equiano isn’t in charge of his own movements here—he’s as unfree as he was in Barbados or Virginia, though his life has become better. His narrative fleshes out the lived experience of slavery by lingering over details that would be alternately familiar and foreign to readers: details that would help them understand Equiano to be someone relatable, and someone who should be considered a human being.
Several months later Pascal sent for Equiano and Dick and they sailed to England. At first Equiano was amazed by the quantity of men and guns, but soon his constant astonishment began to ease, as did his grief, especially since there were other boys on board. They traveled to Holland, Scotland, and other places, and often played on deck: the men sometimes had the boys fight for several shillings. Equiano also learned more about seamanship and was even taught to fire the guns. One night they encountered a French-built ship ashore and were preparing to battle when the ship lifted English colors. A bit disappointed, Equiano returned to Portsmouth without seeing any battles.
As a young boy, Equiano is impressed at the novelties around him, and easily adaptable to new situations. Here, the descriptions of his time playing with other boys helps to flesh out a characterization of him as a child, like any other, who enjoys playing and is impressed by battles. This makes him seem distant from being a black slave or laboring worker.
Equiano arrived in London to lodge with a relative of Pascal and his two amiable sisters, the Miss Guerins. Equiano grew ill, first with chilblains and then with the pox, but he soon recovered. Afterwards, he went with Pascal to Holland to carry the late Duke of Cumberland to England. During this time, Equiano saw one young sailor cursing wickedly. While cursing, some dirt particles fell into the sailor’s left eye, and within a week he lost it—Equiano considered this a judgment from God.
Unaccustomed to the new climate of England, Equiano, like many other Africans brought to Europe, falls ill. This was a “property” cost that traders took for granted. This is also one of the first times Equiano uses a story from his own experience to begin to make a case for the role of Providence in all human affairs.
Pascal was appointed a lieutenant on board the Royal George, so Equiano joined him, but they left behind Dick, whom he was never to see again. Equiano marveled at the enormous size of the ship and its many stalls for goods. Soon, Pascal was appointed to another ship that was preparing for an expedition to America. After being blown to Tenerife by winds, they continued on and arrived at St. George in Halifax, and then at Cape Breton in summer 1758. They were supposed to attack at Louisburgh as part of the French and Indian War.
Much of Equiano’s life in captivity consists of painful separations. He takes solace from his difficult situation in the relationships he develops with others, and yet those relationships remain fragile, subject to the whims of his masters. Here, too, Equiano joins the wars currently going on between the French (allied with Native Americans) and the English.
The land forces laid siege to the town, while the fleet pursued the French in the harbor, setting some of their ships afire. Finally Louisburgh was taken, and the navy officers entered the harbor in triumph. Some admirals left for England, but one night those who remained caught sight of a French fleet. Each ship prepared for a fight, and the Englishmen pursued the French fleet all night, though they never caught up to it.
The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), was a part of a broader global war between Imperial England and France (the costs of the war in the American colonies helped to spur the American Revolution). Equiano eventually is involved in battles of this war all around the world, not just in the Atlantic. That, as a slave, he is caught up in battles to help one enslaving imperial nation versus another enslaving imperial nation is ironic, to say the least. ..