Equiano asks to be excused for laying out in such detail the customs of his native country: he still looks upon those memories with pleasure. He continues that he was the youngest son, and thus his mother’s favorite. But his happiness ended at the age of eleven. While adults were working in the fields, children often drew together to guard against kidnappers who would sometimes come. One day Equiano saw, from up in a tree, his neighbors being seized by one of them, but he blew an alarm and the children were saved.
Equiano may be excusing his descriptions as a mere indulgence, but they also played a vital role in fleshing out Equiano’s history and character by lingering over his childhood and his people’s customs. This relatively peaceful state, however, is always also threatened by intruders from outside the group.
One day, though, while Equiano was home with his sister, two men and a woman snuck into their home and seized them, tying their hands and carrying them through the woods. For several days they kept to the woods, and Equiano hoped to be saved, but when he saw others and cried out, his and his sister’s hands and mouths were bound. His only comfort was being with his sister, but although they begged the captors to keep them together, they were soon separated.
Suddenly, Equiano’s childhood is brought to a halt by the kidnapping that will irrevocably change his life. The painful separation that he experiences from his sister will turn out to be a typical experience among slaves; it’s one of the most inhuman and agonizing elements of slavery that Equiano will linger over in describing the trade.
After many days, Equiano changed masters and was delivered to a chieftain with two wives, who spoke his same language and treated him rather well. He was there a month, and was sometimes trusted to wander out of the house, so he attempted to figure out where he was and how he might escape to his home.
Still within the African interior, Equiano begins to adjust to his new life, while still yearning to return home and refusing to give up his natural desire for freedom and independence.
One day, however, while Equiano was helping an elderly female slave to take care of the chickens, he tossed a pebble at one of the chickens and accidentally killed it. The old woman became enraged and said she’d make sure he’d be beaten. Frightened, he ran into the bushes and hid: soon the whole village was enlisted to hunt for him, but they didn’t find him. As night fell, he began to fear he’d die in the woods, and that he might be bitten by a snake. He crept back into his master’s kitchen and lay down, wishing for death. When the woman awoke, she was shocked (she’d thought he’d escaped home), and, mollified, she asked the master to be kind to him.
While Equiano’s character can often seem mature throughout this narrative, it’s important to remember that, for much of the tale, he is not even a teenager. He is subject to the natural fears and worries of a child and he’s prone to acting impetuously and not strategically or in his best interests. But here, the compassion of the old woman—a sentiment Equiano will go on to prize—is what enables him to escape more severe punishment.
After the master’s daughter died, the master went mad, and Equiano was sold again, carried again for many days through many woods and deserts. As he was brought through Africa, he picked up several different languages, which were more similar to each other than European ones. After a long time, he was shocked to find himself brought to a house where he encountered his sister. They embraced and wept, and the captors were moved: indeed, Equiano notes that he was never ill treated by them more than being tied up so he wouldn’t run away. These captors allowed them to be together for a time, but soon enough his sister was sold again.
Equiano’s European readers (as well as modern-day readers) may well have had only a vague idea about the specific inner workings of the slave trade, which was a vast apparatus that covered land and sea and dealt with millions of people over the course of centuries. Equiano balances an account of its complexity with an emphasis on the strange coincidences that could also be a part of being traded across such distances.
Equiano, too, was sold again, this time brought to a beautiful, fertile town called Tinmah. He first encountered sugar-cane here and was sold for 172 shells of it to a merchant, before being sold to a wealthy widow who had a son around Equiano’s age. She allowed Equiano to eat with her son, which surprised him; he was treated so well that he sometimes forgot he was a slave. He was there for two months, and was beginning to reconcile himself to his situation when one morning—his companion still asleep—he was stolen away yet again. It was as if at the moment of greatest happiness, fortune deemed it necessary to usher in yet more sorrow and violence.
Equiano certainly suffers by being traded and sold from place to place and master to master, but he also exhibits here the natural curiosity and powers of observation that will become ever more evident in this character. Indeed, Equiano is always eager to learn about the details of a place’s commercial activity and the customs of its people; he also is remarkably able to adapt himself to new situations, such as with the widow and her son.
Equiano then came to a land that, for the first time, had far different customs than his own: they didn’t circumcise their sons, they ate without washing their hands, and they used European cross bows. They sometimes wanted to adorn Equiano as they did themselves, but he refused. He came to the banks of a huge river, which astonished him, and he was put into a canoe to paddle until night. At the end of six or seven months, he finally came to the coast.
For the first time, Equiano recognizes that he may have to encounter, and perhaps adapt to, cultures that are far more different from his than he is used to. Equiano is saved from having to adapt to these specific customs by being traded and sent away yet again, this time completing the journey across the interior.
Upon arriving, the first thing Equiano noticed was the sea holding a slave ship, waiting for cargo. He was handled by the crew to see if he was strong and healthy. The long hair, strange language, and light skin of these men convinced Equiano that they were going to kill him, and he longed to become the lowest slave in his own country. Seeing a furnace burning on the ship, and black people chained around it, he was convinced that he was going to be killed and he fainted.
While Equiano’s enslavement has been, until this point, relatively haphazard, he now enters into the thriving, established industry of the international triangle trade. Equiano’s description of the white traders defamiliarizes them, showing how they could seem strange and even scary to others.
Upon awakening, Equiano asked some of the black people now gathered around him if they were going to be eaten by the white men, and they tried to reassure him, giving him liquor to restore his spirits. Having never tasted liquor before, the drink only shocked Equiano more.
Though this fear might seem silly to white readers, Equiano insists on his fear in order to show just how barbarous the white slave traders were to him and other slaves.
Equiano was moved under the decks, where noxious smells assaulted him and made him too sick to eat. When he refused food, two white men whipped him. He would have jumped over the ship to kill himself, but he was chained, so he could not: indeed, he’d seen other Africans being flogged mercilessly for trying to jump.
Equiano found some people from his own country, who explained to him that they were being carried to the white people’s land to work for them. But, given the savage, brutal nature of the captors, he still feared being killed and eaten. He asked if these white men lived in the ship, and, if not, why he’d never heard of them: they live far off, he was told. On asking how the ship moved, they said they didn’t know. The white men put cloth on the masts, and they had some magical means of stopping the ship when they wanted. Equiano was convinced the white men were spirits who would sacrifice him.
Europeans at the time often referred to Africans as brutal and savage: here, Equiano reverses this language, revealing how such a description refers far more adequately to white slave traders than to the Africans they enslaved. Now well aware of how ships work, Equiano emphasizes his fears as a child in order to show just how strange, different, and terrifying such novelties were to him.
On deck one day, Equiano saw another ship nearby, and he was convinced it was stopped by magic. The white men seemed happy to see the people on the ship, and Equiano and the other slaves were transferred to the new ship and put under deck. Altogether, the stench was overpowering, and they were crammed together almost to the point of suffocating. Many people grew sick, and the women’s shrieks and the groans of the dying filled the air. Equiano began to envy those who did die. One day the captors had caught a great deal of fish. After the captors ate, they did not give the leftovers to the captives: instead, they threw the rest back into the sea.
In some ways, Equiano wants to stress how much he has learned and grown (at the time of writing, he’d become an expert at sailing, for example) in order to show how capable of improvement a former slave can be. But at the same time, his belief in the ship’s “magic” helps us to see how what we think of as normal civilization can be strange and different to someone from a different culture, just as any foreign culture can seem mysterious and hidden.
Another day, two captives who were chained together somehow managed to jump into the sea, followed by one other, who was sick and thus unchained. Alarmed, the crew immediately put everyone on deck back below and they managed to snatch back the third man: they flogged him mercilessly for preferring death to slavery.
Again, the circumstances aboard slave ships are so brutal and dehumanizing that one could easily prefer death. It’s in the traders’ interest, meanwhile, to keep their “property” alive even while treating them cruelly.
This voyage was also Equiano’s first experience of flying fishes, as well as of the quadrant, which astonished him, persuading him once more of his captors’ magical abilities.
Again, Equiano’s suffering coexists with his natural curiosity and his fascination with the world around him.
Finally they arrived at the island of Barbados, where merchants and planters came aboard to examine the slaves. The slaves were told they were going to be taken to work for the white people, together with others from their native countries. They were led to the merchant’s yard and enclosed like sheep. Equiano marveled at the multi-story brick homes and people on horseback.
Barbados is the second stop on the triangle trade between Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Equiano recounts how the slaves are treated as animals more than as human beings, and he continues to both fear and marvel at the new things, such as horses, that he’s never witnessed before.
After several days came the market sale. Family and friends were separated cruelly. Equiano marvels that these so-called Christians failed so immensely at the golden rule of treating one’s neighbor like oneself. Wresting one’s loved ones away from each other is, he argues, the height of cruelty.
Like Equiano’s separation from his sister, these separations underline the way in which the slave trade thoughtlessly disturbs the powerful bonds of love and family.