Equiano wondered if this, a new slavery, might be God’s punishment for his sins. He recalled swearing rashly at one point, berating himself for his weakness, and asking God to forgive him. After weeping and grieving for a time, he grew calmer, thinking this was God’s way to teach him wisdom and resignation.
Although Equiano does condemn Pascal, he also finds it necessary to look at his own actions; he’s potentially mollified by the fact that Pascal’s betrayal was God’s will.
While the ship was anchored at Portsmouth, Equiano tried any way he could to make his way back to shore; once he even paid someone to fetch him a boat, but the man left with the money and never returned. Some of his old shipmates did come to see him off at Portsmouth, bringing him oranges and other tokens. On the 30th of December, when they set sail, Equiano was devastated at his prisoner status, and he reproached his fate, wishing he’d never been born. Here, Equiano intrudes on the narrative to reproduce a poem, “The Dying Negro,” originally published in 1773. Then he recalls that, once he grew calm, he renewed his desire to come to terms with his fate.
Knowing that what awaits him in the West Indies can only be comparable to the brutality that Equiano experienced when he was first enslaved, he tries everything he can to escape. His desperation and devastation as described here are also meant to explain the actions of slaves more broadly, whether they deal with enslavement through resignation or, conversely, by attempting to run away or to rebel.
In February they arrived in Montserrat, where Equiano grew horrified at the sight of this land of slavery, which reminded him of his former bondage. He was made to help unload the ship, and two of the sailors robbed him of all his money and ran away. Now used to England’s weather, Equiano suffered in the West-Indian heat and in the violent surf.
One day Doran sent for Equiano, who arrived to find Doran along with a Quaker merchant, Mr. Robert King. Doran said he’d like to keep Equiano if he were to stay in the West Indies, but he couldn’t take Equiano to London, for surely he’d run away. In tears, Equiano begged him to be taken to England, but Doran told Equiano that he’d found the best master on the island. Mr. King said he’d bought Equiano on account of his good behavior, and was heading back home to Philadelphia, where he would enroll Equiano in school. Equiano left the ship, which sailed the next day, leaving him grieving. But he soon found that Mr. King was indeed kind and charitable, treating his slaves well rather than beating them.
Doran has sensed Equiano’s frustration and desperation, and for him those feelings are problematic, not because Equiano is a human who suffers, but because the possibility for his escape represents a risk to the economic investment that Doran has made in his piece of “property.” Nonetheless, it does seem that this Quaker (a religious group known at the time for its abolitionist views) might be a means of Equiano’s eventual liberation.
Mr. King was a merchant responsible for a number of ships transporting rum, sugar, and other goods between the West Indies and Philadelphia. Because Equiano was well-trained as a seaman, he was given 10-15 pence per day to live on. The other slaves were typically given 6-9 pence and they were often lent out to other plantation owners, who would at times beat them when they asked to be paid.
Though King is kind to Equiano, he continues to participate in the slave trade himself, enriching himself off the labor of others. Equiano is writing his narrative against such benevolent maintenance of the status quo, though in his own life he’s found it necessary to work within an unjust system.
Equiano knew a countryman here who was so frugal and saved so much money that he had a white man, unbeknownst to his master, buy him a boat. One day, when the governor needed a boat for a personal task, he seized the man’s boat and wouldn’t pay him anything. Upon complaining to his master, the slave was berated. Equiano only felt some vindication when he learned that the governor died in the King’s Bench in England, not long afterward, in poverty.
This is one of a number of anecdotes that Equiano will go on to relate about the slave trade in the West Indies, tales that are meant to point out to an English and international audience just how unjust the relations between whites and blacks are, and how much power white people have over other human beings.
Mr. King, though, often tried to intercede and prevent slaves from being whipped. Once Equiano was let out to work on a ship, whose captain refused to feed him: Mr. King found out and removed Equiano from the position. King would often send Equiano on errands to different plantations, where he saw first-hand how cruelly many of the slaves were mistreated; he felt grateful then for the relative kindness of his master. Equiano argues that the West Indies provide proof of black men’s skills in a number of complex employments, from masonry to fishing to carpentry—if black people are really so ignorant and useless, he asks, why use them as slave labor at all? These inconsistencies riddle the arguments against abolition, he argues.
Equiano is always eager to point out King’s exceptional status among slave owners; implicit all the while is the contradiction between King’s benevolence and his continued participation in the slave trade himself. Equiano does, though, signal another contradiction in white people’s thinking: that black people are both incompetent and inferior, but also vital to the functioning of plantations, such that the abolition of slavery would lead to economic devastation. These two positions are incompatible.
Equiano often witnessed cruelties committed against slaves in the West Indies, as well as on board Mr. King’s ships, but he remained powerless to do anything. White men would rape female slaves, some even less than ten years old, and in Montserrat a black man was staked to the ground and had his ears cut off, bit by bit, because he was connected to a white woman, a prostitute.
Equiano turns to two shocking examples of the cruelty of slavery. Because so many white people consider slaves as less than human—an assumption encoded into the law itself—they can get away with treating slaves violently and with total impunity.
One man told Equiano that he had sold 41,000 negroes and had once cut off a slave’s leg for running away. Equiano asked how he, as a Christian, could answer to God, and the man said this was mere policy, not religion. Another black man was half hanged and then burnt for trying to poison a vicious overseer. Equiano exclaims that the wretched are treated like brutes, pregnant women are refused care, and when they’re finally given over to despair, they are murdered.
Equiano exposes once again the contradictions between the moral beliefs that Europeans purport to hold and their treatment of slaves. They can only justify these actions by considering black people as less than human. Because of this, revolt and violence on slaves’ part can hardly be surprising, he argues.
Equiano adds that he did know more benevolent slave owners in the West Indies who kept their slaves looking healthy and who didn’t overwork them or treat them cruelly. Equiano himself would go on to manage such an estate, where the slaves were cheerful and healthy. For the opposite cases, he argues, it’s no wonder that 20,000 new slaves are needed every year to fill the places of the dead. In Barbados, home to 80,000 slaves, 1,000 die every year, requiring continual shipments of new slaves from Africa..
Equiano is walking a careful balance between arguing that there are insoluble contradictions to the slave trade, and acknowledging that there are different levels of inhumanity. This strategy that allows him to push for abolition while simultaneously being a proponent of more humane treatment within the system.
In Montserrat Equiano knew a black man who managed to escape by hiding aboard a ship bound for London, but he was discovered and delivered back to his master, who pinned him to the ground and then dropped sealing wax all over his back. On islands like St. Kitt’s, it was common for slaves to be branded with their master’s initials and have their necks hung with heavy iron hooks. It’s not surprising, then, that such treatment drove so many slaves to despair and suicide.
Many of these anecdotes are told in acute, uncomfortable, and even disturbing detail. But this level of detail is a vital element of the narrative, because it prevents readers from continuing to shut their eyes to the realities of the slave trade by thinking human beings can’t possibly be as treated so horrifically.
Equiano relates that exhausted field slaves would try to steal a few moments of rest while gathering grasses to bring to market to sell; white people would sometimes take the grass from them at market without paying. He also many of them treat female slaves in particular violently (though Equiano doesn’t go into details about whether this was sexual or other violence). He asks how one can expect God’s judgment not to be brought down on the islands, by a God who insists on the sacred duties to the poor, blind, captive, and broken-hearted. Once, a man bought some pigs and chickens from Equiano aboard their ship, and then returned a day later to demand his money back. When Equiano refused, he swore he’d kill Equiano and take his money. The man was about to strike when a British seaman, not “debauched” by the West Indian climate, stepped in to prevent the assault.
Equiano makes the plight of slavery more vivid and relatable to his readers by talking about slaves not as property (like the slave traders do), but as human beings subject to exhaustion and able to be creative and strategic within the bounds of their dire circumstances. Equiano also continues to stress the contradiction in the fact that Europeans preach the Christian gospel to the “barbarian” Africans, and then fail to treat them as the Bible says all should be treated.
Equiano quotes an act of the Assembly of Barbados, stating that if a black person, having been punished for escape or crime against his master, is wounded or killed, no fine shall be paid; but if anyone kills a black man of his own will, he must pay 15 pounds sterling. Equiano condemns this act as unjust and barbarous, worse than the customs and morality of a Hottentot.
Slavery is not just a moral matter; inequality is also encoded into the legal structure of places like Barbados. Equiano switches the stereotypical terms of ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’ by calling an African tribe more civilized than English culture.
Equiano also relates an account, told to him by an abolitionist, of a French planter the abolitionist knew in Martinique. The planter showed the abolitionist many mulattoes laboring away in his fields, and announced that they were all his children. These lives are worth no more than fifteen pounds sterling, Equiano writes, arguing that the slave trade is only made possible by breaking down virtue and burying all sentiments. Equiano’s own heart has often been seized by witnessing violent, painful separations of husbands from wives or children from their parents, none of whom will ever see each other again.
Much of the power of Equiano’s narrative stems from the fact that it is a first-person testimony of what he has witnessed and experienced, but he also uses his narrative as a means of recording a wide variety of non-personal experiences associated with the slave trade. “Virtue” was a key Enlightenment-era attribute in European society, and Equiano uses it now against Europeans themselves.
Once, a Creole man, who worked as a servant in Montserrat, told Equiano that his sole leisure was to go fishing, but that his employer always took the fish away. In a fair world, his employer would be the person he’d appeal to for justice: but in his situation, he could only appeal to God. Equiano encouraged him in this, saying that there was no possibility of retribution on earth, so he should seek it in heaven.
It is not only slaves that are subject to cruelty and violence; any person darker-skinned than the European colonizers is subject to injustice. Equiano’s turn to Christianity can be see here, in part, as resulting from his resignation to the lack of justice available on earth.
Equiano argues that cruel treatment was not confined to a few places, but was common across the world. He can’t imagine that slave traders are born worse than others: it must be the pursuit of slavery itself that corrupts them. This practice violates equality, mankind’s first natural right, by giving one man mastery over another. In enslaving men, Equiano states, one deprives them of their virtue and forces them to live in a state of war. Owners claim that the slaves aren’t faithful, just as they subjugate them cruelly and then argue that they’re incapable of learning. Such arguments are shameful for men of reason. If slaves were only treated as men, there would be no cause to fear rebellion; they would be faithful, intelligent, and peaceful.
If such cruelty had been limited to a certain place or set of places, one could argue that these were aberrations and that slavery could continue simply by weeding out the worst examples of it. By stressing that such treatment is ubiquitous, Equiano shows how the very system itself, including the logic of inequality by which it structures society, is flawed. He powerfully uses the very kind of reason so prized in Enlightenment England to refute the logical arguments of those who seek to maintain the institution.