Equiano could never list all the examples of oppression and cruelty that he witnessed in the West Indies, common as they are. Now he describes another kind of sight he witnessed, a curiosity called Brimstone-hill, from which one could see steam arising from naturally boiling ponds, all of different colors. Equiano had taken some potatoes there, thrown them into a pond, and within a few minutes they were boiled (though too sulfurous to eat). Another night, he was shaken awake, feeling like the house was besieged by spirits. Later, he was told it was an earthquake.
Even while Equiano is eager to recount all the examples of systematic oppression that he has experienced in the West Indies, he also never loses his curiosity and sense of wonder that embodies the way he sees the world. This is another contradiction of the slave trade for Equiano: it’s at once devastating and oppressive, but it’s also the means by which Equiano develops his own sense of self and of the world.
Towards the end of 1763 Providence was again kind to Equiano. One of King’s ships was captained by an Englishman Thomas Farmer, whose sailors tended to get drunk and run away from the ship. Farmer took a liking to Equiano, and finally convinced King to allow Equiano to be hired by Farmer. Equiano became the most useful sailor, but King would still not permit Equiano to leave harbor with the ship. Finally, he ceded. Equiano was delighted to become a sailor again, thinking he might make a little money and perhaps even have the chance to escape. That, though, proved impossible, as he was rarely out of Farmer’s sight, though the captain did treat him relatively well.
By this time, Equiano has developed a great deal of expertise as a sailor, and he has also acquired a reputation for being trustworthy and reliable. Sailing for Equiano is appealing because there are chances for him to make money himself and take advantage of the commercial prospects of the other ship merchants. Though he acknowledges being treated fairly well, this is never enough for Equiano, who still yearns for freedom.
Equiano decided to try his luck in commerce, beginning with the three-pence that was all he owned. He bought a glass tumbler with it in St. Eustatia, and sold it in Montserrat for six-pence. Little by little he continued, and, in barely six weeks, he had made what felt like a fortune. He did this for four years, always remaining acutely aware of the unfair treatment given to black merchants.
Having witnessed the ways in which white people amass huge fortunes thanks to the triangular trade of slaves, raw goods, and finished products (and knowing his chances for freedom are still low) Equiano decides to work within the system for now to benefit from it as much as he can.
Once, in Santa Cruz, Equiano and another black man both went ashore to try to sell their fruits when they were met by two white men who seized their bags. At first the men seemed to be joking, but then they began to swear and make threats. Equiano and his friend showed them their ship, saying they came from Montserrat, but now the white men saw that they were strangers as well as slaves. The men took up sticks to begin to beat them, and Equiano ran away, losing all of his fortune. He and the other black man went to the fort’s commanding officer, but this man, too, threatened to beat the two men. Finally, they returned to the white men and begged for their fruits back: others in the house finally agreed to give back two of the three bags. In spite of all of this, they got a good price for the fruits at market, a favorable sign from Providence.
Like the other ship merchants, Equiano is attracted by the mobility and chances for attaining a fortune that sailing invites. But this anecdote reveals that the rules and opportunities for commercial activity in this world are far different for slaves and for black men than they are for white men. Commerce and trade do rely on a certain level of trust, and trust is what Equiano simply cannot expect or hope for when there is such systematized inequality between the races. Nonetheless, Equiano remains optimistic and committed to making his fortune despite all challenges.
At St. Kitt’s, Farmer lent Equiano some money to buy a Bible, which he’d been without since being forced out of the Aetna. There, too, a strange occurrence happened. A white man wanted to marry a free black woman, but as this was not allowed in the church, so they performed the ceremony on a ship before returning to Montserrat.
This anecdote implies a reason for Equiano’s continued fascination with the sea: it’s a place where the normal rules and entrenched inequalities of society—such as the prohibition on marriage between a black and white person—don’t apply.
Equiano’s mind was continually, at this time, plagued by the thoughts of freedom, and by the realization that it would be best to be freed honestly. Being a “predestinarian,” he thought that he couldn’t know whether it was his fate to be freed or to be not, so he prayed anxiously to God, while also doing all he could to procure his freedom. He continued to save all the money he made in order to buy his liberty.
A predestinarian is someone who believes that God has decreed everyone’s fate in advance, and that it is impossible for people to change their destinies. All he can do, then, is hope that God has decreed that he will, indeed, be liberated at some point.
Several times during this period, Equiano, who never learned to swim, was close to being drowned. Equiano began to wish fervently that the long-awaited trip to Philadelphia might take place. Also during this time, a clever young mulatto, Joseph Clipson, who had a free woman for his wife, was taken by a Bermudan captain, who came on board and said Clipson wasn’t free and that he had orders to bring Clipson back to Bermuda. Clipson was incredulous, but soon the captain’s men grabbed him and, despite his certificate of being born free in St. Kitt’s, he was taken by force from the ship and carried away.
During his time in the West Indies, it seems that Providence is no longer smiling kindly on Equiano. Knowing that Philadelphia is the center of Quaker religion and the abolitionist movement, he yearns to leave this place where a free man is in constant danger of being delivered back into slavery because of the color of his skin.
Equiano also saw examples of free men he knew in America being deprived of their liberty and sold back into bondage. He began to think that the lives of free blacks might be just as cruel, perhaps even worse, than that of slaves, for they had no possibility of retribution for crimes against them, and their liberty was constantly insecure. He asks now whether it’s altogether surprising that mildly treated slaves might prefer such a state to a “mockery” of freedom.
Until now, Equiano has thought of freedom as an unquestionable good, the end of his own narrative arc (indeed, many slave narratives of the time did end with the slave attaining freedom). But once he attains it, freedom turns out to be far more fragile than Equiano originally believed.
Equiano was determined to gain his freedom and return to England. He decided it would be useful to learn as much about navigation as possible so that he might escape if mistreated, and he hired the shipmate to teach him for 24 dollars (for which Farmer later rebuked the mate, because it was too high a sum).
Understanding, now, the insecurities associated even with freedom, Equiano decides to act strategically, learning navigation in order to better his chances for attaining, and keeping, his liberty.
In Guadeloupe, they encountered a merchant ship desperate for sailors to go to France. Though Equiano thought he might be able to get to Europe that way, he decided that “honesty is the best policy,” so he did not leave his master. The captain, who was sympathetic towards Equiano, began to teach him navigation,, though others disapproved of teaching a black man.
Although escape has been tempting to Equiano before, his increasingly strong religion gives him moral precepts that dissuade him from slipping away in secrecy. Racial inequality is shown here to be tied to assumptions about intellectual inferiority.
In late 1764 King bought a large ship, the Prudence, and Farmer and Equiano carried a load of slaves to Georgia and Charles Town. Although white men tried to cheat Equiano in those places, he resolved to be patient and trust in God’s will.
Religion is a means for Equiano to persist through difficult circumstances and to prevent himself from slipping into despair.
In early 1765, Equiano began to prepare the ship for a voyage to Philadelphia, working hard in the hopes of eventually buying his freedom. One Sunday, though, King sent for Equiano, who arrived to find King telling Farmer that Equiano surely planned to run away in Philadelphia and that King must sell Equiano at once. Equiano objected, saying that if it was God’s will that he be freed it would happen, and in the contrary case would not. He appealed to the captain, asking if he ever saw Equiano make a move to escape, and the captain confirmed that he hadn’t, saying that the shipmate had probably accused Equiano of disloyalty because Equiano had told the captain of provisions the mate had stolen from the ship. His master, now convinced, said he would encourage Equiano’s commercial activities, crediting him with a few supplies so that he might begin to amass money to buy his freedom for forty pounds. Delighted, Equiano thanked him.
Just like Doran, King is initially suspicious of Equiano’s trustworthiness. In part, this is due to Equiano’s own determination and eagerness to learn all he can in order to gain his freedom legally. But the problem of escape was a chronic one for slave traders, which challenges the disingenuous stereotype so often put forward by slavery proponents, that slaves were perfectly happy under their masters. Equiano, though, thinks quickly and strategically in order to save himself. His arguments pay off, and now Equiano is officially permitted to begin participating in commerce in order to slowly work his way to freedom.
Equiano felt overwhelmed with gratitude. The ship set sail for Philadelphia. Upon arrival Equiano was easily able to sell his goods and make some money. While there, he heard of a wise woman named Mrs. Davis, a fortune teller. At first he was skeptical, thinking Providence would not be revealed to mere mortals. But then he saw her in a dream and resolved to see her. She told him remarkable things, including that he would not be a slave much longer, but his life would be in danger twice in eighteen months.
Equiano’s gratitude can be difficult for a modern reader to understand, given how small of a gesture this kindness is within the vast apparatus of slavery, but for him this feeling is also related to his religiosity—even if, as this story shows, his belief system is still evolving and open to new possibilities.
After leaving Philadelphia the ship went to Montserrat, taking slaves on board for St. Eustatia and then Georgia. Overworked, Equiano caught fever in Georgia and came close to dying: he prayed for God to spare him, vowing to be a better person if he was healed. After almost two weeks he recovered, and the ship set sail again for Montserrat. Soon, though, his promises faded, and he began to shirk his duties of piety once again.
Again, Equiano’s beliefs, such as his commitment to predestinarianism, are not always consistent. Here, he does think that his destiny might change if he shows himself to be faithful enough to God. Equiano is also honest about his sins and inability to live up to his promises to God.
The ship left Montserrat again laden with slaves and arrived at Charles Town, where white men bought Equiano’s goods but failed to pay a fair price. One man in particular refused to pay for the rum he bought. Frustrated, Equiano pursued him until he finally paid, though in some copper dollars that proved worthless: when Equiano tried to use them, he barely escaped a flogging for using counterfeit coin.
Now Equiano, who continues to be a slave himself, is also benefiting from being borne on ships bearing other slaves to and from colonial outposts. This tragic irony remains largely unremarked in the narrative, but fits into Equiano’s drive to work within his limited circumstances.
The ship continued to Georgia. One evening, Equiano was sitting in a yard with some slaves when their master, a cruel man named Dr. Perkins, entered drunk and, with another white man, began to beat Equiano with his fists until he was close to dead. He lay still for hours, stunned and bleeding, and in the morning he was taken to jail. His captain began to make inquiries and finally found Equiano; the captain wept at the sight of him. He got Equiano out of jail and sent for both doctors and lawyers: the latter said that they could do nothing for Equiano, as he was a black man.
Equiano does, thanks to Farmer, have greater freedom of movement and of association than other slaves on plantations; nonetheless, this relationship between himself and Farmer does little to protect Equiano when he’s off the ship. The lawyers’ claims of powerlessness only further underline the ways in which black people in general, not just slaves, are blocked from full legal recognition.
Equiano began to heal slowly and painfully, feeling additionally upset by Farmer’s anxieties. Farmer nursed him back to health, and in about a month they set sail once again for Montserrat.
Equiano remains loyal. He believes in the trust needed for commercial trade, even though others have betrayed that trust against him.