Olaudah Equiano, 111 Maze Hill
There are two famous slaves closely associated with Greenwich. I’ve been putting off writing about them as it would look like I was just jumping on the whole 200th-Anniversary-of-the-Abolition band waggon, but hey – I’ve changed my mind. What did it was reading Sold as a Slave – an series of extracts from Olaudah Equiano’s book The Interesting Narrative. It features first-hand accounts of the experience of slavery that still need to be read two centuries later.
The first part of his Interesting Narrative takes place in Benin in Africa. We see the young Olaudah as he relates the customs and ways of his village. He relates his capture – by his own people – and journey to the coast via various sales and acquisitions on the part of merchants from other tribes.
His passage to the New World as a slave is related in appalling detail – often simply told, but all the more horrific for that. He includes the little incidents that the great history books omit and it is in the small, exquisite atrocities that the major indignities of this world gain their true horror.
He was sold to a ship owner where he lost the final shred of his dignity – his name, being called Gustavus Vassa and beaten until he answered to it. Going into the Navy, however horrid at the time (the other sailors had usually been “pressed” into it – Olaudah himself gives an account of joining a press gang to get hands for the ship) was actually probably a better life for the poor guy than working in the fields in the West Indies would have been. He got to sail to England and came to stay at 111 Maze Hill with his master’s relatives, the Guerin sisters, in 1755 and 1770. There’s no plaque there, but I’ve heard rumours the powers-that-be are considering a blue one.
The Guerins taught him to read and write, in between his going off to fight in the Seven Years War. Once again his descriptions are alive with the kind of detail that usually gets left out of the history books – he was the lowest of the low – a powder monkey, who faced being blown up himself with every shot he loaded. His accounts are terrifying – the man who opened his mouth to shout orders only to have a musket-ball go straight inside and come out through his cheek – and occasionally darkly funny – the man who had a nightmare where God told him to swear off the booze and give away his rum ration. The men laughed at him for having dreams but all agreed that it was probably a good thing to let them dispose of the demon drink for him. He had the last laugh – when the ship was collapsing around them, he was sober enough to escape.
Throughout, Equiano dreamed of freedom. When he got back to Deptford, he believed his moment had come. A shipmate who had bought him and treated him kindly promised freedom in return for his wages, but he was betrayed and sold again to a Captain who took him to Montserrat where he was at least bought by a kindly master, but witnessed worse degradations than he had even seen so far. He saved up enough to buy his freedom and came back to London. After not really succeeding in a venture as a hairdresser, he went back to sea, joining an expedition to the North Pole. Also on board was a young Horatio Nelson.
He came back to London met the abolitionist Granville Sharp and became involved with the campaign, though, contrary to recent films, he never met William Wilberforce. On a trip back to the Caribbean, he was cheated again and nearly sold back into slavery, strung up for hours before finally escaping in a canoe.
When he finally got round to writing his life story, which was an immediate, if at first surprising, hit. The year was 1789. The world was changing. Across the channel the French were revolting. Philosophers were questioning and even British nobles were beginning to realise that things could not continue the way they were.
Equiano died ten years before abolition was accomplished. He continued to campaign for equality, but also found happiness for himself. He married an English woman, Susanna Cullen and left £ 950 (quite a sum in those days) to his surviving daughter.
One of the problems of this new Penguin edition of parts of Equiano’s work is that it is so very scanty that it leaves gaps which are at best frustrating, at worst misleading. Part of the Great Journeys imprint, which are meant to be read, I guess, on a train journey or short plane ride, it is the Readers Digest of the classics – enjoyable enough at the time but ultimately posing more questions than it answers.
In almost every account I’ve read elsewhere of this pioneering influence in the abolitionist movement, it is accepted that his memories of life in his African village before being captured as a small child and later sold by his own kinsmen to white slave traders at the age of eleven is true. The Penguin introduction (a paltry two paragraphs) declares this is “almost certain…a fabrication.” It has been argued that although after his sale his accounts can be independently verified, the earlier accounts may have come form other slaves’ reminiscences. There is a graph of pros and cons as to whether he is telling the truth here: http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/nativity.htm
but I would argue that frankly it doesn’t matter. Whether those memories are his or someone else’s, they are real and deserve respect.