Olaudah Equiano and the Eighteenth-Century Debate over Africa and the Slave Trade


Olaudah Equiano / Public Domain

Arguments made by eighteenth-century writers about the slave trade and contributions to those debates by freed slave Olaudah Equiano.


By Dr. Hana Layson
Manager of School and Educator Programs
Portland Art Museum


Introduction

Olaudah Equiano was a British citizen and former slave who, in the 1780s, became a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, was first published in London in 1789 and went through nine editions in the next five years. It contributed significantly to turning British public opinion against the slave trade. As the title suggests, Equiano was regarded as an authority on the subject of the slave trade, in large part, because he wrote that he had been born in Eboe, a province of the kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria. He could recall his African childhood and describe the experience of being captured and sold into slavery.

In the 1790s, supporters of the slave trade sought to undermine Equiano’s credibility and the cause of abolition by questioning his claim to African identity and suggesting that he had been born in the West Indies. These arguments were dismissed as politically motivated until recently, when the scholar Vincent Carretta discovered two eighteenth-century documents that indicate that Equiano may indeed have been born in the British colony of South Carolina. Carretta’s discovery has fueled an impassioned and as yet unresolved debate among literary critics and historians about Equiano’s identity and our evaluation of different kinds of historical evidence. The literary critic George Boulukos recently suggested that we reframe this debate by studying Equiano’s narrative within the context of the eighteenth-century British debate on Africa. As Boulukos observes, debates over the slave trade often “hinged on each participant’s understanding of the state of civilization in Africa.” By exploring this debate, we can more fully appreciate the stakes of Equiano’s representation of his African origins and his contribution to the movement to end the slave trade.

The Atlantic slave trade began in the fifteenth century, when Portuguese merchants seeking gold and spices realized there was profit in human trafficking and brought the first African slaves to Europe. Other European powers—the Dutch, French, Spanish, and British—soon joined the trade. Over the decades and centuries that followed, a triangular trade route emerged: Europeans brought manufactured goods, such as guns and textiles, to the west coast of Africa. There, they exchanged the goods for enslaved people, who were carried to the Americas to work on plantations growing crops, such as sugar cane, tobacco, and indigo. These raw materials were then shipped to Europe, where they were processed and either consumed or shipped for trade to people in Africa and the Americas.

The practice of slavery itself was not new. Historical records attest to the existence of slaves, or people who were owned by other people, on almost every continent at various times. However, before the rise of the Atlantic trade, slavery was primarily a small-scale, domestic practice. Historically, slaves occupied a familiar status within hierarchical societies in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, a status that was not necessarily very different from other forms of servitude. The Atlantic trade differed dramatically from this historic practice in two ways: it was large-scale and race-based. Scholars currently estimate that 15 million people were taken from Africa to the Americas. (About 80 percent were sent to the Caribbean and Brazil; a half million went to North America.) The trade was large scale in the sense of the numbers of people involved, the distances traveled, and, finally, in the size of the plantations on which the great majority of slaves worked. Second, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, slavery became a race-based, hereditary condition in the American colonies. Legal codes and social customs increasingly tied slavery to being African or the descendant of Africans, and there were few opportunities to change one’s own status or the status of one’s children.

The Atlantic slave trade continued for approximately 400 years. In the 1750s, when Equiano would have been taken aboard the slave ship, 50,000 people were being transported each year from West Africa to the Americas. In the late 1780s, when he published his autobiographical narrative, that figure was 80,000. But, by that time, in England, the movement to abolish the slave trade was starting to gain ground. A 1772 court ruling had declared slavery illegal on English soil (though not in the colonies). From 1789 on, abolitionists repeatedly urged the British Parliament to end the slave trade. They finally succeeded in 1807.

European Images of Africans

“Klaas, the Author’s Favorite Hottentot”: Detail, Klaas. Francois Le Vaillant was a French explorer, ornithologist, and writer who traveled through southern Africa in the 1780s. This plate portrays Klaas, a loyal servant, whom Le Vaillant describes as “my equal, my brother, the confidant of my ho. / François Le Vaillant. From Travels from the Cape of Good-Hope, into the Interior Parts of Africa: Including Many Interesting Anecdotes; with Elegant Plates, Descriptive of the Country and Inhabitants, 1790.

Francois Le Vaillant was a French explorer, naturalist, and writer who traveled through southern Africa in the 1780s. His Travels from the Cape of Good-Hope was published in 1790 in both French and English. The book describes his journey and the people he encountered in vivid, accessible prose, accompanied by beautiful illustrations. It was an immediate, popular success and became one of the most influential eighteenth-century sources on Africa, though scholars later questioned the accuracy of Le Vaillant’s account of his journey as well as his contributions to natural science.

“Woman from Caffraria”: Detail, woman from Caffraria. Francois Le Vaillant was a French explorer, ornithologist, and writer who traveled through southern Africa in the 1780s. This plate portrays a woman from the region then known as Caffraria. / François Le Vaillant. From Travels from the Cape of Good-Hope, into the Interior Parts of Africa: Including Many Interesting Anecdotes; with Elegant Plates, Descriptive of the Country and Inhabitants, 1790.

Throughout the book, Le Vaillant refutes the claims of previous European explorers that Africans engaged in human sacrifice and practiced cannibalism. In contrast, he insists that the Africans he met were more virtuous the more isolated they were: “In every part, where the natives live entirely unconnected with the whites, their manners are mild and amiable; on the contrary, an acquaintance with the Europeans, alters and corrupts their natural character, which amazingly degenerates.” The following plates were based on drawings that Le Vaillant created during his journey. The first portrays Klaas, a loyal servant, whom Le Vaillant describes as “my equal, my brother, the confidant of my hopes and fears.” Le Vaillant identifies him as a member of the Hottentot (now known as Khoikhoi) tribe. The second portrays a woman from the region then known as Caffraria.

“Frontispiece and Title Page”: This frontispiece appeared in many early editions of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiographical narrative. It conveys both his African birth, referenced in the title, and the British citizenship he claimed as an adult. / Olaudah Equiano. From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1789.

The third document in this section is a reproduction of the frontispiece and title page published with Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative in 1789. In the narrative, Equiano describes his birth and childhood in the 1740s among the Ibo people in the kingdom of Benin (now southern Nigeria). Equiano was captured and sold into slavery at around the age of 11, he believed. He purchased his freedom from his master in 1766 and became a British citizen.

Conducting the African Slave Trade

“A Map of the Slave Coast Comprehended between the River Volta and Benin with Cape Lagos”: Robert Norris was a slave trader who operated in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. He included this map of the West African coast in his pro-slavery political history of the kingdom. / Robert Norris. From Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahádee, King of Dahomy, an Inland Country of Guiney. To Which Are Added, the Author’s Journey to Abomey, the Capital; and a Short Account of the African Slave Trade, 1789.
“The Sale of Goods”: John Atkins was a surgeon in the British navy who sailed to the west coast of Africa in 1721. He published an account of the journey in which he reproduced this 1720 invoice of goods traded for individual slaves. / John Atkins. From A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil and the West Indies, 1735.

The following documents offer insight into how the English conducted their part of the African slave trade. Robert Norris was a slave trader who operated in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. He included this map of the West African coast in his pro-slavery political history of the kingdom, Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahádee. The source of “The Sale of Goods” is John Atkins, a surgeon in the British navy. Atkins sailed to the west coast of Africa in 1721 and, the following decade, published an account of the journey in which he reproduced this 1720 invoice of goods traded for individual slaves. (Please note: photees and ramal are English manufactured cotton goods. Longees are silken handkerchiefs made in India.)

Description of a Slave Ship: This famous antislavery broadside illustrates the layout of a slave ship and describes the physical dimensions, the number of people carried, and the conditions on board, 1789.
“The Slave Ship”: This excerpt from Olaudah Equiano’s narrative describes his experience of being carried on board a slave ship at the age of 11 or 12. At this point in his narrative, he has already spent many months as a slave exchanged between different African tribes. / Olaudah Equiano. From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1789.

Description of a Slave Ship is a famous antislavery broadside published in London in 1789. The diagram illustrates the layout of a slave ship, while the text that follows describes the physical dimensions, the number of people carried, and the conditions on board. The final document in this section is Olaudah Equiano’s description of being carried on board a slave ship at the age of 11 or 12. At this point in his narrative, he has already spent many months as a slave exchanged between different African tribes.

Defending the Slave Trade

A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave Trade: William Snelgrave was an English slave trader who operated in Dahomey, a powerful West African kingdom. His defense of the slave trade influenced pro-slavery arguments throughout the eighteenth century, 1734
“A Short Account of the African Slave Trade”: Robert Norris was an English slave trader who operated in Dahomey, a powerful West African kingdom. In this passage, he implicitly defends the trade through his representation of Dahomey society. / Robert Norris. From Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahádee, King of Dahomy, an Inland Country of Guiney. To Which Are Added, the Author’s Journey to Abomey, the Capital; and a Short Account of the African Slave Trade, 1789.

Both William Snelgrave and Robert Norris were English slave traders who operated in Dahomey, a powerful West African kingdom that had been conquering neighboring territories since the late seventeenth century. Snelgrave and Norris both alleged that the Dahomey practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism. Both men also defended the slave trade. Snelgrave’s book was especially influential and provided material for pro-slavery arguments throughout the eighteenth century.

Opposing the Slave Trade

A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil and the West Indies: John Atkins was a surgeon in the British navy who traveled to the West African coast in 1721. He later published this account of the voyage, in which he criticizes the slave trade, but also offers practical advice on conducting it, 1735
.Some Historical Account of Guinea, Its Situation, Produce and the General Disposition of Its Inhabitants. with an Inquiry into the Rise and Progress of the Slave-Trade, Its Nature and Lamentable Effects: Anthony Benezet was a Philadelphia Quaker whose writings strongly influenced the antislavery movement. Benezet had not traveled to Africa himself, but devotes much of this text to describing African civilization based on accounts from eighteenth-century, 1771

John Atkins was a surgeon in the British navy who participated in an expedition to suppress piracy on the West African coast in 1721 and later published this account of the voyage. Atkins criticizes the slave trade, but also offers practical advice on successfully conducting it. The second author is Anthony Benezet, a Philadelphia Quaker and prominent abolitionist. Benezet’s Some Historical Account of Guinea became a crucial source within the antislavery movement. As the scholar George Boulukos notes, Benezet devotes much of this text to describing African civilization. He had not traveled to Africa himself, but quotes heavily from eighteenth-century travel narratives (including even William Snelgrave’s, excerpted in the previous section). The final document is Olaudah Equiano’s own description of the land of Eboe (now southern Nigeria) where he situates his childhood.

“The People and Land of Eboe”: Olaudah Equiano’s description of the land of Eboe (now southern Nigeria) where he situates his childhood. / Olaudah Equiano. From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1789.

Selected Sources

  • Boulukos, George E. “Olaudah Equiano and the Eighteenth-Century Debate on Africa.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 40, no. 2 (2007): 241–255.
  • Carretta, Vincent. Introduction. In Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the 18th Century. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. 1–16.
  • Carretta, Vincent. “Questioning the Identity of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.” In The Global Eighteenth Century. Edited by Felicity A. Nussbaum. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 226–235.
  • Carretta, Vincent. “Response to Paul Lovejoy’s ‘Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African.’” Slavery and Abolition 28, no. 1 (April 2007): 115–119.
  • Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Edited by Werner Sollors. New York: Norton, 2001.
  • Law, Robin. “The Slave-Trader as Historian: Robert Norris and the History of Dahomey.” History in Africa 16 (1989): 219–235. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3171786.
  • Lovejoy, Paul E. “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African.” Slavery and Abolition 27, no. 3 (December 2006): 96–105.
  • Lovejoy, Paul E. “Issues of Motivation—Vassa/Equiano and Carretta’s Critique of the Evidence.” Slavery and Abolition 28, no. 1 (April 2007): 121–125.
  • Matrix and the African Studies Center, Michigan State University. “The Atlantic Slave Trade.” In Exploring Africa. http://exploringafrica.matrix.msu.edu/students/curriculum/m7b/activity1.php.
  • Olsen, Penny. “The Independent Ornithologist.” The National Library Magazine 1, no. 1 (March 2009): 18–20. http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2009/mar09/the-independent-ornithologist.pdf.

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 09.05.2017, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

Comments

comments