Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

  • Not a critical or scholarly text but a reading text for a seminar

  • Gratefully adapted from Hanover Historical Texts Project

  • Changes may include paragraph divisions, highlights,
    spelling updates, bracketed annotations, &
    elisions (marked by ellipses . . . )

classic slave narratives:

very brief selections from

The Interesting Narrative of the Life
of Olaudah Equiano, . . . the African

by Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)

(London, 1789)

longer selections will be read for class on 11 February.

Olaudah Equiano, 1745-97

Discussion questions for American Immigrant Literature:

1. How does Equiano's narrative differ from or resemble the immigrant narrative?

2. How does African America's different origins (forced migration and slavery instead of voluntary migration and opportunity) creat a minority narrative instead of an immigrant narrative?

3. What cultural consequences for African Americans and the USA's dominant culture?

Maps relevant to Narrative of . . . Olaudah Equiano

"Triangle" of Slave Trade:
Ships from Europe took manufactured goods to Africa,
traded them for slaves, who were transported to the Americas
& exchanged for cash crops like sugar or cotton, which were transported to Europe.

Location of present-day Nigeria,
which includes former territory
of Benin Empire

Benin Empire on Gulf of Guinea in West Africa
Bight of Benin / Bight of Biafra
("bight" = indentation in coastline, pron. "bite")

As para. 1.1 indicates, Equiano was born in Benen or Benin, a region of Africa that for 5 centuries (1440-1897) was organized as the Benin Empire, populated mostly by Edo peoples. (This Benin region and Empire do not overlap with modern Republic of Benin [formerly Dahomey], a nation to the immediate west of Nigeria.)

from Chapter 1 The author's account of his country, and their manners and customs . . .

We are all of a nation of dancers, musicians and poets.  . . . As we live in a country where nature is prodigal of her favours, our wants are few and easily supplied; of course we have few manufactures [industries]. . . . In such a state money is of little use;

from Chapter 2: The author's birth and parentage—His being kidnapped with his sister . . .

ut alas! ere long it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh. One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only
I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could . . . .

The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated . . .

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions too differing so much from ours . . . . Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.

When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, everyone of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.

I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore which I now considered as friendly; and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo.

Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites.

At last we came in sight of the island of Barbadoes [Caribbean island north of Trinidad], at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy to us. We did not know what to think of this; but as the vessel drew nearer we plainly saw the harbor, and other ships of different kinds and sizes . . . . Many merchants and planters now came on board . . . . They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They . . . pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this we should be eaten by those ugly men,. . . . [A]t last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work . . . . We were conducted immediately to the merchant's yard, where we were all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age. . .

from Chapter 3 The author is carried to Virginia—His distress . . . .

I stayed in this island [Barbadoes] for a few days . . . when I and some few more slaves .. . . were shipped off in a sloop for North America. . . . We were landed up a river a good way from the sea, about Virginia county

 . . . I was very much affrighted at some things I saw, . . . as I had seen a black woman slave as I came through the house, who was cooking the dinner, and the poor creature was cruelly loaded with various kinds of iron machines; she had one particularly on her head, which locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak; and could not eat nor drink. I was much astonished and shocked at this contrivance, which I afterward learned was called the iron muzzle.

I had been some time in this miserable, forlorn, and much dejected state . . . when the kind and unknown hand of the Creator (who in very deed leads the blind in a way they know not) now began to appear, to my comfort; for one day the captain of a merchant ship . . . came on some business to my master's house. This gentleman, whose name was Michael Henry Pascal, was a lieutenant in the royal navy, but now commanded this trading ship, which was somewhere in the confines of the county many miles off.

While he was at my master's house it happened that he saw me, and liked me so well that he made a purchase of me. I think I have often heard him say he gave thirty or forty pounds sterling for me; but I do not now remember which. However, he meant me for a present to some of his friends in England

When we arrived at Guernsey, my master placed me to board and lodge with one of his mates, who had a wife and family there; and some months afterwards he went to England, and left me in care of this mate, together with my friend Dick: This mate had a little daughter, aged about five or six years, with whom I used to be much delighted. . . .

I had often observed that when her mother washed her face it looked very rosy; but when she washed mine it did not look so: I therefore tried often times myself if I could not
by washing make my face of the same colour as my little playmate (Mary), but it was all in vain; and I now began to be mortified at the difference in our complexions. This woman behaved to me with great kindness and attention; and taught me everything in the same manner as she did her own child, and indeed in every respect treated me as such. I remained here till the summer of the year 1757; when my master, being appointed first lieutenant of his majesty's ship the Roebuck, sent for Dick and me, and his old mate: on this we all left Guernsey, and set out for England in a sloop bound for London. . . .

[In England, Equiano is taught to read and write by two English women. When he is sold back to the Americas, his slave duties include transporting other slaves while the white crew rapes the slave women. In his journeys among the islands he begins to do some business for himself on the side, and after about 20 years, makes enough to purchase his freedom from his master. He then returns to England, where he marries an English woman and participates in other voyages and adventures.]