Sometimes, we need to be shocked into understanding the scourge of slavery. William Wilberforce, the Yorkshire parliamentarian was good at this. While advocating for the abolition of slavery, he organised trips for other parliamentarians into ships designed solely for the trading of slaves. The stench of death usually hung heavy in the air and in most cases, these elites joined the abolitionists in their noble cause. In recent times, we have been ushered into the vicious world of slavery by the movie 12 years a slave, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s account of, well, his 12 years as a slave. It is a fact that motion pictures have been used quite efficiently to remind us of the scourge of slavery. Movies such as Amistad, Amazing Grace and the less dramatic Abraham Lincoln bring to the fore the plight of slaves and the horrors endured by those who clamoured for its abolition. However, there was a time when the pleasure of motion pictures was unheard of. In its stead, literature was used to paint the ravages of slavery to a most desired effect-shock the reader into action. Books such as Narrative of the life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave (the one who quipped”I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong’), Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African are but a few of these. I recently came across an edited and abridged version of the latter. Despite finding some of the details overwhelming (a fact which the author acknowledges), I could understand why it was essential in the fight against slavery.
Equiano begins by narrating about his early life in Eboe, Africa. He was the son of a Chief and thus highly regarded in the community. Nonetheless, this did not deter his kidnapers from nabbing him and selling him. It is worth noting that ownership of another human being i.e. slavery was practised in that part of Africa as well. However, slaves were treated humanely. This we find true through Equiano’s own admission…
‘…the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty’
Equiano also offers the reader a glimpse, quite humorously too, of the culture shock that accosted him upon encountering the ways of the white man e.g. portrait paintings or the outpourings of a temperate climate. He articulates them as thus:
‘…when I immediately after observed a picture hanging in the room which appeared constantly to look at me, I was still more affrighted having never seen such things as these before. At one time I thought it was something relative to magic, and not seeing it move, I thought it might be some way the whites had to keep their great men when they died and offer them libation as we used to do to our friendly spirits.’
‘One morning when I got upon deck, I saw it covered all over with the snow that fell overnight: as I had never seen anything of the kind before, I thought it was salt, so I immediately ran down to the mate and desired him, as well as I could, to come and see how somebody in the night had thrown salt all over the deck.’
The buying and selling of slaves takes Equiano from one master to another. In between, there is much sailing. It is accounts of these that take the lion’s share in Equiano’s narratives. Eventually Equiano was able to buy his own freedom. Understandably, he was very much glad to be free. However, this freedom was under constant threat owing to assaults from those who believed that freedom for the slave was abominable.
While Equiano’s narrative offers an easy to read insight into slavery, it is Professor’s Ogude introduction to the new edition published by Heinemann, African Writers Series, which is chilling. The good professor gives several accounts which when read in between the lines reveal the then prevailing attitude of the European towards the African.
For instance, a report of a certain Captain Kingston with pirates at sea which was published in the London Weekly Journal, 24th June 1721, read as thus:
‘They fired at me being pyrates, one a ship of 36 guns, 250 men and 50 negroes, the other a brigantine of 18 guns, 46 men and 20 negroes.’
Do you see it? I did not at first but note the clear distinction between ‘negroes’ and ‘men’.
It does not stop there. Suspicion over the intellectual ability of the African permeated even the highest office in America. Thomas Jefferson, the founding father of the United States of America, to whom Americans-and the whole world-owe those famous words in the Declaration of Independence; we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; even he, Thomas Jefferson, doubted the African’s intellect. He noted that the ‘unfortunate difference in colour, and perhaps faculty, is a powerful obstacle to emancipation’ and explained it as thus:
Among the Romans, emancipation required but one effort. The slaves when made free might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us, a second is necessary unknown to history. When freed, he is removed beyond the reach of mixture.1
Wait. There’s more. It was this narrative that led to the founding of Liberia and consequently, the dumping of the first group of freed Negroes therein. Ironically, it was around the same time when America was encouraging emigration from Europe.
This ambivalent attitude towards the slave was to be found even in church. Professor Ogude notes that the church was anxious to win black souls for heaven but cared little for the tired body of the plantation slave. He narrates the story of a colonel Codrington’s bequest of a large estate to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on condition that 300 Negroes be constantly employed to look after the estate2. And like the cattle and horses on the estate of Sir James Lowther3, the slaves were to be branded with the acronym of the society.
It is accounts such as these that should make us not only frown upon the remotest semblance of modern slavery, but also expose them, bring its perpetrators to book, condemn slavery in the strongest terms known in the human language and give dignity to its victims.
- Thomas Jefferson Notes on the State of Virginia In The Pocket Thomas Jefferson ed. Merrill D. Peterson, P. 196.
- The Letters of Horace Walpole, III. 249.
- Peter Hogg, Slavery: The Afro-America Experience (1979) pp40-41. An informative and valuable monograph on the African slave trade