The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis of Chapter II


Equiano explains how his memories are bittersweet, especially given the events of his early years. He was the youngest son of seven brothers and sisters, and was trained in agriculture and war. During the afternoons, he and his siblings would keep watch for kidnappers who stole unattended village children to use as slaves. One day, while on watch, he and one of his sisters were seized by a kidnapper. Their sorrow was heightened when they were soon separated from each other.

Equiano ended up in the hands of a chieftain in a lovely part of the country, where he was put to work at the bellows. He planned to escape from this situation, but his plan was thwarted when he accidentally killed an old slave woman's chicken and had to hide himself for fear of her wrath. Everyone looked for him, but he was perfectly concealed in the dense brush. He was afraid of being stung by poisonous snakes but held out until he was rescued by the very same old woman who, now sympathetic to him, pleaded his case to his master.

After a time, he was sold again, and traveled closer to the sea coast. Until he reached the sea, his language was similar enough to those of other tribes, and he was even able to pick up two or three new tongues. By chance, he and his sister were reunited when their masters crossed paths. However, the reunion was short-lived, and the second separation brought fresh grief and anxiety to Equiano.

Equiano was sold again, and traveled continuously until he reached Tinmah, "the most beautiful country I had yet seen in Africa." Here, he tasted sugarcane for the first time, and was sold to a wealthy African widow and her son, who was around Equiano's age. Under their care, he was barely treated as a slave, and he grew quite close with his young master. This pleasant situation was also short-lived, and ended when he was sold again.

He was then brought to a country where the inhabitants differed from him in almost all particulars. They did not clean their hands before they ate, and they were not circumcised. The women ate, drank, and slept with their men, and they made no sacrifices or offerings. Most shocking was their tradition of sharpening their teeth and scarring themselves. Equiano feared they would force him to undergo such alteration, and notes that he would have had much more trouble integrating with Europeans later if he had been so marked. It was also amongst these people that he saw his first large body of water, in a nearby river.

Finally, after six or seven months of captivity, he came to the sea. The country there was also quite different from what Equiano had experienced before, though it was engaged primarily in agriculture and war like his own county was. The first thing he saw there was a slave ship waiting for cargo, which filled him the immense fear that he "had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me." When he saw the many black people chained together with expressions of profound sorrow on their faces, he realized what awaited him, and knew that he would never return to his native country. He suddenly wished to return to former slavery than to endure this new punishment.

He describes the sensation of being put under the decks: "I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything." He felt a little better when he found people of his own nation, but was convinced that the white men were evil spirits. Similarly, he was amazed by the workings of the ship, and thought it moved by magic.

Down in the hold, he was assaulted by hot air unfit to breathe because of its loathsome smells. Many people grew sick and died, "thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers." The screams and cries of anguish and terror made the hold like a scene from Hell. Thankfully, because of Equiano's young age, he was not put into chains and had more freedom to move about.

The white men were strange to him, especially in their wastefulness. One day, they captured a large fish and only took a small part from it, tossing it back into the sea despite the cries of hungry slaves. They were also remarkably cruel. When three slaves tried to jump overboard and end their lives, one of them was recaptured and flogged mercilessly. Likewise, the slaves down below were cruelly denied any fresh air.

The ship finally came in sight of Barbados. All of the slaves were gathered on deck and examined by frightening men; Equiano was convinced that they desired to eat him. After the examination, the slaves were sent to the merchant's yard, where they were crammed together regardless of age or sex. Equiano was in awe of his surroundings, noting that the houses were two stories and made of bricks. He marveled at the men on horseback.

When it came time for the slave auction, Equiano was disturbed by the loudness and frenzy of the buyers, and by the callous way in which friends and relatives were sundered from each other forever.


This chapter of the Narrative is the one most often included in history or literature anthologies in high school and college classrooms, for good reason, since it gets to the heart of slavery's injustice. He details how his idyllic life in Eboe was cut short by his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement. After a few brief situations with African masters, he is shipped onboard a slave ship bound for the West Indies, and his vivid account of the Middle Passage is heartrending in its evocation of grief, fear, despair, violence, and fetidness. Equiano's utter confusion and terror is highly subjective and emotional - he is able to evoke the feeling of how Africans felt when removed from their home. In this way, it is markedly different from Chapter 1 which, as previously discussed, uses the more objective tone of travel writing. Whether or not Equiano was born in Africa, he certainly knew some version of a slave ship experience, and his writing has a sharper edge because of it.

The Narrative details all four stages of the African slave trade:

1) the capture by native Africans, and the dangerous, exhausting journey to the European ships waiting at the coast;

2) the Middle Passage, in which slaves were transported across the Atlantic in the most hellish conditions imaginable;

3) the gradual introduction to a life of forced labor and a disease-ridden environment, after slaves arrive in the West Indies but before they are put to work;

4) and the actual period of enslavement.

In this chapter, as in many others, Equiano seeks to differentiate between the brutality and immorality of the "civilized" Europeans and their African counterparts. This distinction begins even when he is enslaved by native Africans. His experience while still on the continent varies wildly depending on the masters, and he experiences nowhere near the sense of dehumanization as he would when put on a ship. Some of them even treat him as nearly a peer.

However, what most marks the white slaveowners is what he observes while at sea. He is astonished at their wastefulness, deliberate in the context of so many hungry people below deck. Their behavior to their captives is avaricious, violent, and depraved. The horrific details of the text speak for themselves.

Equiano even points out that Africans near the coast were markedly more immoral and corrupt because of their closer contact with the whites. They were unclean, their women were much more brazen, and they showed a disrespect for their bodies through the alterations they made. This idea was not original to Equiano's work. In a 1774 work entitled Thoughts upon Slavery, John Wesley wrote, "the Negros who inhabit the coast of Africa...are represented by them who have no motive to flatter them, as remarkably industrious...As fair, just, and honest in all their dealings, unless where Whitemen have taught them otherwise,...And as far more mild, friendly and kind to Strangers, than any of our Forefathers were." In other words, they have lost any innocence and grace to the corruption of the slavetrading Europeans.

Some historical detail helps to supplement Equiano's purpose in trying to end the slave trade. In the annotations to the Penguin edition of the narrative, editor Vincent Carretta points out that one of the abolitionists' favorite arguments against slavery was that it corrupted not only the slave but the slave-owner as well. The "tyrannical captain" became a ubiquitous presence in literature, as one who was dehumanized by his tasks. Frederick Douglass wrote of this in his Narrative as well, lamenting the fact that the wife of one of his masters turned from a sweet, gentle woman into a cruel and corrupt slaveowner. While Equiano does not yet utilize this argument explicitly, one can see through his adolescent eyes confusion over how humans can act so callously towards their fellows.

Abolitionists also argued that the Middle Passage was deadly not only for the slaves but for the crew as well. Carretta notes that on an average percentage basis, more crewmen died than slaves. The modern estimates of the mortality rate for slaves is 15% of the approximately 10 million sent over from Africa. As for marine slavers, their mortality rate was 20%. It is interesting to consider this fact in light of how enamored Equiano will later become of the sea; he has a great sympathy for crewmen, and his fascination for sailing is growing even here.

Finally, it is useful to know the historical context of the process Equiano describes after landing in the West Indies. When the slaves arrive in Barbados after their voyage, they are forced into a merchant's custody and "on a signal given (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best" (60-61). Carretta notes that Equiano is describing the scramble, as described by Alexander Falconbridge's An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (1788), written at the behest of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Falconbridge wrote, "as soon as the hour agreed on arrived, the doors of the yard were suddenly thrown open, and in rushed a considerable number of purchasers, with all the ferocity of brutes. Some instantly seized such of the negros as they could conveniently lay hold of with their hands...the poor astonished negros were so much terrified by these proceedings, that several of them, through fear, climbed over the walls of the court yard, and ran wild about the town; but were soon hunted down and retaken." Whether or not Equiano is relating personal experience or inventing it based on other sources, he touches on one of the realistic horrors of the institution he wishes to destroy.