The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis of Chapter IX


Equiano took leave of Georgia and sailed for Martinico. He enjoyed the island very much and observed that the slaves were treated better there. It was May, and he desired to sail to Montserrat to bid farewell to Mr. King and finally return to England by July. This was easier said than done, however, as his captain had borrowed money from him and was slow in returning it. Finally, after much pleading, the money was returned and Equiano left for Montserrat.

Unfortunately, as a free black man, he needed to advertise his departure from the island by giving notice, but it was getting late and he had difficulty doing this before the vessel departed. He was humiliated and angered by this "degrading necessity, which every black freeman is under, of advertising himself like a slave, when he leaves an island..." He was fortunately able to find some gentlemen to assist him and he was able to board the boat. He soon met his friends and Mr. King with much gladness in his heart, and the latter was quite sad to see him go. King obliged Equiano with a certificate of his good behavior.

Equiano signed up with a Captain John Hamer onboard the Andromache, bound for London. The ship embarked on the 26th; Equiano was never to see Montserrat again, and he thanked God for letting him leave behind the offensive and depressing scenes of slavery he had witnessed on that isle.

The ship arrived in London, a sight Equiano had not seen for four years. He visited his friends, the Miss Guerin sisters, and they were rather apologetic that their friend Michael Pascal had treated him as he did. When he finally saw Pascal, the latter was exceedingly rude to him and refused to pay the money Equiano felt he was owed. While in London, Equiano asked if he could work as servant to the Miss Guerins, but they had no need of him. They did, however, set him up with a hairdresser in Coventry Court, and Equiano began to learn that profession. During this time, he also bettered his arithmetic. His wages were scanty, however, and hardly supported his lifestyle. Finally, he decided to return to the sea.

In May 1768, he heard of a ship bound for Turkey and Italy that needed a hairdresser. He signed up immediately; the ship was the Delaware and the captain was a pleasant man named John Jolly. The ship traveled to Villa Franca, Nice, and Leghorn. During the journey, Equiano was impressed by the wine and fruit he encountered, and he learned navigation from the ship's mate.

The ship arrived in Smyrna, Turkey. Equiano marveled at the provisions and goods, the "well-looking and strong made" natives of the country, and the cultural differences such as women being kept from public spaces. He also noticed how the Greeks were kept under by the Turks. Overall, he liked Turkey and its people quite a lot.

On the return voyage from Turkey, the ship stopped at Oporto, Portugal. The vessel was searched by members of the Inquisition who were looking for Bibles. In Portugal, they saw the garden of Eden "where many of the clergy and laity went in procession in their several orders with the host, and sung Te Deum." They sailed back to London, then to Genoa, in the Mediterranean. Genoa was a beautiful and impressive city, but its luster was dimmed for him by the cruel treatment of the galley-slaves he observed. The bay of Naples also impressed him, although Mt. Vesuvius erupted while he was there. Back in Smyrna, Equiano was offered two wives and a place to live, but he declined. The plague broke out in Smyrna, and the Andromache sailed back to London in March 1770.

In April 1771, Equiano shipped himself as a steward with Captain William Roberson on the Grenada Planter to "once more try my fortune in the West-Indies." To his dismay, he met with the same type of customers as he had before; some of the white men utterly refused to pay for the goods they purchased from him. One man only paid because he was also indebted to three white soldiers. Equiano's status as a free black meant nothing in terms of the law.

The ship returned to England for a time, but Equiano was not there long before he signed up as a steward on board a large ship bound for Jamaica under the control of Captain David Watt. Jamaica was "a very fine, large island, well peopled, and the most considerable of the West-India islands." However, the slaves were imposed upon quite cruelly by their masters, and Equiano observed many cases of harsh and unwarranted punishment. In Kingston, he saw many Africans assembled together on Sundays at a place called Spring Path, where "each different nation of Africa meet and dance, after the manner of their own country. They still retain most of their customs: they bury their dead, and put victuals, pipes, and tobacco, and other things in the grave with the corpse, in the same manner..."

After this voyage, Equiano felt tired of the sea and decided to take a position with Dr. Irving in London. Though this sated his attention for a while, he again felt the desire for adventure, and signed up for a voyage that intended to sail through the North Pole in pursuit of passage to India. The voyage was headed by the Honourable Constantine John Phipps, late Lord Mulgrave, in the royal ship The Race Horse. Along with a couple other ships, they sailed toward their destination of the North Pole.

Equiano was unexpectedly delivered from death along this voyage. The only place he could write in his journal was in a small room that contained many flammable items. One evening, he took his candle out of its lantern and it caught a thread of the tow, immediately blazing up into massive flames. Thankfully, others came to the rescue and extinguished the blaze. Equiano was severely reprimanded, and his own guilt kept him from returning to the room for awhile.

On the ship, Equiano purified up to forty gallons of water a day. The ship made it to Greenland, where he was surprised at how the sun never set. The sailors observed many large whales and "sea-horses," which were walruses. They could only catch one of those, but it was a bad decision to do so, as the others immediately attacked the ship quite fiercely. They shot many large bears, and ate the meat.

Around the first of August, two of the ships became mired in the floes of ice set loose by the sea. The only plan that could logically extricate them from the ice was to carry the boats along the ice towards the sea. That plan "filled [them] with extreme dejection," as the sea was so far away and they would move slowly. During this arduous endeavor, Equiano almost drowned by falling into the water, but he was saved by a fellow sailor. The terrible conditions forced upon Equiano the imminent possibility of death; he thought of "eternity in such a manner as I had never done before. I had the fears of death hourly upon me, and shuddered at the thoughts of meeting the grim king of terrors in the natural state I then was in, and was exceedingly doubtful of a happy eternity if I should die in it."

His fellow crew felt the same way, and were all assured of perishing. However, a fortuitous turn of events occurred: the wind changed to ENE and the weather became mild. The ice broke away and the ships were able to break from their predicament. Once they were out of danger, the ships were refitted and they sailed out of "this uninhabited extremity of the world." A dangerous storm beset them, but they survived to return to London. Their Arctic voyage was over, and "by all accounts...[they had] fully proved the impracticability of finding a passage that way to India."


In this Chapter, Equiano frames himself as an adventurous young man with an archetypal sense of youthful longing to see the world. The Chapter is ultimately best understood as an adventure story, and the slave narrative takes a backseat as he relates his narrative to other landscapes and important historical events.

He visits Turkey, Portugal, Genoa, the North Pole, Jamaica, and Italy. He escapes death multiple times and proves his heroism on many occasions. Likewise, he is continually aware of the precarious nature of being a free black man –he is no longer property but has no legal rights. He spends some time in London and learns to dress hair and work on water purification systems for Doctor Irving, a man who would later offer him a position as overseer on a Jamaica plantation. Overall, Equiano proves himself a capable, adventurous, hardy, and ambitious young man. He also harbors a sense of restlessness, evinced by his inability to remain on dry land for too long and his embrace of long and dangerous voyages.

Many of the events, people, and places described in this chapter require illumination. In regard to the voyage to the North Pole, most of the information on it is found in Constantine John Phipps' 1774 account A Voyage towards the North Pole Undertaken by His Majesty's Command 1773. Equiano relied on this account as well for the information he provides in his Narrative. The "sea-horses" the sailors observe were actually walruses; Phipps writes, "Artick Walrus...This animal, which is called by the Russians Morse, from thence by our seamen corrupted Sea Horse." Phipps's account is also a bit more optimistic in its conclusion on the expedition's ambiguous success: "There was also most probability, if ever navigation should be practicable to the Pole, of finding the sea open to the Northward after the solstice; the sun having then exerted the full influence of its rays, though there ever was enough of the summer still remaining for the purpose of exploring the seas to the Northward and Westward of Spitsbergen."

In his annotations to the Penguin edition of the Narrative, Vincent Carretta notes that the surviving musters of the Racehorse, which date from May 24 - October 31, 1773, list Charles Irving as coming onboard on April 26th. There is no listing for a "Vassa" but there was a "Gustavus Weston" on the musters, who joined on May 17th and was described as a 28-year old able seaman. Considering Equiano's birthdate, the frequent mistakes made in transcribing foreign names, and other professional data, it is fair to say that this was almost certainly Equiano. The records do not show when "Weston" left the ship, but he was certainly on it. Equiano's participation in this voyage is not only compelling for how it affects his inward life (his brush with death leads him to seek God when he returns) and its depiction of an adventure set in a harsh and beautiful landscape of ice, but also because it, like Phipps's account, is a documentation of a significant historical event.

As for Equiano's other travels, his trip to Turkey also necessitates some further explanation. Equiano comments upon the Turks that "the natives are well-looking and strong made, and treated me always with great civility. In general I believe they are fond of black people..." (167). It seems that this comment is ironic, albeit not intentionally. The Islamic slave traders had taken over 4 million Africans from Africa and forced them into slavery, all before the European transatlantic slave system had been established. Over 3 million may have been taken after that latter slave trade ended. The Turks used the terms "Frank" and "Christian" interchangeably, as many of the Christian invaders during the Crusade were from France. The Christians were kept separate from the Muslims so that the former would not corrupt the latter.

Equiano mentions the Inquisition in this chapter. The Spanish Inquisition was led by the Roman Church, and aimed to discover and persecute heretics. One of the main disagreements between Protestants and Catholics is over the relationship between the Bible and the way to salvation. Protestants believe the Bible is completely sufficient to achieve salvation, while Catholics believe that the teachings of the Church Fathers are also necessary. There was also a disagreement over which books of the Bible were canonical. Thus, Carretta writes, "the importation of Bibles, particularly Protestant ones, was perceived in Roman Catholic countries as spreading heresy and undermining the authority of the Church." Again, Equiano's narrative strives to relate historically important details that are much bigger than his personal experience.

Finally, Equiano has a curious line about the Garden of Eden: "...where many of the clergy and laity went in procession in their several orders with the host, and sung Te Deum" (168). Carretta can find no reference to anything in Oporto with this name. It remains a mystery.