The History Behind Olaudah Equiano’s Memoir and the Atlantic Slave Trade
In our project, we examined the history behind Olaudah Equiano’s journey from freedom to forced placement into slavery by studying the Atlantic Slave Trade. In this way, we attempted to complicate the Atlantic Slave Trade’s route by presenting it from an Afrocentric point of view, humanizing the victims of slavery, and discussing the factors that led to the creation of African-American identities.
Equiano’s experience was far more nuanced than simply boarding a boat from Africa to the Americas. As our map, which can be viewed at https://drive.google.com/open?id=1jn7DIXtX8qgbfMb-tCbQ8oCbs_ncQIII&usp=sharing , exhibits, he visited more locations in Africa than elsewhere, having been transported from family to family on his way to the African coast. Our map should be followed by number, as that is the proper order of Equiano’s stops along his journey.
Our research suggests that the placement of traveling slaves in homes was common because runaway slaves were a huge financial loss. Profits could reach up to 300 percent, and a slave who was not consistently being monitored could put these vast profits in jeopardy by attempting to return home (Mintz and McNeil). Like Equiano, most slaves were forced from their homes in Sub-Saharan Africa and brought to Western Africa – a half million to be exact. Additionally, about as many slaves traveled across the Sahara Desert to the Indian Ocean to board ships (“Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database”).
Although the Atlantic Slave Trade is represented as a triangular route, this information complicates that theory. The traditional portrayal of the Atlantic Slave Trade is a Eurocentric image, whereas our map and research are Afrocentric – and they are, thus, a more accurate depiction of the slave experience. Those who boarded ships in the Indian Ocean negate the widespread belief that slaves came directly from Africa’s western coast to the Americas. Additionally, Equiano and the other half million Africans from Sub-Saharan Africa invalidate this idea. The people had to make several stops throughout different African countries to even reach slave ships on Africa’s west coast – which were often in the Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, and Gold Coast (“Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database”).
Additionally, our project attempts to reestablish the humanism that was lost with the creation of African slavery. Contrary to the Eurocentric theory that Africans lacked culture, Equiano was raised in an Igbo village, which was a Nigerian tribe that shared unique traditions and a common belief system. At most, village units could contain 5,000 people, suggesting that Igbo culture was well-developed (Widjaja). Naturally, a closeness existed among the people, as evidenced by the agonizing reality of familial separation, which was often experienced by captured slaves. Spouses, families, and other loved ones were aware of the “constant threat” of separation and had to grapple with this fear (Williams). This was a reality for Equiano himself, who was kidnapped from his village and later separated from his sister.
Furthermore, our study of the death rate among slaves and appalling slave ship conditions adds to our promotion of humanism. One out of eight slaves died aboard slave ships, and many more died before even leaving the ports (“Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database”). This was often the result of filthy conditions aboard ships, where slaves were crammed below deck to live amongst human waste and disease. Equiano’s experience mirrors this description, as he laments “the pestilential stench of a Guinea ship” (Equiano 519). It is our goal that viewers of our project feel empathy for fellow humans who lived – and often died – in this subhuman environment.
Lastly, our research touches upon the creation of the African-American identity, which was a direct result of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Equiano’s slave ship landed in Barbados, where he was put up for auction. Along with Equiano, 387,000 Africans were transported to Barbadosto grow sugar. This massive influx of Africans was necessary for the slavery business due to the high death rate of slaves. As a result of this influx, the Barbadian black population skyrocketed from three percent to 79 percent in about 150 years, leading to a form of Barbadian African-Americanism. The culture that came out of this hybridity draws its roots from West African nations, such as Equiano’s home country of Nigeria (Watson). Similarly, the transport of slaves to the United States was responsible for the development of the various African-American cultures of the Southern states, particularly in terms of cuisine and music.
In conclusion, our GoogleMap presents the Atlantic Slave Trade from an Afrocentric perspective, as opposed to the Eurocentric triangular route. Additionally, our discussion of African cultures, Middle Passage sufferings, and high slave death rates humanizes people who were viewed as subhuman. Moreover, our project reveals that the birth of African-Americanism is a direct result of slavery, which led to a variety of black identities in the Americas.
Equiano, Olaudah. “From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to the Present, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2014, pp. 514–525.
Mintz, S, and S. McNeil. “The Slave Trade’s Significance.” Digital History, 2018, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=447.
“Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.” Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Emory University; National Endowment for the Humanities; DBI Hutchins Center for African and African American Research (Harvard University), 2013, www.slavevoyages.org/.
Watson, Dr. Karl. “Slavery and Economy in Barbados.” BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/barbados_01.shtml.
Widjaja, Michael. “Igbo Language and Igbo Culture.” Igboguide.org, 2001, www.igboguide.org/HT-chapter10.htm.
Williams, Heather Andrew. “How Slavery Affected American Families.” The First Great Awakening, Divining America, TeacherServe®, National Humanities Center, Teach Service, nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1609-1865/essays/aafamilies.htm.
Making Maps of The Atlantic Slave Trade: The African View
The finished product of our Digital Humanities (DH) project is a GoogleMap, which can be found at this link: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1jn7DIXtX8qgbfMbtCbQ8oCbsncQIII&usp=sharing, representing the slave experience of Olaudah Equiano as described in the first two chapters of his narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. While the product has shaped into a nuanced visual for the African experience of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the process of creating our DH project required important and methodical collaboration. We set out to do our DH project on this text because the societal context of slave narratives peaked both of our interests. By exploring the narrative, we were able to uncover a more nuanced look at the Triangular Trade Route and reframe it from the perspective of Equiano, a captured African slave. Instead of a triangle, our map connects destination points that provide context to viewers about the transactional African experiences of
human trafficking and slavery.
Originally, our research questions surrounded movement, common experiences, and other slave narratives written for abolition purposes; as time progressed, our focus narrowed to movement, complicating Eurocentric visuals during the Atlantic Slave Trade, and common experiences. The GoogleMap turned out to be an effective tool for our DH project, because it provides a visual representation of Equiano’s points. We were able to write about each point and include numbers so that viewers can follow the narrative arc of Equiano’s text while learning historical context about similar slave experiences. The numbers can be seen below:
While GoogleMaps allowed us to create a nice visual, there were several drawbacks to the program. The line feature does not connect specific points directly, therefore, if one zooms in on the map the lines do not appear connected. Additionally, the autosave feature did not always work and at times deleted paragraph entries. Formatting paragraph entries was difficult, because the entry box does not allow any indentations. Our paragraphs either had to be limited to one or we had to manually space and correct the formatting in each box. Despite these challenges, the end product looks sophisticated and allows readers to click through the points and learn about our project. On a positive note, we were able to type a general note about the aims of our project, which provides a nice overview for viewers before they read the individual points. Once we decided to use GoogleMap and got used to the glitches of the system, we decided to split the points – each of us were to complete three, since we have six points total.
After making the decision to split the points, we conducted our own research both from the text and from outside sources, which supplemented our project’s goal to contextualize Equiano’s narrative in relation to other slave experiences. We took advantage of working as partners, which made the project less overwhelming and more manageable. Also, we were able to peer-review our points and make decisions to enrich the project together. If we had worked separately, the steps of the project would have doubled, creating a lot of additional work for us both. Since we each have busy semesters, partnering was a good choice and we would recommend it to future classmates.
With unlimited time and energy to put into the project, we might have wanted to read the full narrative that Equiano wrote. From there, we would have been able to chart movement across the whole narrative and make a more complete map. Additionally, we could find slave narratives from other authors and chart them onto the map; by using different colored points, the map would show multiple slave experiences from the Atlantic Slave Trade. If someone else were to extend upon the work we did on the project, they might consider using other narratives or charting a Eurocentric image of the Triangular Trade Route. The juxtaposition of the Eurocentric and African experience with the Atlantic Slave Trade would show readers the extent to which history texts or literature courses often ignore the African experience.
Even though we can both see where the project has room to be expanded, we are pleased with the results of it based on this semester’s work. The points show the beginning of Equiano’s journey and the contextual information that we discovered was interesting and created a fuller picture of the slave experience. We also learned a lot about the history of the slave experience during this time in history. While many websites and articles have been written with the aim to put the African experience into perspective, our DH project helps to create a visual representation of the journey. This project is a useful tool, especially for students just beginning to study slave narratives and those looking to debunk Eurocentric visuals or assertions about the history.