Carolyn Shuttlesworth
Literature & Culture
Material Type:
Primary Source
Community College / Lower Division, College / Upper Division
Creative Commons Attribution

18th Century: 1789


African American Literature 1619-1926

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)

               The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African

                                                                       Chapter 1

     I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity; nor is this the only disadvantage under which they labor; it is their misfortune that what is uncommon is rarely, if ever, believed, and  what is obvious we are apt to turn from with disgust, and to charge the writer with impertinence.  People generally think those memoirs only worthy to be read or remembered which abound in great or striking events, those, in short, which in a high degree excite either admiration or pity; all others they consign to contempt and oblivion.  It is therefore, I confess, not a little hazardous in a private and obscure individual, and a stranget too, thus to solicit the indulgent attention of the public, especially when I own I offer here the history of neither a saint, a hero, nor a turant.  I believe there are few events in my life which have not happened to many; it is true the incidents of it are numerous, and, did I consider myself an European, I might say my sufferings were great; but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favourite of Heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life.  If then the following narrative does not appear sufficiently interesting to engage general attention, let my motive be some excuse for its publication.  I am not so foolishly vain as to expect from it either immortality or literary reputation.  If it affords any satisfaction to my numerous friends, at whose request it has been written, or in the smallest degree promote the interests of humanity, the ends for which it was undertaken will be fully attained, and every wish of my heart gratified.  Let it therefore be remembered, that, in wishing to avoid censure, I do not aspire to praise. 

     That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along the coast above 3400 miles, from Senegal to Angola, and includes a variety of kingdoms.  Of these the mostt considerable is the kingdom of Benin, both as to extent and wealth, the richness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its king, and the number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants.  It is situated nearly under the line, and extends along the coast about 170 miles, but runs back into the interior part of Africa to a distance hitherto I believe unexplored by any traveller; and seems only terminated at length by the empire of Abyssinia, near 1500 miles from its beginning.  This kingdom is divided into many provinces or districts: in one of the most remote and fertile of which, called Eboe, I was born, in the year 1745, in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka.  The distance of this province from the capital of Benin and the sea coast must be considerable, for I had never heard of white men or Europeans, nor of the sea; and our subjection to the king of Benin was little more than nominal; for every trasaction of the government, a far as my slender observation extended, was conducted by the chiefs, or elders of the place.  The manners and goernment of a people who have little commerce with other countries are generally very simple; and the history of what passes in one family or village may serve as a specimen of a nation.  My father was one of those elders or chiefs I have spoken of, and was styled Embrenche, a term, as I remember, importing the highest distinction, and signifying in our language a mark of grandeur.  THis mark is conferred on the person entitled to it, by cutting the skin across at the top of the forehead, and drawing it down to the eyebrows; and while it is in this situation applying a warm habd, and rubbing it until it shrinks up into a thick weal across the lower part of the forehead.  Most of the judges and senators were thus marked; my father had log borne it; I had seen it conferred on one of my brothers, and I also was destined to receive it by my pareents.  Those Embrenche, or chief men, decided disputes and punished crimes, for which purpose they always assembled together.  The proceedings were generally short, and in most cases the law of retaliation prevailed.  I remember a man was brought before my father, and the other judges, for kidnapping a boy; and, although he was the son of a chief or senator, he was condemned to make recompense by a man or woman slave.  Adultery, however, was sometimes punished with slavery or death, a punishment I believe is inflicted on it throughout most of the nations of Africa, so sacred among them is the honor of the marriage bed, and so jealous are they of the fidelity of their wives.  Of this I recollect an instance-a woman was convicted before the judges of adultery, and delivered over, as he custom was, to her husband, to be punished.  Accordingly he determined to put her to death; but it being found, just before her execution, that she had an infant at her breast, and no woman being prevailed upon to perform the part of a nurse, she was spared on account of the child.  The men, however, do not preserve the same constancy to their wives which they expect from them; for they indulge in a plurality, though seldom more than two.  Their mode of marriage is thus- both parties are usually bethrothed when young by their parents (though I have known the males to betroth themselves).  On this occaision a feast is prepared, and the bride and bridegroom stand up in the midst of all their friends, who are assembled for the purpose, while he declares she is henceforth to be looked upon as his wife, and that no person is to pay any addresses to her.  This is also immediately proclaimed in the vicinity, on which the bride retires from the assembly.  Some time after, she is brought home to her husband, and then another feast is made, to which the relations of both parties are invited; her parents then deliver her to the bridegroom, accompanied with a number of bllessings, and at the same time they tie round her waist a cotton string of the thickest goosequilll, which none but married women are permitted to wear; she is now considered as completely his wife; and at this time the dowry is given to the new married pair, which generally consists of portions of land, slaves, and cattle, household goods, and implements of husbandry.  These are offered by the friends of both parties; besides which the parents of the bridegroom present gifts to those of the bride, whose property she is looked upon before marriage; but after it she is esteemed the sole property of her husband.  The ceremony being now ended, the festival begins, which is celebrated with bonfires and loud acclamations of joy, accompanied with music and dancing.

     We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets.  Thus every great event, such as a triumphant return from battle, or other cause of public rejoicing is celebrated in public dances, which are accompanied with songs and music fitted to the occaision.  The assembly is separated into four divisions, which dance either apart or in succession, and each with a character peculiar to itelf.  The first division contains the married men, who in their dances frequently exhibit feats of arms, and the representation of a battle.  To these succeed the married women, who dance in the second division.  The young men occupy the third; and the maidens the fourth.  Each represents some interesting scene of real life, such as a great accomplishment, a pathethic story, or some rural sport; and as the subject is generally founded on some recent event, it is therefore ever new.  This gives our dances a spirit and variety which I have scarcely seen elsewhere.  We have many musical instruents, particularly drums of different kinds, a piece of music which resembles a guitar, and another much like a stickado.  These last are chiefly used by bethrothed virgins, whoplay them on all grand festivals.