Slavery existed as...
In order to gain a wider understanding of this section of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, it is important to locate it within its historical context of African slavery in the West during the eighteenth century.
Slavery existed as a legal institution that enslaved mostly Africans and African Americans, who consequently struggled to reflect on their painful ordeals with the help of writing memoirs. Such memoirs are recognized now as a literary genre called the slave narrative.
It comprises a vast collection of first-hand accounts of life as a slave, with the various authors documenting their personal experiences at the hands of free men and the very system of slavery itself. These autobiographical accounts also shed light on varying degrees of journeys taken, including physical (in the form of travel), spiritual (in the form of Christian redemption), and emancipatory (in the form of freedom). Slave narratives served an integral role in pushing for the abolition of slavery altogether.
Olaudah Equiano wrote the book that this excerpt is contained in. In it, he gives a thorough account of what he went through as a slave and a seaman and how his ardent reading of the Bible offered him religious redemption, which later led to his pursuit of freedom. He was able to buy his own release with his own efforts and fought for the abolition of slavery by forming a group called the "Sons of Africa," which engaged in lobbying Parliament.
"An African Narrative by Olaudah Equiano (1791)" begins with his description of the sudden feeling of terror in learning that he is being boarded onto a slave ship. He describes the scene inside in the same tone of horror and immediately notes how different his captors are from him in terms of hair and complexion. He looks around to see a:
multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow.
He soon faints only to wake up again to the desolate thought of never again returning to his home country.
He experiences his first flogging by the white men on board when he refuses to eat. His only refuge at this point lies in the fact that he found a number of companions from his hometown aboard the ship as well. He cleverly describes his captors as "savages" for the brutal way these white men treat them—a word so often used by white men to describe the people they enslave. He also notes that the white men exhibit the same behavior of cruelty even towards each other.
He describes how, during the journey, a few slaves attempt to jump off the ship, making a remark on how death becomes an even more attractive proposition than slavery. When they arrive at Barbados, they are herded and examined by merchants. Soon enough, they find themselves surrounded by fellow Africans, older slaves, who comfort them and ease their fears of "being eaten" by informing them of their being employed instead for work.
He describes the process in which they are sold and how relatives are separated from each other. Left unsold, he is then included with others to travel to North America where they are better fed and treated. However, he quickly discovers that he is all alone after all his companions get brought to different places. At this thought and in his misery, he goes back to "wishing for death rather than anything else."
Critics of the slave narrative genre question the authenticity of the memoirs as they are written in first person point-of-view and, as such, are (they argue) too "anecdotal" to be considered factual. Nevertheless, they are considered highly significant documents in history—for they shed light on the many atrocities of slavery through the eyes of those who experienced it themselves.