June 05, 1796
It has been the deepest desire of my heart to publish an account of the times I spent as a slave within Africa, sold from the hands of one African slave master to another, before the final sale to the British ship on the African Slave Coast. It was a period of my life, bearing, as you will come to discover, some of the most remarkable experiences any human being can ever encounter.
The few times I have had the opportunity to relate a brief version of my sojourn as a slave in Africa, to tell about the ways of my people, the most intriguing adventures and the enchanting incidents and tales to which I was privy, I am afterwards besieged with pleas by the lords, gentlemen, distinguished ladies, and the good folks of England, to publish a complete account.
The business of championing the end of slavery has relegated this request to an endeavor of leisure in my mind until my failing health, and the heaviness caused by the demise of my beloved wife Susanna, left me not much of an option.
Perhaps, writing leisurely might lighten my mood, and, as the doctor has prescribed bed rest for my sickness, I would rather engage in storytelling than dwell in sorrow and in counting the church bells.
I therefore present to you dear reader, a story as true as a man can write on what might indeed turn out to be his deathbed.
I humbly submit that it is neither the pious story of a saint, the supernatural tale of a hero nor the blood-curling narrative of a tyrant, but the witty, extraordinary, captivating and honest account of the real life experiences of a boy, in the interiors of Africa in the years 1755 – 1756, traversing several cultures and peoples.
A journey that singularly provided me with much fortitude, such that the subsequent years of slavery in the Americas and Europe could not break my spirit, as it did to most other slaves.
Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa)
I remember the day my sister and I were kidnapped as if it happened just before I read my morning news today. I was about eleven years old and Ezinne was closer to eight. The practice amongst my people was such that when the adults had gone to the farm, which was located very far from the village, the children all assembled in one compound within the neighborhood to play. It was a necessary arrangement not only for companionship, but for the fear of kidnappers, on the prowl in search of defenseless children and unarmed adults to kidnap and sell.
The children usually woke up early to complete their morning chores and leave the house with the adults, who dropped them off on the way at a particular compound as the adults proceeded to the farm.
At the safety house where the children were gathered, the older set of the male children, to which I belonged, took turns to climb the tallest tree in the compound, in watch for kidnappers. At the sight of any, he screamed for the children to run and hide or he pretended to call some armed adults to come out and arrest the intruders.
At the slightest sign of being discovered, the kidnappers would usually flee, for surprise was the major tactic that guaranteed the success of their operations; they would pounce on unsuspecting children as they played, and like the proverbial eagle and chick, carry off as many as possible to unknown places, never to be found - the inconsolable mothers left to mourn their loss.
I remember the very first time I caught sight of kidnappers in the wait to ply their trade.
I was on watch on a particular day at the neighborhood play and safety house. I had climbed the tree and settled to watch my mates play oro; Ezinne’s loud laughter could be heard as she ran at top speed, blindfolded and in the middle of a ball of dust, trying to catch her playmates.
I shouted at her to stop, but it came too late as she hit the mud wall and bruised her decoratively shaved head on the dried palmfronds that covered the top of the wall. Ezinne has not come to terms with her height, for she towered above her mates and several of mine, too.
As I turned to call on one of my playmates to climb up and relieve me, so I could assess the extent of Ezinne’s injury, my eyes caught a movement in the woods across the compound. I froze and looked on intently and there, couching underneath the icheku tree, were two men with charms and firearms slung across their bare shoulders, each carrying a large jute sack.
I screamed for the adults to come and arrest the kidnappers, and startled, they both fled. This was to be a constant sight for me as time went on. My mates experienced similar incidents during the times they were at watch.
On the day Ezinne and I were kidnapped, we had been very late in doing our morning chores. The day before, one of my father’s sons from his late wife Oyidiya, had gone to betroth a young maiden at the neighboring village. The wedding party had come back to our house for another round of dancing, eating, and drinking, which lasted well into the night.
The celebration included a house-warming ceremony for the new abode of the couple, which the neighbors had finished constructing on Eke, the first of the four day market week.
The house was two magnificent mud edifices, decorated with different designs and colors of chalk. The first was a day quarters open at both sides, and the other a night quarters, well secured with an iroko tree door.
The thatch that covered the hut was still fresh, and the smell drew Ezinne and me to the building often. We swept it several times every morning, anticipating the arrival of a new bride, who would treat us with fondness - real or contrived - in order to curry favor from our mother.
The morning after the party was a very busy one. Our numerous relatives assisted the night before to clean up and put things back in their proper places, but mother was a perfectionist where cleanliness was concerned. She had left instructions for us to wake up by the first cock crow to ensure we leave the house with her. This was a tall order for we had had too much palmwine to drink that night. The white stuff flowed like water and nobody noticed when Ezinne carried a keg to the side where the children played. We all ran towards the goat shed to hide and drink to our satisfaction.
That night, for the first time in several years, I urinated in my bed and so did Ezinne. By the time we woke up, the cock had lost its larynx to crowing. We narrowly missed going with the last batch of people to fetch water from the stream, and made it back to the sound of mother’s voice, calling on us to get ready to leave the house.
I hurriedly scrubbed the floor of the general day quarters with a thick raffia brush and wood ash soap while Ezinne swept the outside courtyard with a broom made from palm frond stems, but soon, mother was on her way out. Although we could not finish our assigned chores, we were constrained to follow mother - and the others headed to the farm - to the safety house.
It was the fear of punishment from mother when we all returned in the evening and she realized that we did not complete our morning chores that drove me, as the elder of the two, to take a decision I still regret even as my quill touches this manuscript.
As soon as we got to the safety house and mother and her company were out of sight, well on their way to the farm, I told Ezinne that we should return to our house to complete our chores, and come back as quickly as possible to join our mates.
Back at our house, Ezinne had warmed the leftover soup and was sweeping the fireplace while I was dusting the bench in the day room as we chatted about the events of the previous day. Suddenly, I heard a sound like a thud behind me, and I turned to see two men and a woman jump across our low walls. I made a dash for the backyard screaming:
“Ezinne, gbabakwa o kwa ndi ntoli!"
Alas, my dear reader, it was too late. Two strong arms encircled me, stuffed my mouth with pieces of cloth, and tied my hands behind my back. I heard Ezinne kicking and groaning as we were carried off to the nearest woods...
Before We Set Sail was written by Chika Ezeanya, and published by The History Society of Africa (March, 2012).
Copyright © Chika Ezeanya 2012.
Chika Ezeanya was quite fond of telling very interesting fictitious stories as a child. She grew up to abandon that side of her in pursuit of the ‘seriousness’ of academic life, going on to earn a Ph.D. in African Development and Policy Studies from Howard University in Washington D.C. It was during her doctoral studies that Chika discovered her long lost fiction telling skills and combining it with her penchant for writing produced the Penguin Publishers Award for African Writing finalist manuscript, Before We Set Sail. Chika is currently working on two fiction manuscripts, and blogs at Chika For Africa.