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.
Pages 118 – 120
About two moons after Okolie’s castration, I woke up earlier than usual one morning to the sound of a closing door. It was Asika leaving the room. I assumed he was going to use the outhouse, until I felt wetness on myself. I panicked and checked, and indeed, my worst fear had come upon me – it was a wet dream.
I had dreamt that night of fondling the breasts of a slave girl I admired.
I was paralyzed with fear.
As I lay with eyes tightly shut, pondering my predicament, Asika’s voice cut through me like lightning.
“Olaudah, you will stay indoors today until Kamalu calls you – you will need to be purified.”
I lay in my frozen state and made no attempt to open my eyes and respond to his message.
At dawn he exited the room, leaving me soaked in my tears and wetness, for I had urinated on the bed out of trepidation.
By mid-morning, I had exhausted my tears and could think a little bit.
Must I stay and have my testicles cut? I thought. My mother used to say that it was only a tree that you faced with a raised cutlass and it remained unmoved. You do not stand in one place to view the cane wielding masquerade or it would catch up with you and flog you. I would be the greatest fool to wait for Kamalu to come and inflict death upon me.
What was worse than being a eunuch, not considering the pain of death that one had to go through to arrive at that unfortunate situation?
I got up and took a bath – escape was the only wise thing to do. I would rather die trying to escape than live to endure the pain of a eunuch.
I wore my everyday shrine attire as I must appear to be on my normal duties that day.
Despite trying to console myself that instant death was better than burial by installments, which castration meant for me, I was shaking with fear. If I got caught, what might my punishment be? Long torture and sacrifice to Ibiniukpabi?
Where would I run to in the first place? Nobody would take me in knowing I was running away from Ibiniukpabi – anybody who saw and identified me with Ibiniukpabi would be stricken with fear and seek to return me to the shrine immediately.
I determined to strip naked as soon as I passed outside the shrine of the oracle. I would also shave off the little tuft of hair left hanging in the middle of my head, like a thickly wooded tiny island in the middle of the vast ocean of my shaven head. It was a sign of my dedication to Ibiniukpabi. It was not unusual for boys my age to go about stark naked at Arochukwu with a clean-shaven head.
The security around the living quarters was formidable. The shrine guards walked around with well-sharpened machete, guns and bloodshot eyes, ready to kill anyone who as much as uttered a single word against Ibiniukpabi.
I resolved to go towards the part of the bush where I had seen the slaves who had supposedly been sacrificed to Ibiniukpabi being led into a waiting canoe.
I would sneak inside the canoe and hide under one of the wide wooden horizontal slabs that cut across the canoe, which also serve as seats. The slab at the rear would hide me until we got to wherever it was the men were being carried to – anywhere in the world would be better than Arochukwu at the moment.
Wherever we reached, I would pretend to be a lost child who had wandered aimlessly in the bush, until I would hopefully be kidnapped again.
I went behind the goat shed and emerged at the bush path leading out of the sleeping quarters. I went through one shallow stream and found myself inside the thick forest separating the stream of Ibiniukpabi from the living quarters of the servants. My goal was to walk across the bush, a distance I believe to be about two miles. Once I caught sight of the Ibiniukpabi stream, I would walk to where I believed I had seen the canoe.
It was risky, I knew, but nothing would stop me.
I succeeded in getting to the thick forest by pretending that I was going about my regular business as a shrine boy. I was slowly making my way across the thick forests when I heard voices behind me. I was surprised, for I did not expect to see anybody in the bush.
Have they discovered my absence and were searching for me? That seemed most unlikely. Okolie had said they came for him much later in the day. I ran behind a huge Iroko tree and begged the wide stem to embrace me like my mother would.
“It was a good thing you checked him regularly. He is so young and I had thought it would not be until next year that we would have to cut him.”
“The anger of Ibiniukpabi would fall on everybody for that kind of oversight.” It was the voices of Kamalu and Asika.
My mind went back to the time I had tried to escape at Ifite-Awka, where my searchers in conversing among themselves had made it clear that death would meet me on the way. This time, I would gladly embrace death on my way to escape than stay as a castrated shrine boy of Ibiniukpabi.
Kamalu and Asika stopped a bit, as I held my breath. It was of no use, I told myself. Ibiniukpabi must have told them exactly where to find me. Who was I to think that, even if I escaped from man, I could escape from the oracle, the great Ibiniukpabi, only deity of chukwu abiama?
It was Kamalu that called out my name as hot urine ran down my legs. I did not answer but waited for a hand to reach through the thickets and grab me.
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