Olaudah Equiano, A Slave`s Voyage to the West Indies

Olaudah Equiano, A Slave’s Voyage to the West Indies
Here is a description of the voyage from Africa written by the Nigerian Olaudah
Equiano. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah
Equiano, depicts the horrors of slavery and influenced the enactment of the Slave
Trade Act of 1807.
Life Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was a boy of eleven years of age when he was captured
from his village in the country corresponding to present Nigeria. An English ship brought him to
Bridgetown, Barbados, where he was sold as a slave. After many years of slavery, he succeeded in
purchasing his freedom, worked as an author, merchant, and explorer in South America, the
Caribbean, the Arctic, the American colonies, and the United Kingdom, and became an anti-slavery
He was one of the founders of Freetown (Sierra Leone), the first free black colony in Africa.
When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believed were
some of those who brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to
me in order to cheer me,1 but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those
white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair. They told me I was not […]
Soon after this, the blacks who brought me on board went off and left me abandoned to
despair. I now wished for2 the last friend, death, to relieve me, but soon to my grief, two of
the white men offered me eatables,3 and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by
the hands and laid me across, I think, the windlass,4 and tied my feet while the other flogged
me severely.5 I had never experienced anything of this kind before, and although not being
used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet, nevertheless,
could I have got over the nettings,6 I would have jumped over the side,7 but I could not…
At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo8 […] we were all put under
deck […] The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the
ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated
us. This produced copious perspirations so that the air soon became unfit for respiration,
from a variety of loathsome smells,9 and brought on a sickness amongst the slaves, of which
many died, thus falling victim to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their
purchasers. The wretched10 situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains,11
now become insupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs,12 into which the children
to cheer me: per confortarmi
I now wished for: ora desideravo (soltanto) che
eatables: cibo
laid me… windlass: mi distese, credo, su un verricello
flogged me severely: mi picchiava duramente
nettings: reti, reticolati
side: bordo della nave, parapetto
cargo: carico
loathsome smells: odori nauseanti
wretched: infelice
by the galling of the chains: dallo sfregamento delle catene
the filth... tubs: dal lerciume dei mastelli per le necessità fisiologiche
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often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks13 of the women and the groans14 of the
dying rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.15
(from: O. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of O. Equiano, in Africa Remembered,
ed. by Ph.D. Curtin, Madison, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1967)
This diagram comes from an antislavery tract published in 1791, but the method of loading a ship to maximize the
number of slaves carried had been used from the beginning of the trade. [Schomburg Center for Research in Black
....E X E R C I S E....
1 Which was the first impression of the boy about the white men who had captured him?
2 How did the two white men behave when he refused to eat?
3 Why did they behave like this?
4 In his despair, what would he have done, if possible?
5 What was the use of the filthy tubs?
6 What were the conditions of the hold?
shrieks: urla
groans: lamenti
inconceivable: incredibile, inconcepibile
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Phillis Wheatley, On Being Brought from Africa to America
Phillis was bought in 1761 by a wealthy man, John Wheatley, as a slave; she was
taught to read and write, and was later freed. She was the first African-American poet
and first African-American woman to publish her writings.
Life Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was bought by John Wheatley as a personal slave for his
wife Susannah, a pious and sympathetic woman, when she was only seven, probably kidnapped in
Mrs Wheatley’s daughter taught her to read and write, and to know Christian religion and study
the Bible. She became an educated woman, began to study Latin and English literature, wrote
poems, which were appreciated. At the age of 20 she went to London with Mr Wheatley’s son, but
soon returned to Boston, as Mrs Wheatley died in 1774. She was freed after the death of Mr
Wheatley; she married, but lived in poverty, and died at the age of 31.
’Twas mercy1 brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted2 soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour3 too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.4
Some view our sable5 race with scornful6 eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye”.7
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,8
May be refined, and join the angelic train.9
(from: The Poems by Phillis Wheatley, ed. by Julian D. Madison, Jr., Chapel Hill,
Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1966)
Religion was a precious gift for her. She is thankful for God’s mercy, and considers herself
fortunate, seeing her life as a victory of the mind over the circumstances of her birth and the lack of
education of her childhood.
’Twas mercy: è stata (it was) la misericordia (di Dio) che
benighted: ottenebrata, in una oscurità intellettuale e morale
a Saviour: un Salvatore, Cristo
Once... knew: un tempo non cercavo né conoscevo la redenzione, la possibilità di redimersi
sable: nera, scura
scornful: sprezzante, pieno di disprezzo
dye: tinta, colore
Cain: secondo la Genesi, Caino, figlio di Adamo ed Eva, uccide il fratello Abele ed è condannato da Dio a vagare
senza fine sulla terra. Caino teme che chiunque possa riconoscerlo e ucciderlo, ma Dio risponde che chiunque tentasse
di ucciderlo sarebbe punito sette volte tanto. Poi Dio pone un marchio su Caino (forse qui si intende il colore nero?)
perché tutti possano riconoscerlo
Remember: la Wheatley vuole ricordare a tutti i Cristiani che perfino il nero Caino, colpevole di omicidio del fratello,
è protetto da Dio. Ciò significa che anche Caino, punito da Dio e marchiato a fuoco, può redimersi (may be refined) e
unirsi alla schiera degli angeli. A nessuno è vietata la possibilità della redenzione
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....E X E R C I S E....
1 Why does Phillis Wheatley interpret her being brought as a slave to America “an act of mercy?
2 Why does she make a distinction between God and Christ, the Saviour?
3 What is her opinion of the Whites’ behaviour?
4 What do the Whites think, in her opinion, of the “sable” colour of the Blacks’ skin?
5 What is her exhortation to all Christians?
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Frederick Douglass, The Word “Abolition”
One of the most prominent African Americans of the 19th century was
Frederick Douglass. In this passage from his autobiography, he recalls how he
came to know the word “abolition”.
Life Frederick Douglass was born in slavery in Maryland in 1818. His mother was a slave, his
father was probably his mother’s owner. He managed to learn to read and write, though it was
against the law, as this could lead the slaves to question their condition, and desire freedom. He
worked for years under several masters, but when he began reading, always in secret, newspapers or
political materials, he acquired the knowledge of the reality of the negro problem. He eventually
succeeded in escaping, boarding on a train for New York, disguised as a sailor, with the borrowed
papers of a free black seaman. After his escape, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, a
good orator and an incisive anti-slavery writer, showing that a slave, rightly educated, could be
considered an independent American citizen. He wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
an American Slave, written by Himself, which was published in 1845 and became a best seller.
He died in 1895.
[...] The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness.1 Freedom
now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every
thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched2 condition. I saw
nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without
feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm,3 breathed in every wind, and
moved in every storm.
I often found myself regretting my own existence,4 and wishing myself dead; and but for5
the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done
something for which I should have been killed. While in this state of mind, I was eager to
hear any one speak of slavery. I was a ready listener. Every little while, I could hear
something about the abolitionists. It was some time before I found what the word meant. It
was always used in such connections as to make it an interesting word to me. If a slave ran
away and succeeded in getting clear,6 or if a slave killed his master, set fire to a barn,7 or did
any thing very wrong in the mind of a slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of abolition.
Hearing the word in this connection very often, I set about learning what it meant. The
dictionary afforded me little or no help. I found it was “the act of abolishing;” but then I did
not know what was to be abolished. Here I was perplexed. I did not dare to ask any one
about its meaning, for I was satisfied8 that it was something they wanted me to know very
little about. After a patient waiting, I got one of our city papers, containing an account of the
number of petitions from the north, praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of
Columbia, and of the slave trade between the States. From this time I understood the words
had roused… wakefulness: aveva risvegliato la mia anima a una attenzione continua
wretched: infelice
in every calm: in ogni momento sereno
regretting... existence: a rammaricarmi della mia stessa esistenza
but for: se non fosse stato per
succeeded… clear: riusciva a fuggire
barn: appiccava il fuoco a un fienile
I was satisfied: ero convinto
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abolition and abolitionist, and always drew near9 when that word was spoken, expecting to
hear something of importance to myself and fellow-slaves. The light broke in upon me by
degrees. I went one day down on the wharf10 of Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen
unloading a scow of stone,11 I went, unasked, and helped them. When we had finished, one
of them came to me and asked me if I were a slave. I told him I was. He asked, “Are ye12 a
slave for life?” I told him that I was. The good Irishman seemed to be deeply affected by the
statement. He said to the other that it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a
slave for life. He said it was a shame to hold me. They both advised me to run away to the
north; that I should find friends there, and that I should be free. I pretended not to be
interested in what they said, and treated them as if I did not understand them; for I feared
they might be treacherous.13 White men have been known to encourage slaves to escape,
and then, to get the reward, catch them and return them to their masters. I was afraid that
these seemingly good men might use me so; but I nevertheless remembered their advice,
and from that time I resolved to run away. I looked forward to a time at which it would be
safe for me to escape. I was too young to think of doing so immediately; besides, I wished
to learn how to write, as I might have occasion to write my own pass.14 I consoled myself
with the hope that I should one day find a good chance. Meanwhile, I would learn to write.
(from: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,
Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, 1945)
....E X E R C I S E....
1 Who was Frederick Douglass ? Which was his most important work?
2 How could he come to know the existence of the campaigns for abolition?
3 What happened one day on the wharf?
4 Why did he behave as if he did not understand the two Irishmen?
5 Did he however remember their advice?
6 How could he escape?
7 What did he do after his escape?
8 When he died (1895) had slavery been abolished?
drew near: mi avvicinavo
wharf: molo, banchina
unloading a scow of stone: che scaricavano un barcone a fondo piatto (carico) di pietre
ye: you (arcaico)
treacherous: infidi, disonesti
pass: lasciapassare
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....TEXT 4....
William Du Bois, The Atlanta “Compromise”
In his work The soul of Black Folk the civil rights activist William Du Bois
vigorously opposed Booker Washington’s “Atlanta Address” – which he called
“The Atlanta Compromise” to express his criticism that Washington was too
accommodating to White interests.
Life William Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian and civil rights activist. Born in
Massachusetts in 1868 of a well-to-do family, he graduated from Harvard, and became a professor
at Atlanta University, but always felt shut up from the Whites for “the colour of his skin”.
Racism was his target, and he became the leader of the African-American activists, always
struggling, in his extreme radicalism, for immediate civil and political rights.
He died in 1963.
[...] Booker T. Washington arose as essentially the leader not of one race but of two, – a
compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro. Naturally the Negroes resented,1
at first bitterly,2 signs of compromise which surrendered3 their civil and political rights,
even though this was to be exchanged for4 larger chances of economic development. The
rich and dominating North, however, was not only weary5 of the race problem, but was
investing largely in Southern enterprises, and welcomed6 any method of peaceful
cooperation. Thus, by national opinion, the Negroes began to recognize Mr. Washington’s
leadership; and the voice of criticism was hushed.7
Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and
submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time8 as to make his programme unique. This
is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington’s programme naturally
takes an economic cast,9 becoming a gospel10 of Work and Money to such an extent as
apparently almost completely to overshadow11 the higher aims of life. Moreover, this is an
age when the more advanced races are coming in closer contact with the less developed
races, and the race-feeling is therefore intensified; and Mr. Washington’s programme
practically accepts the alleged inferiority12 of the Negro races. Again, in our own land, the
reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to race-prejudice against
Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws13 many of the high demands of Negroes as men
and American citizens. In other periods of intensified prejudice all the Negro’s tendency to
self-assertion14 has been called forth;15 at this period a policy of submission is advocated.16
resented: si offesero, si risentirono per
bitterly: amaramente
surrendered: rinunciava
was to be exchanged for: doveva essere compensato da
weary: stanco
welcomed: dava il benvenuto, accoglieva con piacere
the voice… hushed: le voci critiche furono messe a tacere
at such… time: in un momento così particolare
cast: impronta
a gospel: un vangelo, un testo da seguire
almost completely to overshadow: da mettere quasi completamente in ombra
alleged inferiority: presunta inferiorità
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In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has
been that manly17 self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who
voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it,18 are not worth civilizing.
In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through
submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up,19 at least for the
present, three things, –
First, political power,
Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education20 of Negro youth, – and concentrate all their energies on
industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation21 of the South. This
policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been
triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this tender of the palm-branch,22 what has
been the return? In these years there have occurred:
1. The disfranchisement23 of the Negro.
2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
3. The steady withdrawal24 of aid from institutions for the higher training25 of the Negro.
These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’s teachings; but
his propaganda has, without a shadow of doubt, helped their speedier accomplishment.26
The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make
effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile
caste,27 and allowed only the most meagre chance for developing their exceptional men?28 If
history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic NO.
(from: W. Du Bois, The Soul of Black Folk, Ch. 3, Chicago, A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903)
....E X E R C I S E....
1 Considering the points of view of the two contenders, do you think that Booker Washington,
exhorting the African Americans to a peaceful coexistence between North and South, waiting for
the gradual steps to equality, proved a prudent, but realist and shrewd politician?
Or do you consider the ideas of the radical activist William Du Bois, struggling for immediate civil
and political rights for the African American citizens, a better strategy?
Make clear your point of view, supporting it with well-grounded reasons.
has been called forth: è stato rinnovato
a policy... advocated: viene sostenuta una politica di sottomissone
manly: risoluto, virile
cease striving for it: cessano di lottare per ottenerlo
give up: rinuncino a
higher education: istruzione superiore
conciliation: riconciliazione
tender… branch: proposta di pace; lett: offerta (tender) di un ramo di palma (simbolo appunto di pace)
disfranchisement: negoziazione dei diritti elettorali
steady withdrawal: continua revoca
higher training: formazione professionale superiore
their… accomplishment: la loro più rapida realizzazione
made… caste: ridotti a una casta servile
the most… men: la più scarsa possibilità di sviluppo per i loro uomini migliori
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....TEXT 5....
Claude McKay, If We Must Die - Outcast
The feeling of social alienation and the anguish for a life always threatened
with hatred and persecution is expressed by Claude McKay in his famous
Of these two sonnets, Outcast (1921) is the nostalgic memory of a man who
feels rejected by society, while If We Must Die (1919-22) expresses McKay’s
radical ideas.
Life Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1889. He was educated by his
brother, who owned a library of English literary works. When he was twenty, McKay published a
book of verse, “Songs of Jamaica”, as he always thought of Jamaica as a lost paradise.
In 1920 he went to the United States to attend University. During the 1920s he developed an
interest in Communism, and travelled to Russia and France, but in 1934 he returned to New York,
and lived in Harlem. He abandoned his left-wing ideas, and was interested in the teaching of
various spiritual leaders, and converted to Catholicism.
He died in 1948.
For the dim1 regions whence my fathers came
My spirit, bondaged by the body,2 longs.3
Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;4
My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.
I could go back to darkness and to peace,
But the great western world holds me in fee,5
And I may never hope for full release
While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
Something in me is lost, forever lost,
Some vital thing has gone out of my heart,
And I must walk the way of life a ghost6
Among the sons of earth, a thing apart;
For I was born, far from my native clime,
Under the white man’s menace, out of time.
(from: C. McKay, Harlem Shadows, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922)
dim: vaghe, indistinte
bondaged by the body: schiavo del corpo
longs: ha grande nostalgia
would frame: esprimerebbero
in fee: come sua proprietà
a ghost: (come) un fantasma
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If We Must Die
If we must die, let it not be like hogs1
Hunted and penned2 in an inglorious spot3
While round us bark4 the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.5
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy6
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen!7 We must meet the common foe!8
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!9
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, 10
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
(from: C. McKay, Harlem Shadows, New York, Harcourt, Brace and
Company, 1922)
....E X E R C I S E....
1 Write a prose version of the sonnet Outcast.
2 Answer the questions about If We Must Die.
1. When was this sonnet published?
2. What were McKay’s political ideas in this period?
3. Did he insist in these ideas?
4. Can you write a summary of this poem?
5. Who are the “enemies”, never clearly mentioned in the sonnet?
hogs: maiali
penned: rinchiusi
spot: posto, luogo
bark: latrano, abbaiano
making…lot: deridendo il nostro maledetto destino
defy: sfidiamo
kinsmen: miei simili, uomini della mia razza
foe: nemico
deal one death-blow: diamo un solo colpo mortale
murderous, cowardly pack: assassina, codarda masnada
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