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November 12, 2015
Document Interpretation 2: Calculus of Slavery
Olaudah Equiano, The Middle Passage (1788)
This excerpt1 is from the book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,
or Gustavus Vassa the African, which is an autobiography written by a former slave, Olaudah
Equiano. As a child, Equiano was kidnapped from his home in Africa and sold into a life of
slavery. In the excerpt, he retells the story of his survival aboard a slave ship in the Middle
Passage. According to the PBS website, Africans in America, “the Middle Passage was the
middle leg of a three-part voyage.”2 It was a journey that set sail and landed on the shores of
Europe. The first part was when ship departed filled with “iron, cloth, brandy, firearms, and
gunpowder.” The second part—the Middle Passage—was when the ship landed on the African
“slave coast,” and the items were traded for Africans. After all the Africans were packed onto the
ship, the ship set sail to America, and the enslaved Africans were traded again “for sugar,
tobacco, or some other product.” The final part of the voyage was when the ship landed back in
Racism, economic advancement, religious belief, social necessity—whatever reasons
slave owners and slave drivers may have had for their extreme cruelty toward enslaved Africans,
does not negate from the fact that human beings endured maltreatment, and there is no excuse
1. “The Middle Passage,” Olaudah Equiano, last updated January 27, 2003,
2. “The Middle Passage,” PBS Online, accessed November 11, 2015,
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that can justify the behavior. I think slavery in America was most cruel because it did not
particularly merge European and African culture, but it raped the African people of their culture
and forced fed conformity to an entire race of people. Enslaved Africans were stripped of their
religion, their language, their family, and thrown into a life of oppression. Although these are
what many consider as essential for human survival, there are some things that cannot be taken
away because they are inherent and life-sustaining as well. Our American Stories text explains
that “African Americans,” because they weren’t African or European, forged a new cultural
identity for themselves.3
In Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative, it is obvious that he was kidnapped by other African
people and sold into slavery. What a mockery, it seems, that people who were traded for sugar
and tobacco would come to labor these very items in their enslavement. And though many
Africans were captured and sold by other Africans, as Equiano was, we must remember that
Africa is a huge continent with a very diverse cultural population. There were different tribes and
most of the people didn’t speak the same dialect. Slavery was commonly practiced in Africa;
however, the cruelty that existed for enslaved Africans in North America involved a different
and inhumane treatment—not that any type of slavery could ever be humane. In Thomas
Bender’s A Nation Among Nations, he discusses how, “Africans in the Atlantic world were
treated more as units of labor than as humans” and it was a moral repulsion that unfortunately
reduced what that looked like and meant in Africa as well.4 As Britain became a big power
player in the slave trade, the demand for labor increased. While there was an internal element
that contributed to this demand, external dynamics increased it.
3. H.W. Brands et al., American Stories: A History of the United States, 3rd. (Upper
Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2015), 68-69.
4. Thomas Bender, A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History (New
York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 37.
Bender, Thomas. A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History. New York: Hill
and Wang, 2006.
Brands, H.W., T.H. Breen, Hal R. Williams, and Ariela J. Gross. American Stories: A History of
the United States. 3rd. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2015.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Middle Passage. 2003.
http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/extract3.htm (accessed November 11, 2015).
PBS Online. The Middle Passage. WGBH Educational Foundation. 1998.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p277.html (accessed November 11, 2015).