Children in the Slave Trade
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Kidnapping [Excerpt]
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, an estimated 20 million Africans crossed the Atlantic to the Americas in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Until recently, slave studies rarely discussed children's experiences, but it has been estimated that one quarter of the slaves who crossed the Atlantic were children. Olaudah Equiano, kidnapped at age 11, became one of the most prominent English abolitionists of the 18th century. His narrative is extremely valuable not only for the wealth of information it presents on children's experiences in the slave trade, but also for those examining the abolitionist movement in England during this period of time.
In this excerpt, Equiano gives an account of his kidnapping. While it is not only a particularly detailed account of the kidnapping of a child into the slave trade, several things should be of interest to students. Equiano makes note of several precautions taken to protect African children from kidnapping, which tells us that kidnapping was prevalent enough to warrant such precautions. Of particular importance in this excerpt are the vivid emotions expressed by Equiano as he recounts not only the loss of his freedom, but also the loss of his sister who he never saw again.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself. Edited by Robert J. Allison. New York: W. Durell, 1791. Reprint, Boston: Bedford Books, 1995, 47-48. Annotated by Colleen A. Vasconcellos.
Primary Source Text
My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter. As I was the youngest of the sons, I became, of course, the greatest favourite of my mother, and was always with her; and she used to take particular pains to form my mind. I was trained up from my earliest years in the arts of agriculture and war; and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner: Generally, when the grown people in the neighborhood were gone far in the fields to labor, the children assembled together in some of the neighboring premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us—for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize. One day as I was watching at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people come into the yard of our next neighbor but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young people in it. Immediately on this I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded by the stoutest of them, who entangled him with cords, so that he could not escape, till some of the grown people came and secured him. But, alas!, long it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh.
One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day. For a long time we had kept the woods, but at last we came into a road which I believed I knew. I had now some hopes of being delivered; for we had advanced but a little way before I discovered some people at a distance, on which I began to cry out for their assistance; but my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack. They also stopped my sister's mouth, and tied her hands; and in this manner we proceeded till we were out of sight of these people. When we went to rest the following night, they offered us some victuals, but we refused it; and the only comfort we had was in being in one another's arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears. But alas!, we were soon deprived of even the small comfort of weeping together.
The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other's arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us; she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days did not eat anything but what they forced into my mouth.
How to Cite This Source
Colleen A. Vasconcellos, "Children in the Slave Trade," in Children and Youth in History, Item #141, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/teaching-modules/141 (accessed March 1, 2015).
- Primary Sources
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Kidnapping [Excerpt]
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Slave Ship [Excerpt]
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Middle Passage [Excerpt]
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Slave Auction [Excerpt]
- The Dolben's Act of 1788 [Government Document]
- Request: Playden Onely to the Royal African Company, 1721 [Official Document]
- Advertisement for Sale of Newly Arrived Africans, Charleston, July 24, 1769 [Advertisement]
- Captured Africans Liberated from a Slaving Vessel, East Africa, 1884 [Image]
- Slave Coffle, Central Africa, 1861 [Image]
- A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture A Native of Africa, but Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America Related by Himself [Excerpt]
- Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery: Slave Coffle [Excerpt]
- Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery: Middle Passage [Excerpt]
- Children in the Slave Trade [Table]