Teaching Module

Children in the Slave Trade

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Middle Passage [Excerpt]

Annotation

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.

This excerpt is particularly telling of the special treatment many children received while traveling the Middle Passage. Although it is short, it speaks volumes as to the lengths that some crew members went to assuage the children's fears and sadness.

Source

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, 57. Annotated by Colleen A. Vasconcellos.

Primary Source Text

During our passage, I first saw flying fishes, which surprised me very much; they used frequently to fly across the ship, and many of them fell on the deck. I also now first saw the use of the quadrant; I had often with astonishment seen the mariners make observations with it, and I could not think what it meant. They at last took notice of my surprise; and one of them, willing to increase it, as well as to gratify my curiosity, made me one day look through it. The clouds appeared to me to be land, which disappeared as they passed along. This heightened my wonder; and I was now more persuaded than ever, that I was in another world, and that every thing about me was magic.

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 November 1, 2014).