Olaudah Equiano - arrival in the Americas

Abolition campaigner and former slave Olaudah Equiano wrote his autobiography in 1789. In this extract he describes his experiences on arrival in the Americas.

"At last we came in sight of the island of Barbados, at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy to us. We did not know what to think of this; but as the vessel drew nearer we plainly saw the harbour and other ships of different kinds and sizes; and we soon anchored amongst them off Bridge Town.

Many merchants and planters now came on board. They put us in separate parcels and examined us attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we had to go there. We were conducted immediately to the merchant's yard, where we were pent up altogether like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age.

We were not many days in the merchant's custody before we were sold after their usual manner, which is this: on a signal given, the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined and make a choice of that parcel they like best.

The noise and clamour with which this is attended and the eagerness in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of the terrified Africans who may well be supposed to consider them as the ministers of that destruction to which they think themselves devoted. In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again.

It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St Kitts, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their masters name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed on the most trifling occasion they were loaded with chains and often instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumb screws etc. are so well known as not to need a description and were sometimes applied for the slightest fault.

I have seen a Negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for even letting the pot boil over. Is it surprising that usage like this should drive the poor creatures to despair and make them seek a refuge in death from those evils that render their lives intolerable? This they frequently do.

A Negro man on board a vessel of my master, having been put in irons for some trifling misdemeanour, and kept in that state for some days, being weary of life took an opportunity of jumping overboard into the sea; however he was picked up without being drowned.

Another whose life was also a burden to him resolved to starve himself to death and refused to eat any victuals. This procured him a severe flogging and he also on the first occasion which offered jumped overboard but he was saved."