By Jennifer Farley
Reprinted by permission from Tar Heel Junior Historian 45, no. 2 (Spring 2006)
Copyright: North Carolina Museum of History.
Who are we looking for, who are we looking for?
It’s Equiano we’re looking for.
Has he gone to the stream? Let him come back.
Has he gone to the farm? Let him return.
It’s Equiano we’re looking for.
This African chant mournsthe loss of Olaudah Equiano, an eleven-year-old boy who, in 1755, was kidnapped from his home in what is now Nigeria. He was purchased by a captain in the British Royal Navy, was later sold to a Quaker merchant in the Caribbean, and in 1766 bought his freedom. He wrote his autobiography in 1789, giving readers a rare glimpse of how it felt to be kidnapped from home in Africa and to survive onboarda slave trader’s ship. In his autobiography, Equiano wrote, “There are few events in my life that have not happened to many.” By this, he referred to the kidnapping of millions of free West Africans by slave traders, who then sold them to wealthy merchants and plantation owners.
The Africans who had been stolen from their homes were placed onto ships that took them to South America, theCaribbean, or North America. This trip across the Atlantic Ocean was known as the Middle Passage. Conditions for the captured men, women, and children aboard the ship were horrible. Up to a thousand people would have to survive for two to five months largely below deck, in quarters so tight that they could barely move. Besides being unbearably cramped, the deck had no ventilation, windows, or way todispose of waste. Disease was rampant. Food was limited. Violence and torture were common. Equiano wrote:
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 loathsomesmells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died.
Those who did survive the Middle Passage were sold at auction upon arrival in their new country. These formerly free people were now enslaved, the property of another person.
The first Africans in America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, as indentured servants in 1619. Indentured servants were laborers who were under contract, orindenture, to work for another person for a set number of years. When the contract expired, the laborer was free. Later, Africans brought to America arrived as slaves. Slaves were laborers who had no contract or rights and had to work for their owners for their entire lives. North Carolina adopted its first slave code — defining the social, economic, and physical places of enslaved people — in1715; the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina approved in 1669 had made slavery acceptable. Enslaved people had been shipped directly from Africa to the colony as early as the 1680s, but because the coast was dangerous for large ships, most of North Carolina’s enslaved people were purchased from slave owners in Virginia or South Carolina. At the time of the American Revolution, most of the enslavedpeople in North Carolina lived in the eastern part of the colony and the majority lived on large plantations, where their work was critical to the state’s cash crops and economy.
The long journeys of many enslaved people ended on large farms or plantations in the United States, like Stagville and Somerset in North Carolina — now State Historic Sites. On the plantation, the owner dictated much oftheir lives. Enslaved people were told what work to do, when to do it, and where to live. Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897), born into slavery on a plantation in Edenton, wrote a narrative in which she described many of the horrors endured by enslaved people, such as this instance of a family being separated:
I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be...