Remembering Olaudah Equiano’s time in Barbados

I have often sat on the boardwalk on Wharf Road watching tourists walking into the centre of Bridgetown. Each of them will pass a memorial. It isn’t particularly small but most people walk by without a single glance, some slow their stride to ‘skim read’ the wording but no one ever seems to stop and study the subject of the plaque.

Olaudah Equiano memorial boardwalk on Wharf Road Bridgetown
Olaudah Equiano memorial plaque on the boardwalk on Wharf Road, Bridgetown.

This apparent disinterest in this boardwalk memorial on Wharf Road, could be attributed to the desire to get into Bridgetown and its shops as quickly as possible but matters aren’t helped by the almost total lack of publicity given to this important landmark.

The plaque is in fact a tribute to enslaved persons and has stood at its site on the boardwalk since 23rd August 2009 when it was unveiled by the then Prime Minister the Hon. David J H Thompson and the Minister of Community Development and Culture, the Hon. Steven D Blackett MP.

The words on the plaque remain as important and valid now as they were back in August 2009:

This plaque is erected at the hallowed site of memory as a tribute to the strength and resilience of those African enslaved persons who were transported across the Atlantic Ocean and at, or near this site, were sold as slaves to Barbadian slave masters.

It is also a tribute in honour and recognition of the efforts of those who fought in the cause of the abolition of the slave trade.

There then follows a quote from Olaudah Equiano, once an enslaved person, who in 1789 as a free man in London wrote: ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African’.1 Equiano’s words are particularly pertinent because he was describing his first experience of Barbados as a terrified young boy of about 12 years of age. The plaque reads:

Soon after we were landed there came to us Africans of all languages. We were conducted immediately to the merchant’s yard where we were all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age.2

The Interesting Narrative page 85

Some of you will be familiar with Olaudah Equiano. If the name ‘rings a bell’ it may be because you recall the well-received article written by William Burton in July 2017 – Olaudah Equiano 1745 to 1797 (Slavery Abolitionists). That piece focussed on Equiano’s role as an abolitionist. This article will concentrate on Equiano’s brief time in Barbados and his experiences of the slave trade on the island.

Equiano was equally well known as Gustavus Vassa, the slave name imposed on him on board ship as he headed for Virginia after a stop in Barbados where, we shall see, his captain failed to find a buyer for the young boy. He described the imposition of his slave name as follows:

“While I was on board this ship, my captain and master named me Gustavus Vassa. I at that time began to understand him a little, and refused to be called so, and told him as well as I could that I would be called Jacob; but he said I should not, and still called me Gustavus; and when I refused to answer to my new name, which at first I did, it gained me many a cuff; so at length I submitted, and was obliged to bear the present name, by which I have been known ever since.3

The Interesting Narrative page 96

Equiano came to Barbados twice, the first time in approximately 1757 as a young, enslaved person following an horrendous journey from Africa. He described being terrified of being eaten, feeling amazement at his first sight of a horse and bemusement that buildings in Barbados had several floors “and [were] in every other respect different from those in Africa.”4 He wrote about his arrival in The Interesting Narrative:

“At last we came in sight of the island of Barbadoes, 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, though it was in the evening. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they appeared to us; and, when soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread and trembling among us, and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from these apprehensions, insomuch that at last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much; and sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages.5

The Interesting Narrative pages 83-85

He described the sale of the enslaved people in heart rending terms as families were cruelly spilt up never to see one another ever again.

“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, (as the beat of a drum) the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamour with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible 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. I remember in the vessel in which I was brought over, in the men’s apartment, there were several brothers, who, in the sale, were sold in different lots; and it was very moving on this occasion to see and hear their cries at parting.6

The Interesting Narrative page 86

For reasons unknown, Equiano did not attract a buyer and, less than two weeks after arriving in Barbados, the ship left for the British colony of Virginia in Colonial America with young Equiano and a few other enslaved people who had likewise been considered “not saleable.”7 [Clarification: It is “the British colony of Virginia in Colonial America” as this is 1757. The United States Declaration of Independence did not occur until 4th July 1776.]

Had Equiano remained in Barbados it seems likely that he would have spent the rest of his life on a plantation and The Interesting Narrative would never have been written.

In 1771, aged about 26, Equiano visited Barbados for the second and final time. This time he was a free man having bought his freedom in England. He was working as a steward on the Grenada Planter, captained by William Robertson. When he joined the ship in London in April of that year he said he was going to “try my fortune in the West Indies; and we sailed from London for Madeira, Barbadoes, and the Grenades.”8

Although a fervent and wholly committed abolitionist, Equiano at one point finds himself almost defending the treatment of enslaved people in Barbados, recording that the island treated its slaves comparatively well. He even praised Sir Philip Gibbes, who he said he had the honour of knowing and regarded as “a most worthy and humane gentleman.”9 In 1780 Gibbes owned 109 enslaved persons in St Peter.10

Equiano’s high regard of Gibbes seems to have been based on his relatively humane treatment of the enslaved persons on his plantation.

“He allows them two hours for refreshment at mid-day; and many other indulgencies and comforts, particularly in their lying; and, besides this, he raises more provisions on his estate than they can destroy; so that by these attentions he saves the lives of his negroes, and keeps them healthy, and as happy as the condition of slavery can admit.11

The Interesting Narrative page 210

Such flattery may have played a part in persuading Sir Philip Gibbes to subscribe to six copies of the first edition of The Interesting Narrative. None of Equiano’s fellow subscribers, who included the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, ordered more than Gibbes’ six copies.

Mention is also made of a “treatise on the usage of his own slaves”12 that Gibbes was said to have written. Here Equiano is referring to a publication called Instructions for the Management of a Plantation in Barbadoes and for the treatment of Negroes (London 1786). Although Gibbes contributed to this, the work is mainly attributable to Edward Drax.

Times were very different in Equiano’s day and despite these apparent ‘concessions’ to enslavement he remained a brave, committed and passionate abolitionist and should be celebrated as such. He was not ignorant of the evils of enslavement having suffered and observed it himself. Regarding Barbados he gave this huge caveat:

“Even in Barbadoes, notwithstanding those humane exceptions which I have mentioned, and others I am acquainted with, which justly make it quoted as a place where slaves meet with the best treatment, and need fewest recruits of any in the West Indies, yet this island requires 1,000 negroes annually to keep up the original stock, which is only 80,000.13

The Interesting Narrative pages 210-211

Equiano died in London on 31st March 1797. He didn’t live to see the abolition of the slave trade or of slavery but his memory rightly lives on, not least of all on the boardwalk in Bridgetown where he first landed in Barbados almost 270 years ago.


Olaudah Equiano memorial boardwalk on Wharf Road Bridgetown
Olaudah Equiano memorial plaque on the boardwalk on Wharf Road, Bridgetown.

Other landmarks commemorating Olaudah Equiano

Further Reading

The Equiano Society website: Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African

Footnotes

  1. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself – first published in 1789 – references taken from 2020 version published by The Equiano Society ↩︎
  2. The Interesting Narrative page 85 ↩︎
  3. The Interesting Narrative page 96 ↩︎
  4. The Interesting Narrative page 85 ↩︎
  5. The Interesting Narrative pages 83-85 ↩︎
  6. The Interesting Narrative page 86 ↩︎
  7. The Interesting Narrative page 90 ↩︎
  8. The Interesting Narrative page 96 ↩︎
  9. The Interesting Narrative page 209 ↩︎
  10. Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery ↩︎
  11. The Interesting Narrative page 210 ↩︎
  12. The Interesting Narrative page 209 ↩︎
  13. The Interesting Narrative pages 210-211 ↩︎




Responses to “Remembering Olaudah Equiano’s time in Barbados”

  1. the246historian

    This made me order The Life of Olaudah Equiano

  2. Shirley Licorish-Kibunja

    I enjoyed reading this history. I would like to read more topics like this.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Derek Johnson

    From where did Equiano originally come? When he wrote about his experiences, in what language did he write?
    An interesting account of the life of an enslaved person. How he must have ‘bettered’ himself to be able to afford the purchase of his freedom.

    1. Bill Hern

      It is generally accepted that Equiano was, as he claims in “The Interesting Narrative”, born in Africa. It is thought to be the Igbo village of Essaka in what is now Nigeria. One learned professor, Vincent Carretta, has argued that he could have been born in South Carolina.
      Equiano wrote The Interesting Narrative in English.
      He was baptised in London as a teenager in 1759 and purchased his freedom in 1766.
      He served in the Royal Navy and even sailed to the Arctic where he was in the same party as a very young Horatio Nelson. An interesting life indeed!

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