Personal Stories of Captured Africans

In a previous post, The Descendant Community, November 16, 2011 the role of oral history in formal scholarship was acknowledged. Frequently first hand accounts and family stories make an event or experience not only more powerful, but also personal in a manner that research text does not.

This project is dedicated to remembering ancestors, uncovering and listening to people who usually are forgotten. They seldom have the opportunity to tell their version of history. This second post of the new year will provide the reader with an unusual opportunity, the chance to learn about enslavement and capture as related by the victims themselves. The primary source is Slave Voices: The Sound of Freedom edited by Hilary McD. Beckles and Verene Shepherd, University of the West Indies.

Ajayi: The Yoruba

For some years, war had been carried on in my Eyo Country, which was always attended with much devastation and bloodshed; the women, such men as had surrendered or were caught with the children, were taken captives. The enemies who carried on these wars were principally the Eyo Mahomedans, with whom my country abounds with the Foulahs, and such foreign slaves as had escaped from their owners, joined together, making a formidable force of about 20,000 who annoyed the whole country. They had no other employment but selling slaves to the Spaniards and Portuguese on the coast…

The morning in which my town, Ocho-gu, shared the same fate which many others had experienced, was fair and delightful and most of the inhabitants were engaged in their respective occupations. We were preparing breakfast without any apprehension when, about 9 o’clock am a rumor was spread in the town, that the enemies had approached with the intention of hostility.

It was not long after when they had almost surrounded the town, to prevent any escape of the inhabitants; the town being rudely fortified with a wooden fence, about four miles in circumference, containing about 12,000 inhabitants; which would produce 3,000 fighting men. The inhabitants not being prepared, some not being at home; those who were, having about six gates to defend as well as many weak places about the fence to guard against, and, to say in a few words, the men being surprised, and therefore confounded – the enemies entered the town after about three or four hours resistance.

Here a most sorrowful scene imaginable was to be witnessed! Women, some with three, four or six children clinging to their arms, with infants on their backs, and such baggage as they could carry on their heads, running as fast as they could through prickly shrubs, which hooking their blies and other loads, drew them down from the heads of the bearers. While they found it impossible to go along with loads, they endeavored only to save themselves and their children: even this was impracticable with those who had many children to care for.

While they were endeavoring to disentangle themselves from the ropy shrubs, they were overtaken and caught by the enemies with a noose of rope thrown over the neck of every individual, to be led in the manner of goats tied together, under the drove of one man. In many cases a family was violently divided between three or four enemies, who each led his away, to see one another no more.

Your humble servant was thus caught – with his mother, two sisters (one an infant about 10 months old) and a cousin – while endeavoring to escape in the manner above described. My load consisted of nothing else than my bow, and five arrows in the quiver, the bow I had lost in the shrub while I was extricating myself, before I could think of making use of it against my enemies. The last view I had of my father was when he came from the fight to give us the signal to flee.

In attempting to escape in the crowd with my mother, two sisters and a cousin, we were taken by two Yoruba Mohammedans who immediately threw nooses of cords around our necks and led us away as their prey. Scarcely had we got to the middle of the town when two Fulani men attacked our captors and contended with them about dividing their prey as they had not gone in time to get any.

My cousin was violently held on both sides, and my mother hearing the threats from the Fulani to cut the poor fellow to pieces if our captors did not let them go, she entreated them rather to give him to the Fulani instead of having him killed; our captors having some feelings of humanity, left the boy to them with whom they ran off with the fury of a tiger. We four now remaining great care was taken lest we should also be lost in like manner, as the soldiers were no little robbers themselves.

 

Olauda Equiano: the Ibo

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. I was now carried to the left of the sun’s rising through many different countries and a number of large woods. The people I was sold to used to carry me very often when I was tired either on their shoulders or on their backs. I saw many convenient well-built sheds along the roads at proper distances, to accommodate the merchants and travelers who lay in buildings along with their wives, who often accompany them; and they always go well armed. All the nations and people I had hitherto passed through resembled our own in manner, customs and language but I came at length to a country the inhabitants of which differed from us. Thus I continued to travel, sometimes by land, sometimes by water, through different countries and various nations, till at the end of six or seven months after I had been kidnapped I arrived at the sea coast.

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived at the coast was the sea, and a slave ship which was then riding at anchor and waiting for cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board.

 

Asa-Asa, an enslaved African who arrived in the French West Indies

The slaves we saw on board the ship were chained together by the legs below deck, so close they could not move. They were flogged very cruelly. I saw one of them flogged till he died; we could not tell what for. They gave them enough to eat. The place they were confined in below deck was so hot and nasty I could not bear to be in it. A great many of the slaves were ill, but they were not attended to. They used to flog me very bad on board the ship: the captain cut my head very bad one time.

 

Ottobah Cugano: the Fanti

I must own to the shame of my own countrymen, that I was first kidnapped and betrayed by my own complexion, who were the first cause of my exile and slavery, but if there were no buyers there would be no sellers. So far as I can remember, some of the Africans in my own country kept slaves, which they take in war, or for debt, but those which they kept are well, and good care taken of them, and treated well.

But I may safely say that all the poverty and misery that any of the inhabitants of Africa meet among themselves is far inferior to those inhospitable regions of misery which they meet within the West Indies where their hard-hearted overseers have neither regard to the laws of God, nor the life of their fellow-men.

 

Prince Zambia of the Congo

I have known ships arrive from Africa, in which 750 slaves had been embarked; but owing to cruel usage, scanty and unwholesome provisions, impure air, and absolute filth which prevailed on board, not more than 400 lived to reach Charleston; and of these, only one half were in a most weakly and miserable condition, and the remainder could by no means be classed as sound and healthy… I have seen a slave ship arrive from Africa, in such a condition as to its freight of flesh and blood, that no mortal or ordinary nerves could put his head below the hatch; and in such a miserable state were the Negroes that I have known 30 or 40 out of one cargo sent up to the hospital in carts. I heard frequently also, from what I deemed good authority, that on board these crowded and ill-conducted slavers, it was not rare circumstances for the captain to order such poor slaves as were evidently dying, to be thrown overboard during the night, while yet the pulse of life was beating!

 

Omar Ibn Seid: a West African Muslim

My name is Omar Ibn Seid. My birthplace was Fut Tur between the two rivers. I sought knowledge under the instruction of a sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Kembeh and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal. I continued my studies twenty-five years, and then returned to my home where I remained for six years. Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language. There they sold me to a small, weak and wicked man called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.

 

Esteban Montejo: the Cuban Maroon

The strongest gods are African. I tell you it’s certain they could fly and they did what they liked with their witchcraft. I don’t know how they permitted slavery. The truth is, I start thinking, and I can’t make head or tail of it. To my mind it all started with the scarlet handkerchiefs, the day they crossed the wall. There was an old wall in Africa, right around the coast, made of palm bark and magic insects which stung like the devil. For years they frightened away all the whites who tried to set foot in Africa. It was the scarlet which did it for the Africans; both the kings and the rest surrendered without a struggle. When kings saw that the whites – I think the Portuguese were the first — were taking out these scarlet handkerchiefs as if they were waving, they told the blacks, “Go on then, go and get a scarlet handkerchief,” and the blacks were so excited by the scarlet they ran down to the ships like sheep and there they were captured. The Negro has always liked scarlet. It was the fault of this color that they put them in chains and sent them to Cuba. After that they couldn’t go back to their own country. That is the reason for slavery in Cuba.

 

John Jea from OldCalabar, Nigeria

I, John Jea, was born in the town of Old Calabar, in Africa, in the year 1773. My father’s name was Hambleton Robert Jea, my mother’s name Margaret Jea. They were poor but industrious parents. At two years and a half old, I and my father, mother, brothers and sisters were stolen, and conveyed to North America, and sold for slaves.

 

Granny Judith’s story as passed down to a relative

Granny Judith said that in Africa they had very few pretty things, and that they had no red colors in cloth…Some strangers with pale faces come one day and dropped a small piece of red flannel down on the ground. All the black folks grabbed for it. Then a larger piece was dropped a little further on, and on until the river was reached. Then a large piece was dropped in the river and on the other side. They was led on, each one trying to get a piece as it was dropped. Finally, when the ship was reached, they dropped pieces on the plank and up into the ship till they got as many blacks on board as they wanted. Then the gate was chained up and they could not get back. That is the way Granny Judith say they got her to America.

 

Gran Calina’s granddaughter told his story

Muh Gran Calina tell me how he got heah. He say he playin on beach in Africa, an big boat nea duh beach. He say duh mens on boat take down flag, an put up big piece uh red flannel, an all chillum dey git close tuh watuh edge tuh see flannel an see whut doin. Den duh mens comes off boat and ketch um, an wen duh ole folks come in frum deh fiels dey ain’ no chillum in village. Dey’s all on boat. Den dey brings un yuh.

 

Anonymous

They sold us for money, and I myself was sold six times over, sometimes for money, sometimes for a gun, sometimes for cloth. It was about half a year from the time I was taken before I saw white people.

Once the slave trade was firmly established on the Continent, as reflected in these stories, no one was safe.

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