Slavery in America. Two Narratives. [Essay]

Based on the paper titled “Slavery in America” by Misty Smith. Originally published on Dec. 16, 2017, for HIST 314 at Southern New Hampshire University College of Online and Continuing Education.


Slavery in North America

Slavery: a dark stain on the history of the world and several horrid chapters within the context of the United States foundation narrative. In short, slaves were men, women, and children who were treated like subhuman fodder for the personal gain of others, simply because of the color of their skin.[1]  The first African slaves were brought to the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1619 by colonists who were looking for a labor source that they could force into building their new settlements to great heights and profits.[2] As a result of their introduction into the American way of life and free labor force, the plantations of the South and Slavery “were inextricably linked from the seventeenth century onward.”[3] However, for the newly arrived slaves, such as one named Olaudah Equiano, their lives would have been full of mixture of fear and awe, the unknown and unexpecting, in stark contrast, for the poor unfortunate descendants to come, such as William J. Anderson, the stories of the past held warnings and horrid expectations of the life laid out before them.

Much of history shows that most slaves entered the life of slavery as a result of a loss of a battle, conflict, or raid; with the first African slaves being no exception.[4]  However, as with most situations, greed began to rear its ugly head, and the African slave trade exploded to include anyone that someone could sale or trade for profits or goods, including neighbors or their own families.[5] For the newly minted slave, as Olaudah Equiano found himself in the seventeenth century, it meant being thrust into bondage and loaded onto an overcrowded boat to the New World, enduring months of inhumane conditions and surrounded by death.[6]  His own words painting an image of hell on earth during his damned voyage,

“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 loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers.”[7]

Equiano’s narration continues with the ship arriving at the port of Barbados, and misunderstanding the white man’s intentions, he and the others feared they were to be eaten by their captors.

“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.”[8]

After they understood that they were not to be consumed, but to be turned into a labor force, he then explains the awe he experienced from the sights of the New World and how they differed from those of his homeland such as the construction of houses and shops, and men traveling upon the backs of horses.[9]

Equiano’s journey continued as he was sold and shipped to Virginia, to become a slave on a Plantation. He explains how, upon arrival,  he felt more isolated than he had on the Island of Barbados, where he had at least been in contact with individuals who spoke the same language as him, “…I had no person to speak to that I could understand.”[10] He further describes seeing a black woman in his new master’s kitchen who “was cruelly loaded with various kinds of iron machines; she had one particularly on her head, which locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak; and could not eat nor drink.”[11] His master’s home also afforded further sights in which he had never experienced, such as clocks and paintings upon the walls, things he had never seen and at first equated to magic.[12]

He was once again sold, and his time transported as a “gift” to a new master in England; although some upon the ship teased him with a false tale of being returned to his lost homeland.[13] Aboard the ship, his name, which had been changed twice since his capture, was changed once again, this time to the name of Gustavus, by the ship captain.[14] At first, he refused to answer to yet another change of his name, resulting in being placed within the bound of irons upon several occasions until he finally submitted.[15] However, it was aboard the ship he made the companionship of a young American slaveowner named Richard Baker, with whom he would continue a friendship until Mr. Baker’s death in 1759.[16] His comments about his friendship shed light onto the hope for life that he still clung onto even in the midst of his horrid life,

“Although this dear youth had many slaves of his own, yet he and I have gone through many sufferings together on shipboard; and we have many nights lain [sic] in each other’s bosoms when we were in great distress. Thus, such a friendship was cemented between us as we cherished till his death.”[17]

Equiano’s life was fortunate, for that of a slave and lack of a better term, his transfer from America to England led him on a path to become educated. He had adventures, via his Master’s naval appointments, including voyages into Scotland and then into the Mediterranean, where he witnessed untold horrors committed upon others. However, he was eventually able to purchase his freedom from his master in 1766, and therefore, was lucky in the fact that he was eventually a free man. However, some of the cruelties that had fortuned his fellow countrymen, such as the poor women in his former master’s kitchen in Virginia who was forced to wear iron inventions that showed how she was viewed as subhuman in her master’s eyes, haunted him all his days.[18]

Equiano’s life tale shows how the new slave witnessed wonders never before imagined, both the awe of items confused to be magic, to the horrors of tortures and punishments. However, the wonder of new sights was not experienced by later generations of slaves. Published by the Daily Tribune Book and Job Printing Office in 1857 is the Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, the autobiography of one brave soul who endured the most inhumane aspects of life as a slave. The unfortunate life described by Mr. Anderson starts with his birth in the year 1811, to a free woman named Susan in Hanover County, Virginia and a slave soldier named Lewis Anderson.[19] His mother, who had recently found herself a penniless widow, sold him, her own child, to a slaver by the name of Mr. Vance.[20] From the very start of Mr. Anderson’s narrative, we can see the contrast between his life and that of Olaudah Equiano, “I had no bringing up; I was whipped up, starved up; kicked up and clubbed up. I had no schooling except what I stole by fire and moonlight, with a little Sabbath light.”[21] Educational opportunities were forbidden to Mr. Anderson, whipping a consequence of being caught trying to learn anything other than the work assigned by the Master. However, unlike Mr. Equiano, who had been ripped from his family, with little to no hope of ever being reunited, Mr. Anderson was allowed to visit with his mother and attend church meetings with her.[22]  He describes in detail how others were fated to be torn apart,

“I lived at a place where I could see some of the horrors of slavery exhibited to a great extent; it was a large tavern, situated at the crossing of roads, where hundreds of slaves pass by for the Southern market, chained and handcuffed together by fifties–wives taken from husbands and husbands from wives, never to see each other again–small and large children separated from their parents.”[23]

Furthermore, he tells of how he desired to learn and as a result, he hid away a book that he would study with every chance available to him, teaching himself the gift of reading.[24] While still a young boy, in the middle of the night, he was kidnapped far away from his mother’s grasp, shacked and sent to market where he was sold to a Southern slaveholder for the sum of three hundred and seventy-five dollars. It was then on the 6th of Nov. 1826, that he was sent on his way with a new master, chained to others, to the state of Tennessee.[25]

Life for Mr. Anderson only went downhill from his arrival in the slave market and then subsequently to Tennessee. The subhuman conditions that he encountered upon his arrival remind him of how cattle lived, and he made his mind up that he would run away, which led to the first of a long life of beatings and torture. Upon his capture, his new Master’s cruelty was truly revealed,

“He took me back upon the cotton farm, where he with three or four others, stripped me stark naked, or divested me of all my apparel, drove down four stakes, about nine feet apart, then (after I was tied hard and fast to the cold ground) with a large ox whip, laid on me (he said) five hundred lashes, till the blood ran freely upon the cold ground and mother earth drank it freely in.”[26]

Of course, one would believe that the punishment he endured for his stint at freedom would have prevented him from ever attempting it again, but it did not. A few years passed, when he was more than a young man, and he ran away again, this time to New Orleans.[27] He was once again captured, this time on the train, and placed in chains attached to others while he awaited his Master to retrieve him. It was then he saw horrors which he describes in detail, “While this was going on among the men, I saw many likely women wearing hobbles and an iron collar around the neck, with long horns of iron attached to the same.”[28]

Mr. Anderson’s narration continues with details of horrific proportions, such as how he witnessed slaves being shot in the head because they had been tending to a sick child, or the burning alive of slaves by their most foul and evil owners.[29] Once again Mr. Anderson ran away, this time on July 2nd, 1836, after suffering from years of abuse, torture, hundreds of beatings, and numerous jailings. After a brief capture, and almost return into captivity, he escaped again and on 5th of July, 1836, he reached Madison City, Indiana.[30]  It was then that his life finally started to look as if he would be able to live as a human being should. He procured work almost immediately for Messrs. F. Thompson and E. D. Luck and then he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church.[31] The following year, life became even brighter for the former slave as he met and married Miss Sidney of Pennsylvania, although she passed from life shortly after on the 9th day of January 1849.[32]  Eventually, Mr. Anderson began rescuing escaped slaves and building churches. However, he was caught aiding runaways from Kentucky and placed on trial in Indiana but was ultimately found innocent of the charges.[33] Mr. Anderson continued to advocate for the end of slavery, preaching God’s word against it, for the rest of his days.[34]

In conclusion, the from the narratives of Mr. Equiano and Mr. Anderson we read the tale of two men thrust into slavery, who experienced very different lives, yet both ended up as free men. Mr. Equiano did not know what to expect of White Men, as he had been torn directly from his African home. Therefore, many of the possessions that were used in normal, everyday life by his captors seemed as if they were made of magic. Furthermore, he witnessed horrors that terrified him to his very soul being committed against other slaves that haunted him for his lifetime. However, fate was on his side and he found himself given as a gift to a Master who was not as demonic as the rest. As a result, he made real relationships with others, gained an education, had adventures, and eventually purchased his freedom. On the other hand, Mr. Anderson, the freeborn son of a slave, knew the torments of slaves before he was sold into slavery by a misinformed and deceived mother. Throughout his life he suffered numerous tortures, beatings, and jailings. He witnessed murders, beatings, and inhumanities that make any decent person’s skin crawl. In the end, it was by his actions of running away that he was able to escape into a free state and finally be seen as a man, have a job, a wife, a church, and the ability to help others and fight against slavery.



[1]. Molefi Kete Asante, “THE IDEOLOGY OF RACIAL HIERARCHY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE EUROPEAN SLAVE TRADE,” Black Renaissance 3, no. 3 (2001): 133.

[2]. James Horn, “The Founding of English America: Jamestown,” Magazine of History, Jan. 2011, 25-29.

[3]. James M. McPherson, , fourth ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2010), 35.

[4]. Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon, “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa,” The American Economic Review 101, no. 7 (Dec. 2011): 3221-52.

[5]. Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon, “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa,”, 3221-52.

[6]. Olaudah Equiano, : Electronic Edition., trans. Apex Data Services, Inc (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001), 79.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid, 84.

[9]. Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. I, 85-86.

[10]. Ibid, 91.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Ibid, 92.

[13]. Ibid, 95.

[14]. Ibid, 96.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. I, 96.

[17]. Ibid, 98-99.

[18]. Ibid.

[19]. Chicago: Daily Tribune Book and Job Printing Office, 1857), 5.

[20]. Ibid.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Ibid, 6.

[23]. Ibid.

[24]. Ibid, 9.

[25]. , 12.

[26]. Ibid, 17.

[27]. Ibid, 20-23.

[28]. Ibid.

[29]. William J. Anderson, Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave; Sold Eight Times! In Jail Sixty Times!! Whipped Three Hundred Times!!! or The Dark Deeds of American Slavery Revealed. Containing Scriptural Views of the Origin, 26.

[30]. Ibid, 31-37.

[31]. Ibid.

[32]. Ibid.

[33]. Ibid, 55.

[34]. Ibid, 55-81.



Anderson, William J. Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave; Sold Eight Times! In Jail Sixty Times!! Whipped Three Hundred Times!!! or The Dark Deeds of American Slavery Revealed. Containing Scriptural Views of the Origin. Chicago: Daily Tribune Book and Job Printing Office, 1857. (accessed December 8, 2017).

Asante, Molefi Kete. “THE IDEOLOGY OF RACIAL HIERARCHY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE EUROPEAN SLAVE TRADE.” Black Renaissance 3, no. 3 (2001): 133. (accessed December 7, 2017).

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. I. 1789. Electronic Edition. Translated by Apex Data Services, Inc.: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001. (accessed December 9, 2017).

Horn, James. “The Founding of English America: Jamestown.” Magazine of History, Jan. 2011.

McPherson, James M. . fourth ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2010.

Nunn, Nathan, and Leonard Wantchekon. “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa.” The American Economic Review 101, no. 7 (Dec. 2011): 3221-52. doi: (accessed December 9, 2017).


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