Slave Narratives

By William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates Jr.


Copyright © 2000 Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-883011-76-0








As related by HIMSELF.

I will bring the Blind by a Way that they know not, I will lead them in Paths that they have not known: I will make Darkness Light before them and crooked Things straight. These Things will I do unto them and not forsake them. Isa. xlii. 16.

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Chapter One


The author's account of his country, and their manners and customs—Administration of justice—Embrenche—Marriage ceremony, and public entertainments—Mode of living—Dress—Manufactures Buildings—Commerce—Agriculture—War and religion—Superstition of the natives—Funeral ceremonies of the priests or magicians—Curious mode of discovering poison—Some hints concerning the origin of the author's countrymen, with the opinions of different writers on that subject.

I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirsto escape the imputation of vanity; nor is this the onlydisadvantage under which they labour: it is also their misfortune,that what is uncommon is rarely, if ever, believed, andwhat is obvious we are apt to turn from with disgust, and tocharge the writer with impertinence. People generally thinkthose memoirs only worthy to be read or remembered whichabound in great or striking events, those, in short, which in ahigh degree excite either admiration or pity: all others theyconsign to contempt and oblivion. It is therefore, I confess,not a little hazardous in a private and obscure individual, anda stranger too, thus to solicit the indulgent attention of thepublic; especially when I own I offer here the history of neithera saint, a hero, nor a tyrant. I believe there are few eventsin my life, which have not happened to many: it is true the incidentsof it are numerous; and, did I consider myself an European,I might say my sufferings were great: but when Icompare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regardmyself as a particular favourite of Heaven, and acknowledgethe mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life.If then the following narrative does not appear sufficiently interestingto engage general attention, let my motive be someexcuse for its publication. I am not so foolishly vain as to expectfrom it either immortality or literary reputation. If itaffords any satisfaction to my numerous friends, at whose requestit has been written, or in the smallest degree promotesthe interests of humanity, the ends for which it was undertakenwill be fully attained, and every wish of my heart gratified.Let it therefore be remembered, that, in wishing to avoidcensure, I do not aspire to praise.

    That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, towhich the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along thecoast above 3400 miles, from the Senegal to Angola, and includesa variety of kingdoms. Of these the most considerableis the kingdom of Benen, both as to extent and wealth, therichness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its king, andthe number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants. It issituated nearly under the line, and extends along the coastabout 170 miles, but runs back into the interior part of Africato a distance hitherto I believe unexplored by any traveller;and seems only terminated at length by the empire of Abyssinia,near 1500 miles from its beginning. This kingdom is dividedinto many provinces or districts: in one of the mostremote and fertile of which, called Eboe, I was born, in theyear 1745, in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka. The distanceof this province from the capital of Benin and the seacoast must be very considerable; for I had never heard ofwhite men or Europeans, nor of the sea: and our subjectionto the king of Benin was little more than nominal; for everytransaction of the government, as far as my slender observationextended, was conducted by the chiefs or elders of theplace. The manners and government of a people who have littlecommerce with other countries are generally very simple;and the history of what passes in one family or village mayserve as a specimen of a nation. My father was one of thoseelders or chiefs I have spoken of, and was styled Embrenche;a term, as I remember, importing the highest distinction, andsignifying in our language a mark of grandeur. This mark isconferred on the person entitled to it, by cutting the skinacross at the top of the forehead, and drawing it down to theeye-brows; and while it is in this situation applying a warmhand, and rubbing it until it shrinks up into a thick wealacross the lower part of the forehead. Most of the judges andsenators were thus marked; my father had long born it: I hadseen it conferred on one of my brothers, and I was also destinedto receive it by my parents. Those Embrence, or chiefmen, decided disputes and punished crimes; for which purposethey always assembled together. The proceedings weregenerally short; and in most cases the law of retaliation prevailed.I remember a man was brought before my father, andthe other judges, for kidnapping a boy; and, although he wasthe son of a chief or senator, he was condemned to make recompenseby a man or woman slave. Adultery, however, wassometimes punished with slavery or death; a punishmentwhich I believe is inflicted on it throughout most of the nationsof Africa: so sacred among them is the honour of themarriage bed, and so jealous are they of the fidelity of theirwives. Of this I recollect an instance:—a woman was convictedbefore the judges of adultery, and delivered over, as thecustom was, to her husband to be punished. Accordingly hedetermined to put her to death: but it being found, just beforeher execution, that she had an infant at her breast; andno woman being prevailed on to perform the part of a nurse,she was spared on account of the child. The men, however,do not preserve the same constancy to their wives, which theyexpect from them; for they indulge in a plurality, though seldomin more than two. Their mode of marriage is thus:—bothparties are usually betrothed when young by theirparents, (though I have known the males to betroth themselves).On this occasion a feast is prepared, and the bride andbridegroom stand up in the midst of all their friends, who areassembled for the purpose, while he declares she is thenceforthto be looked upon as his wife, and that no other personis to pay any addresses to her. This is also immediately proclaimedin the vicinity, on which the bride retires from the assembly.Some time after she is brought home to her husband,and then another feast is made, to which the relations of bothparties are invited: her parents then deliver her to the bridegroom,accompanied with a number of blessings, and at thesame time they tie round her waist a cotton string of thethickness of a goose-quill, which none but married womenare permitted to wear: she is now considered as completely hiswife; and at this time the dowry is given to the new marriedpair, which generally consists of portions of land, slaves, andcattle, household goods, and implements of husbandry. Theseare offered by the friends of both parties; besides which theparents of the bridegroom present gifts to those of the bride,whose property she is looked upon before marriage; but afterit she is esteemed the sole property of her husband. Theceremony being now ended the festival begins, which is celebratedwith bonefires, and loud acclamations of joy, accompaniedwith music and dancing.

    We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets.Thus every great event, such as a triumphant return from battle,or other cause of public rejoicing is celebrated in publicdances, which are accompanied with songs and music suitedto the occasion. The assembly is separated into four divisions,which dance either apart or in succession, and each with acharacter peculiar to itself. The first division contains the marriedmen, who in their dances frequently exhibit feats of arms,and the representation of a battle. To these succeed the marriedwomen, who dance in the second division. The youngmen occupy the third; and the maidens the fourth. Each representssome interesting scene of real life, such as a greatachievement, domestic employment, a pathetic story, or somerural sport; and as the subject is generally founded on somerecent event, it is therefore ever new. This gives our dances aspirit and variety which I have scarcely seen elsewhere. Wehave many musical instruments, particularly drums of differentkinds, a piece of music which resembles a guitar, and anothermuch like a stickado. These last are chiefly used bybetrothed virgins, who play on them on all grand festivals.

    As our manners are simple, our luxuries are few. The dressof both sexes is nearly the same. It generally consists of a longpiece of callico, or muslin, wrapped loosely round the body,somewhat in the form of a highland plaid. This is usually dyedblue, which is our favourite colour. It is extracted from aberry, and is brighter and richer than any I have seen in Europe.Besides this, our women of distinction wear golden ornaments;which they dispose with some profusion on theirarms and legs. When our women are not employed with themen in tillage, their usual occupation is spinning and weavingcotton, which they afterwards dye, and make it into garments.They also manufacture earthen vessels, of which we havemany kinds. Among the rest tobacco pipes, made after thesame fashion, and used in the same manner, as those inTurkey.

    Our manner of living is entirely plain; for as yet the nativesare unacquainted with those refinements in cookery whichdebauch the taste: bullocks, goats, and poultry, supply thegreatest part of their food. These constitute likewise the principalwealth of the country, and the chief articles of its commerce.The flesh is usually stewed in a pan; to make it savourywe sometimes use also pepper, and other spices, and we havesalt made of wood ashes. Our vegetables are mostly plantains,eadas, yams, beans, and Indian corn. The head of the familyusually eats alone; his wives and slaves have also their separatetables. Before we taste food we always wash our hands: indeedour cleanliness on all occasions is extreme; but on this it is anindispensable ceremony. After washing, libation is made, bypouring out a small portion of the food, in a certain place, forthe spirits of departed relations, which the natives suppose topreside over their conduct, and guard them from evil. Theyare totally unacquainted with strong or spirituous liquours;and their principal beverage is palm wine. This is gotten froma tree of that name by tapping it at the top, and fastening alarge gourd to it; and sometimes one tree will yield three orfour gallons in a night. When just drawn it is of a most delicioussweetness; but in a few days it acquires a tartish andmore spirituous flavour: though I never saw any one intoxicatedby it. The same tree also produces nuts and oil. Ourprincipal luxury is in perfumes; one sort of these is an odoriferouswood of delicious fragrance: the other a kind of earth;a small portion of which thrown into the fire diffuses a mostpowerful odour. We beat this wood into powder, and mix itwith palm oil; with which both men and women perfumethemselves.

    In our buildings we study convenience rather than ornament.Each master of a family has a large square piece ofground, surrounded with a moat or fence, or enclosed with awall made of red earth tempered; which, when dry, is as hardas brick. Within this are his houses to accommodate his familyand slaves; which, if numerous, frequently present theappearance of a village. In the middle stands the principalbuilding, appropriated to the sole use of the master, and consistingof two apartments; in one of which he sits in the daywith his family, the other is left apart for the reception of hisfriends. He has besides these a distinct apartment in which hesleeps, together with his male children. On each side are theapartments of his wives, who have also their separate day andnight houses. The habitations of the slaves and their familiesare distributed throughout the rest of the enclosure. Thesehouses never exceed one story in height: they are always builtof wood, or stakes driven into the ground, crossed with wattles,and neatly plastered within, and without. The roof isthatched with reeds. Our day-houses are left open at thesides; but those in which we sleep are always covered, andplastered in the inside, with a composition mixed with cowdung,to keep off the different insects, which annoy us duringthe night. The walls and floors also of these are generally coveredwith mats. Our beds consist of a platform, raised three orfour feet from the ground, on which are laid skins, and differentparts of a spungy tree called plaintain. Our covering iscalico or muslin, the same as our dress. The usual seats are afew logs of wood; but we have benches, which are generallyperfumed, to accommodate strangers: these compose thegreater part of our household furniture. Houses so constructedand furnished require but little skill to erect them.Every man is a sufficient architect for the purpose. The wholeneighbourhood afford their unanimous assistance in buildingthem and in return receive, and expect no other recompensethan a feast.

    As we live in a country where nature is prodigal of herfavours, our wants are few and easily supplied; of course wehave few manufactures. They consist for the most part of calicoes,earthern ware, ornaments, and instruments of war andhusbandry. But these make no part of our commerce, theprincipal articles of which, as I have observed, are provisions.In such a state money is of little use; however we have somesmall pieces of coin, if I may call them such. They are madesomething like an anchor; but I do not remember either theirvalue or denomination. We have also markets, at which I havebeen frequently with my mother. These are sometimes visitedby stout mahogany-coloured men from the south west of us:we call them Oye-Eboe, which term signifies red men livingat a distance. They generally bring us fire-arms, gunpowder,hats, beads, and dried fish. The last we esteemed a great rarity,as our waters were only brooks and springs. These articlesthey barter with us for odoriferous woods and earth, and oursalt of wood ashes. They always carry slaves through our land;but the strictest account is exacted of their manner of procuringthem before they are suffered to pass. Sometimes indeedwe sold slaves to them, but they were only prisoners of war,or such among us as had been convicted of kidnapping, oradultery, and some other crimes, which we esteemed heinous.This practice of kidnapping induces me to think, that, notwithstandingall our strictness, their principal business amongus was to trepan our people. I remember too they carried greatsacks along with them, which not long after I had an opportunityof fatally seeing applied to that infamous purpose.

    Our land is uncommonly rich and fruitful, and produces allkinds of vegetables in great abundance. We have plenty of Indiancorn, and vast quantities of cotton and tobacco. Ourpine apples grow without culture; they are about the size ofthe largest sugar-loaf, and finely flavoured. We have alsospices of different kinds, particularly pepper; and a variety ofdelicious fruits which I have never seen in Europe; togetherwith gums of various kinds, and honey in abundance. Allour industry is exerted to improve those blessings of nature.Agriculture is our chief employment; and every one, even thechildren and women, are engaged in it. Thus we are all habituatedto labour from our earliest years. Every one contributessomething to the common stock; and as we are unacquaintedwith idleness, we have no beggars. The benefits of such amode of living are obvious. The West India planters prefer theslaves of Benin or Eboe to those of any other part of Guinea,for their hardiness, intelligence, integrity, and zeal. Thosebenefits are felt by us in the general healthiness of the people,and in their vigour and activity; I might have added too intheir comeliness. Deformity is indeed unknown amongst us, Imean that of shape. Numbers of the natives of Eboe now inLondon might be brought in support of this assertion: for, inregard to complexion, ideas of beauty are wholly relative. I rememberwhile in Africa to have seen three negro children,who were tawny, and another quite white, who were universallyregarded by myself, and the natives in general, as far asrelated to their complexions, as deformed. Our women toowere in my eyes at least uncommonly graceful, alert, andmodest to a degree of bashfulness; nor do I remember tohave ever heard of an instance of incontinence amongst thembefore marriage. They are also remarkably cheerful. Indeedcheerfulness and affability are two of the leading characteristicsof our nation.

    Our tillage is exercised in a large plain or common, somehours walk from our dwellings, and all the neighbours resortthither in a body. They use no beasts of husbandry; and theironly instruments are hoes, axes, shovels, and beaks, orpointed iron to dig with. Sometimes we are visited by locusts,which come in large clouds, so as to darken the air, and destroyour harvest. This however happens rarely, but when itdoes, a famine is produced by it. I remember an instance ortwo wherein this happened. This common is often the theatreof war; and therefore when our people go out to till theirland, they not only go in a body, but generally take their armswith them for fear of a surprise; and when they apprehend aninvasion they guard the avenues to their dwellings, by drivingsticks into the ground, which are so sharp at one end as topierce the foot, and are generally dipt in poison. From what Ican recollect of these battles, they appear to have been irruptionsof one little state or district on the other, to obtain prisonersor booty. Perhaps they were incited to this by thosetraders who brought the European goods I mentionedamongst us. Such a mode of obtaining slaves in Africa is common;and I believe more are procured this way, and by kidnapping,than any other. When a trader wants slaves, heapplies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares. Itis not extraordinary, if on this occasion he yields to the temptationwith as little firmness, and accepts the price of hisfellow creatures liberty with as little reluctance as the enlightenedmerchant. Accordingly he falls on his neighbours, and adesperate battle ensues. If he prevails and takes prisoners, hegratifies his avarice by selling them; but, if his party be vanquished,and he falls into the hands of the enemy, he is put todeath: for, as he has been known to foment their quarrels, itis thought dangerous to let him survive, and no ransom cansave him, though all other prisoners may be redeemed. Wehave firearms, bows and arrows, broad two-edged swords andjavelins: we have shields also which cover a man from headto foot. All are taught the use of these weapons; even ourwomen are warriors, and march boldly out to fight along withthe men. Our whole district is a kind of militia: on a certainsignal given, such as the firing of a gun at night, they all risein arms and rush upon their enemy. It is perhaps somethingremarkable, that when our people march to the field a red flagor banner is borne before them. I was once a witness to a battlein our common. We had been all at work in it one day asusual, when our people were suddenly attacked. I climbed atree at some distance, from which I beheld the fight. Therewere many women as well as men on both sides; among othersmy mother was there, and armed with a broad sword.After fighting for a considerable time with great fury, andafter many had been killed our people obtained the victory,and took their enemy's Chief prisoner. He was carried off ingreat triumph, and, though he offered a large ransom for hislife, he was put to death. A virgin of note among our enemieshad been slain in the battle, and her arm was exposed in ourmarket-place, where our trophies were always exhibited. Thespoils were divided according to the merit of the warriors.Those prisoners which were not sold or redeemed we kept asslaves: but how different was their condition from that of theslaves in the West Indies! With us they do no more work thanother members of the community, even their masters; theirfood, clothing and lodging were nearly the same as theirs,(except that they were not permitted to eat with those whowere free-born); and there was scarce any other difference betweenthem, than a superior degree of importance which thehead of a family possesses in our state, and that authoritywhich, as such, he exercises over every part of his household.Some of these slaves have even slaves under them as their ownproperty, and for their own use.

    As to religion, the natives believe that there is one Creatorof all things, and that he lives in the sun, and is girted roundwith a belt that he may never eat or drink; but, according tosome, he smokes a pipe, which is our own favourite luxury.They believe he governs events, especially our deaths or captivity;but, as for the doctrine of eternity, I do not rememberto have ever heard of it: some however believe in the transmigrationof souls in a certain degree. Those spirits, whichare not transmigrated, such as our dear friends or relations,they believe always attend them, and guard them from thebad spirits or their foes. For this reason they always beforeeating, as I have observed, put some small portion of themeat, and pour some of their drink, on the ground for them;and they often make oblations of the blood of beasts or fowlsat their graves. I was very fond of my mother, and almostconstantly with her. When she went to make these oblationsat her mother's tomb, which was a kind of small solitarythatched house, I sometimes attended her. There she madeher libations, and spent most of the night in cries and lamentations.I have been often extremely terrified on these occasions.The loneliness of the place, the darkness of the night,and the ceremony of libation, naturally awful and gloomy,were heightened by my mother's lamentations; and these,concuring with the cries of doleful birds, by which theseplaces were frequented, gave an inexpressible terror to thescene.

    We compute the year from the day on which the suncrosses the line, and on its setting that evening there is a generalshout throughout the land; at least I can speak from myown knowledge throughout our vicinity. The people at thesame time make a great noise with rattles, not unlike the basketrattles used by children here, though much larger, andhold up their hands to heaven for a blessing. It is then thegreatest offerings are made; and those children whom ourwise men foretel will be fortunate are then presented to differentpeople. I remember many used to come to see me, andI was carried about to others for that purpose. They havemany offerings, particularly at full moons; generally two atharvest before the fruits are taken out of the ground: andwhen any young animals are killed, sometimes they offer uppart of them as a sacrifice. These offerings, when made by oneof the heads of a family, serve for the whole. I remember weoften had them at my father's and my uncle's, and their familieshave been present. Some of our offerings are eaten withbitter herbs. We had a saying among us to any one of a crosstemper, `That if they were to be eaten, they should be eatenwith bitter herbs.'

    We practised circumcision like the Jews, and made offeringsand feasts on that occasion in the same manner as they did.Like them also, our children were named from some event,some circumstance, or fancied foreboding at the time of theirbirth. I was named Olaudah, which, in our language, signifiesvicissitude or fortune also, one favoured, and having a loudvoice and well spoken. I remember we never polluted thename of the object of our adoration; on the contrary, it wasalways mentioned with the greatest reverence; and we weretotally unacquainted with swearing, and all those terms ofabuse and reproach which find their way so readily and copiouslyinto the languages of more civilized people. The onlyexpressions of that kind I remember were `May you rot, ormay you swell, or may a beast take you.'

    I have before remarked that the natives of this part of Africaare extremely cleanly. This necessary habit of decency waswith us a part of religion, and therefore we had many purificationsand washings; indeed almost as many, and used on thesame occasions, if my recollection does not fail me, as theJews. Those that touched the dead at any time were obligedto wash and purify themselves before they could enter adwelling-house. Every woman too, at certain times, was forbiddento come into a dwelling-house, or touch any person,or any thing we ate. I was so fond of my mother I could notkeep from her, or avoid touching her at some of those periods,in consequence of which I was obliged to be kept outwith her, in a little house made for that purpose, till offeringwas made, and then we were purified.

    Though we had no places of public worship, we had priestsand magicians, or wise men. I do not remember whether theyhad different offices, or whether they were united in the samepersons, but they were held in great reverence by the people.They calculated our time, and foretold events, as their nameimported, for we called them Ah-affoe-way-cah, which signifiescalculators or yearly men, our year being called Ah-affoe.They wore their beards, and when they died they were succeededby their sons. Most of their implements and things ofvalue were interred along with them. Pipes and tobacco werealso put into the grave with the corpse, which was always perfumedand ornamented, and animals were offered in sacrificeto them. None accompanied their funerals but those of thesame profession or tribe. These buried them after sunset, andalways returned from the grave by a different way from thatwhich they went.

    These magicians were also our doctors or physicians. Theypractised bleeding by cupping; and were very successful inhealing wounds and expelling poisons. They had likewisesome extraordinary method of discovering jealousy, theft, andpoisoning; the success of which no doubt they derived fromtheir unbounded influence over the credulity and superstitionof the people. I do not remember what those methods were,except that as to poisoning: I recollect an instance or two,which I hope it will not be deemed impertinent here to insert,as it may serve as a kind of specimen of the rest, and isstill used by the negroes in the West Indies. A virgin had beenpoisoned, but it was not known by whom: the doctors orderedthe corpse to be taken up by some persons, and carriedto the grave. As soon as the bearers had raised it on theirshoulders, they seemed seized with some sudden impulse,and ran to and fro unable to stop themselves. At last, afterhaving passed through a number of thorns and prickly bushesunhurt, the corpse fell from them close to a house, and defacedit in the fall; and, the owner being taken up, he immediatelyconfessed the poisoning.

    The natives are extremely cautious about poison. Whenthey buy any eatable the seller kisses it all round before thebuyer, to shew him it is not poisoned; and the same is donewhen any meat or drink is presented, particularly to astranger. We have serpents of different kinds, some of whichare esteemed ominous when they appear in our houses, andthese we never molest. I remember two of those ominoussnakes, each of which was as thick as the calf of a man's leg,and in colour resembling a dolphin in the water, crept at differenttimes into my mother's night-house, where I always laywith her, and coiled themselves into folds, and each time theycrowed like a cock. I was desired by some of our wise men totouch these, that I might be interested in the good omens,which I did, for they were quite harmless, and would tamelysuffer themselves to be handled; and then they were put intoa large open earthen pan, and set on one side of the highway.Some of our snakes, however, were poisonous: one of themcrossed the road one day when I was standing on it, andpassed between my feet without offering to touch me, to thegreat surprise of many who saw it; and these incidents wereaccounted by the wise men, and therefore by my mother andthe rest of the people, as remarkable omens in my favour.

    Such is the imperfect sketch my memory has furnished mewith of the manners and customs of a people among whom Ifirst drew my breath. And here I cannot forbear suggestingwhat has long struck me very forcibly, namely, the stronganalogy which even by this sketch, imperfect as it is, appearsto prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen andthose of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise,and particularly the patriarchs while they were yet in that pastoralstate which is described in Genesis—an analogy, whichalone would induce me to think that the one people hadsprung from the other. Indeed this is the opinion of Dr. Gill,who, in his commentary on Genesis, very ably deduces thepedigree of the Africans from Afer and Afra, the descendantsof Abraham by Keturah his wife and concubine (for boththese titles are applied to her). It is also conformable to thesentiments of Dr. John Clarke, formerly Dean of Sarum, inhis Truth of the Christian Religion: both these authors concurin ascribing to us this original. The reasonings of thesegentlemen are still further confirmed by the scripturechronology; and if any further corroboration were required,this resemblance in so many respects is a strong evidence insupport of the opinion. Like the Israelites in their primitivestate, our government was conducted by our chiefs or judges,our wise men and elders; and the head of a family with us enjoyeda similar authority over his household with that whichis ascribed to Abraham and the other patriarchs. The law ofretaliation obtained almost universally with us as with them:and even their religion appeared to have shed upon us a rayof its glory, though broken and spent in its passage, oreclipsed by the cloud with which time, tradition, and ignorancemight have enveloped it; for we had our circumcision (arule I believe peculiar to that people:) we had also our sacrificesand burnt-offerings, our washings and purifications, onthe same occasions as they had.