Jacobs lead a very easy life for a slave. Being born into a kind family and having a grandmother to watch out for her allowed her to have a childhood that was almost enviable, although she was mistreated after her original mistress died she never had to experience the brutal torture many slaves faced at the hands of their masters. Many would wonder why she ran away from her home and family when her life was not all that bad and could get a lot worse, however even though her life was not in constant danger of physical abuse she was still a slave and subject to her master’s every whim. This situation alone is enough to make a person risk life and limb to be able to reach freedom.
Unlike Jacobs, Equiano was not born a slave and instead was captured at the age of 11 by slave traders, however he did not immediately get shipped to the Americas as slaves but instead his first master was from another tribe. The slave trade was already well founded in Africa for many many years before the Americas started to import slaves, while this does not absolve the fact that the America in modern history was one of the worst countries for slave trading it does show that America were not the originators of the African slave trade.
Equiano passed through many masters before coming to the Americas and still even more after his arrival in America and throughout all this time none of his masters treated him badly. This in of itself does not evidence anything but compared to the slavery of Jacobs day it shows a general shift in the treatment of personal slaves. Equiano was treated not just as a slave but many times as a companion and a trusted friend, but in general slaves were in Jacobs day treated badly as property and nothing more by the majority of owners. This could have evolved because the great increase in required slave labor and the resulting need of the masters to “deaden” themselves to the fact that the slaves were also humans not just slaves.
Slavery took many forms for many different people, while some had relatively easy lives like Equiano that ended with legal freedom, some had harder lives like Jacobs who felt it was necessary to run away to be free and still others faced every day in terror for their lives and only found freedom after death. It is not the slave who decides what kind of life they lived but the slave’s owners if Equiano had been sold to a Caribbean plantation originally before he was able to impress his kinder masters his life would have ended very differently.
Not many people in this day and age would say that slavery is okay, but can you really say it is completely wrong? Slavery has existed in one form or another for thousands of years, in the Roman Empire a slave could become very wealthy and powerful with years of work and slaves in many households were considered priceless. Although many people would like to say that slavery is 100% wrong it is hard to do so after looking at the historical basis of slavery and what slaves have allowed societies to accomplish. Another way to look at is in the northern states during the slave era immigrants were used to work in the factories as labor. These immigrants lived in conditions similar to that of the slaves and even though they had no papers to say they were owned by the factory they were slaves to it because they needed to eat. This leads us to the question each person must decide for themselves: “What is a slave?”
These two stories show two different types of slavery, one in which the slave is trusted as a companion not just property, and the second where the slaves are treated as property. However slavery has many forms from the Roman Empire when a trusted slave could become richer and more powerful than most freemen to people who are held in bondage for “debts” they can never fully repay. All of these are slavery yet not all are owned as property and not all live miserable lives. So the question remains what is a slave?
A slave by definition is someone owned by another as property but there are many situations where people find themselves in slave-like situations without being owned. One can decide that slavery is any situation where decisions are made for them is slavery, yet most children have decisions made by their parents and they are not slaves, the military decides what it is going to do and tells the average soldier what to do, even the average boss tells his employees what to do. None of the preceding situations are slavery. Another much more likely real-world definition of slavery is any situations where a persons choices are not made by oneself and the decisions made are specifically without regard to the person’s well-being.
Even a well treated slave is a slave, and the decision to sell a person to another, no matter who the buyer is, is a decision that is never to the slaves benefit. For although the seller may mean well and sell the slave to a “kind” master there is no guarantees that the slave will stay with the new master. Even if a Roman slave could accumulate power and wealth it could just as easily be taken from him if his master had a need. Similarly immediately after the end of the Civil War and the freedom of the slaves many times the land and equipment would be rented back to the former slaves at prices they could never fully repay, they were still slaves although instead of being slaves to a man they were slaves to a balance sheet.
A second question that is raised asks is it wrong to own slaves? In the case of Olaudah Equiano his family owned slaves and had he stayed with his family he too would eventually have owned slaves. But does this fact make him a bad person? Some people may say that it was his karma coming back to get him, others may say that just by owning slaves it does not make a person bad the only thing that matters is how they treat their slaves. But really the question is left up to the individual culture that the owner and slave came from. Few would argue that it was acceptable for Americans to import Africans to work in servitude on plantations, yet for Africans to make slaves out of their enemies was culturally sound. Equiano spoke of how captured enemies would become slaves and either they would be sold to slave traders or kept in the capturing village, this was expected by both sides in a conflict. The captured slaves would integrate themselves into their new villages almost as full members and most would not attempt to flee. Therefore it is not possible for a person from a different culture to declare that what the Ibo and similar tribes did was wrong because unlike ourselves who consider the idea of slavery to be forbidden to us the members of the tribes knew and expected to become slaves should certain events take place. No single culture can say something is wrong for another culture because the judging of other cultures lead to the Spanish Inquisition and opened the way for people to legitimize the slave trade in “barbaric” Africa.