Establishing context is important in understanding the significance of Equiano's World and the role that Gustavus Vassa played in the abolition movement. Vassa's autobiography does not always clearly establish context, and sometimes his own misunderstandings cloud an appreciation of his own evolution as an intellectual and political activist. Vassa's rendition of the notorious "Middle Passage" has to be understood in context, for example. Similarly, Vassa's exploration of different religions is worthy of reflection, while his role in the abolition movement has spawned an important scholarly literature. That Vassa's slavery overlapped with the Seven Years War requires an understanding of where he was and when, and the impact that his risky adventures had on him. His role in the first Sierra Leone colonization scheme and his importance in the abolition movement also require some discussion. Finally, Vassa's involvement in the radical politics of London in the early 1790s help to establish the context in which his autobiography was received.


The Bight of Biafra and the Atlantic

The Bight of Biafra occupies a peculiar location on the Atlantic coast of Africa. The predominant features of its coast are the mangrove swamps that are formed by the deltas of the Niger River and the Cross River to the east, before the contour of the continent shifts dramatically from an east-west axis to a north-south axis at the great geographical bend of Africa. Behind the mangrove swamps was the navigable Niger River that remained unknown to Europeans until the third decade of the nineteenth century and not an avenue for direct European trade until the 1850s, well after Vassa’s death. Why European cartographers and ship captains were so ignorant of such an obvious transportation corridor into the interior during the height of the slave trade remains a profound mystery. European cartographers, merchants, and diplomats were preoccupied with the Niger River for a long time before Vassa was born, speculating that the river disappeared into the Sahara, somehow connected with the Nile or perhaps reached the Congo River. Even the direction of flow was subject to debate, although only in Europe and not in Africa. The Niger has its source in the Fuuta Jalon highlands inland from the upper Guinea coast and the Sierra Leone River, as the Gambia and Senegal Rivers do too. The mystery of the Niger also meant that Europeans had only the vaguest idea of the people and the country in the immediate interior of the Bight of Biafra. What was known was the importance of three ports, most important being Bonny on a small outcrop of land in the delta and Calabar at the juncture of a main tributary of the Cross River to the east of the Niger delta. Almost all ships leaving the Bight of Biafra with captives left from these two places, and only to a lesser extent from Elem Kalabari, known to Europeans as New Calabar, to the northwest of Bonny in the delta.







Painting by Richard Francis Burton (1863), Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library. 

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