Olaudah Equiano on the Ottomans

An excerpt from Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography where he describes his experience in Turkey in the 18th century.

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بسم الله الرحمٰن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Islamic history is a fascinating subject. And one of the most interesting things to read is an account of a foreign land written by a traveler. This book excerpt combines both of those elements.

The book is called The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. It’s an autobiography first published in 1789 by a former slave. He traveled and experienced a lot in his life, but here I want to focus on Equanio’s visit to the Ottoman Empire.

The source for this excerpt is courtesy of Project Gutenberg. A link can be found here.

Instead of using the block-quote feature, which would become inefficient for a very long excerpt, I just added lines before and after the quote. I also added my notes using a superscript (like this0) which you can read at the bottom. And I split up some long paragraphs as well. Enjoy!


…I had also a very great desire to see Turkey, and I now determined to gratify it. Accordingly, in the month of May, 1768, I told the doctor my wish to go to sea again, to which he made no opposition; and we parted on friendly terms. The same day I went into the city in quest of a master. I was extremely fortunate in my inquiry; for I soon heard of a gentleman who had a ship going to Italy and Turkey, and he wanted a man who could dress hair well. I was overjoyed at this, and went immediately on board of his ship, as I had been directed, which I found to be fitted up with great taste, and I already foreboded no small pleasure in sailing in her. Not finding the gentleman on board, I was directed to his lodgings, where I met with him the next day, and gave him a specimen of my dressing. He liked it so well that he hired me immediately, so that I was perfectly happy; for the ship, master, and voyage, were entirely to my mind.

The ship was called the Delawar, and my master’s name was John Jolly, a neat smart good humoured man, just such an one as I wished to serve. We sailed from England in July following, and our voyage was extremely pleasant. We went to Villa Franca, Nice, and Leghorn; and in all these places I was charmed with the richness and beauty of the countries, and struck with the elegant buildings with which they abound. We had always in them plenty of extraordinary good wines and rich fruits, which I was very fond of; and I had frequent occasions of gratifying both my taste and curiosity; for my captain always lodged on shore in those places, which afforded me opportunities to see the country around. I also learned navigation of the mate, which I was very fond of. When we left Italy we had delightful sailing among the Archipelago islands, and from thence to Smyrna1 in Turkey.

This is a very ancient city; the houses are built of stone, and most of them have graves adjoining to them; so that they sometimes present the appearance of church-yards. Provisions are very plentiful in this city, and good wine2 less than a penny a pint. The grapes, pomegranates, and many other fruits, were also the richest and largest I ever tasted. The natives are well looking and strong made, and treated me always with great civility.

In general I believe they are fond of black people3; and several of them gave me pressing invitations to stay amongst them, although they keep the franks, or Christians, separate, and do not suffer them to dwell immediately amongst them4. I was astonished in not seeing women in any of their shops, and very rarely any in the streets; and whenever I did they were covered with a veil from head to foot, so that I could not see their faces, except when any of them out of curiosity uncovered them to look at me, which they sometimes did. I was surprised to see how the Greeks are, in some measure, kept under by the Turks, as the negroes are in the West Indies by the white people. The less refined Greeks, as I have already hinted, dance here in the same manner as we do in my nation.

On the whole, during our stay here, which was about five months, I liked the place and the Turks extremely well. I could not help observing one very remarkable circumstance there: the tails of the sheep are flat, and so very large, that I have known the tail even of a lamb to weigh from eleven to thirteen pounds. The fat of them is very white and rich, and is excellent in puddings, for which it is much used. Our ship being at length richly loaded with silk, and other articles, we sailed for England…

[Equiano returned to England and then traveled some more, returning to Turkey in December 1769.]

…After we had transacted our business at Naples we sailed with a fair wind once more for Smyrna, where we arrived in December. A seraskier or officer took a liking to me here, and wanted me to stay, and offered me two wives; however I refused the temptation. The merchants here travel in caravans or large companies. I have seen many caravans from India, with some hundreds of camels, laden with different goods. The people of these caravans are quite brown. Among other articles, they brought with them a great quantity of locusts, which are a kind of pulse, sweet and pleasant to the palate, and in shape resembling French beans, but longer. Each kind of goods is sold in a street by itself, and I always found the Turks very honest in their dealings. They let no Christians into their mosques or churches, for which I was very sorry; as I was always fond of going to see the different modes of worship of the people wherever I went. The plague broke out while we were in Smyrna, and we stopped taking goods into the ship till it was over. She was then richly laden, and we sailed in about March 1770 for England…

[After this trip, Equiano had somewhat of a spiritual crisis. He considered many religions before settling on Christianity. But for a while, he wanted to go back to Turkey and, presumably, become Muslim.]

…I asked different people questions about the manner of going to heaven, and was told different ways. Here I was much staggered, and could not find any at that time more righteous than myself, or indeed so much inclined to devotion. I thought we should not all be saved (this is agreeable to the holy scriptures), nor would all be damned. I found none among the circle of my acquaintance that kept wholly the ten commandments. So righteous was I in my own eyes, that I was convinced I excelled many of them in that point, by keeping eight out of ten; and finding those who in general termed themselves Christians not so honest or so good in their morals as the Turks5, I really thought the Turks were in a safer way of salvation than my neighbours: so that between hopes and fears I went on, and the chief comforts I enjoyed were in the musical French horn, which I then practised, and also dressing of hair. Such was my situation some months, experiencing the dishonesty of many people here [in England]. I determined at last to set out for Turkey, and there to end my days. It was now early in the spring 1774. I sought for a master, and found a captain John Hughes, commander of a ship called Anglicania, fitting out in the river Thames, and bound to Smyrna in Turkey…

[He couldn’t go to Turkey because he had to help a friend of his in some other business. But he tried again, only to be prevented by his captain.]

…I was again determined to go to Turkey, and resolved, at that time, never more to return to England. I engaged as steward on board a Turkeyman (the Wester Hall, Capt. Linna); but was prevented by means of my late captain, Mr. Hughes, and others6


1. “Smyrna” is modern-day Izmir.

2. Wine, in the Ottoman Caliphate? Goes to show that the Muslims didn’t force Shariah on non-Muslims as everyone is always fear-mongering about.

3. Contrast this to the disgusting racism shown by some Muslims today.

4. Does this mean that Christians weren’t allowed to be Muslims’ neighbors? I wish he had gone into more detail here.

5. Wow!

6. It would have been so awesome if he settled in Turkey, but we would have never found out about his life story because the Ottomans banned the printing press! Everything happens for a reason I guess.


In the end it was disappointing that he didn’t get to return to Turkey as he wanted. But reading his account of what it was like is fascinating. Modern-day Turkey is awesome too.

Salaam,

Yousuf

17 March 2015

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