Every year, millions of people move to a new country. From war refugees to corporate expats, migrants constantly reshape their places of origin and arrival. It is rare for a single day to pass without news coverage of the many migrations—voluntary and involuntary, documented and undocumented—that characterize contemporary life. Over the past several decades, sociologists, demographers, political scientists, and economists have given their academic views on the causes and effects of migration. For an equally valid and possibly more nuanced perspective, we can turn to literary sources: poems, short stories, novels, memoirs, and graphic novels. For migrants and non-migrants alike, literature renders migrant lives comprehensible and familiar. While one can find origin-specific anthologies (e.g., African, Caribbean, or South Asian diasporas) and destination-specific ones (e.g., Canadian, British, or US immigrant literature), this is the first collection to offer a global, comparative scope. My hope is that The Penguin Book of Migration Literature
will convey the intricacy of worldwide migration patterns, the diversity of migrant experiences, and the common threads among those varied experiences.
It is the very complexity of the migrant experience that leads me to consider this an anthology of migrant
literature rather than immigrant
literature. Definitions can be dry, but they lend clarity, and many of the terms around migration can be loaded and confusing. "Migration" denotes any long-term movement; "emigration" is the act of leaving a place; and "immigration" refers to arrival. So all migrants may be classified as emigrants or immigrants, depending on perspective, but more realistically all migrants feel themselves to be both emigrants and immigrants at once. Yet even the most welcoming and sympathetic commentators in destination countries tend to speak of "immigrant literature" rather than the more holistic "migrant literature." An anthology or university course titled "Immigrant Literature" elides migrants' prior histories, suggesting lives that begin anew in a host country. I wanted to include that sometimes neglected history, which is why I begin this anthology not with arrivals but with departures—and sometimes the decision not to depart at all. Similarly, we end not with assimilation but with the possibility of returns, for homelands always linger even if only on an emotional level.
Besides the qualities of being global and multi-directional, an essential element to note about migration is that it exists in a continuum of involuntary to voluntary. Forced migrations—enslavement, "transport" (i.e., deportation to an overseas prison), trafficking, political or religious persecution, exile, expatriation— formed the world that we know. While slavery might not have traditionally been considered within the literature of migration, I find it critical to consider the full history of people going from place to place. Therefore I have included writers like Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley, whose insights help us understand the massive forced migration known as the Atlantic slave trade.
Along with the unambiguously involuntary migrations that have shaped our current reality, many migrations fall in a gray area between involuntary and voluntary. Indentureship; war; persecution based on political activity, religion, sexuality, and other factors; lack of economic possibility: this categorical ambiguity defined the second half of the nineteenth century, and continues through the present. Zadie Smith's sensitive novella The Embassy of Cambodia
and Chris Abani's harrowing Becoming Abigail
, among other fictional sources, depict women living in a corresponding limbo. In the case of Smith's protagonist, "It was not the first time that Fatou had wondered if she herself was a slave, but this story, brief as it was, confirmed in her own mind that she was not. After all, it was her father, and not a kidnapper, who had taken her from Ivory Coast to Ghana." Legal trade in human beings may have been outlawed by the end of the nineteenth century, but millions of people still find themselves in Fatou's and Abigail's position. One of the two affecting narrators of Edwidge Danticat's short story "Children of the Sea" writes to her lover, "i thank god you got out when you did. all the other youth federation members have disappeared." The departed lover may have made a choice to leave Haiti, but it was no kind of choice if the other option was death. Similarly, in "An Honest Exit," Dinaw Mengestu's unnamed protagonist tells of his father, who "knew that if he returned home he would eventually be arrested again, and that this time he wouldn't survive, so he took what little he had left and followed a group of men who told him that they were heading to Sudan, because it was the only way out." As Warsan Shire poetically sums up these stories of semi-voluntary migration, "no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." In all these instances, migration is simply not a choice, but rather a matter of survival.
At the other end of the continuum, it's important to recognize that those who have the luxury of choosing not to emigrate are part of the story of migration as well. An example is the heroine of Salman Rushdie's uncharacteristically straightforward parable "Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies," who challenges the conventional wisdom that migration will represent a better life. We also need to consider the original inhabitants of destination countries: native people whose land, cultures, and economies bore the cost of these voluntary and forced arrivals. Within this collection, Joseph Bruchac's poem "Ellis Island" stands in for the experience of Native Americans, Canadian First Nations people, Indigenous Australians, Maori, and other indigenous people for whom the migrations of settler colonialism wrought unfathomable and unwelcome change. Further, internal or "intra-national" migration (i.e., migration within one country) can be just as transformative and traumatizing as international migration. We see this in the fiction of Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Bessie Head, and Rohinton Mistry; Langston Hughes's poetry; and within this anthology in the excerpt from Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
. As Hamid indicates, even with no change of citizenship status and no risk of deportation, internal migration—especially from rural to urban areas—can be a wrenching and isolating move.
This anthology conveys deep commonalities as well as significant differences across its literary portraits of migration. In listing the common elements, it is not my intention to homogenize or flatten the differences; migrants have a very broad range of experiences depending on race, gender, sexuality, class, language, legal status, and many other factors. However, we will also see meaningful overlaps. First, each of these pieces rebuts existing discourses and stereotypes about migrants and migration; in other words, they each have a strong counter-discursive function. Some of those discourses and stereotypes include the prevailing notions that all migrants are eager to leave their home countries; that migration is optional; that migration is permanent and unidirectional; that it automatically leads to a better life; and that the ultimate goal of migration is to assimilate to a new place.
The beautiful, dynamic literary texts contained here present a more complex and multilayered picture on all these counts. Whereas sociologists and historians differentiate between "push factors" (namely, reasons that people emigrate, for example war or economic depression) and "pull factors" (namely, reasons that people immigrate to a specific country, for instance employment opportunities or changes in immigration policy), popular media in destination countries tends to focus almost exclusively on the latter. Not much has changed in that respect since Sam Selvon observed in his 1956 short story "Come Back to Grenada": "Them English people think the boys lazy and good-for-nothing and always on the dole, but George know is only because the white people don't want to give them work." Invariably, our writers need to concern themselves with what "them English people" (or Australian, Canadian, French, German, or US people) think. In reality, as the excellent documentary The Other Side of Immigration
points out, migration would be better understood as effect rather than cause.
Relatedly, many of these pieces contest the idea of immigration policy in destination countries as moral or absolute, as opposed to being determined entirely by shifting global power relations. In Mengestu's "An Honest Exit," the narrator's father is cynically advised to "tell them you were fighting against the Communists and they will love you." Often, "push factors" stem from violent interventions on the part of destination countries—France in Algeria and Vietnam; Portugal in Angola; or the United States in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—against the popular view of destination countries as saviors or innocent victims.
Third, these pieces dispute the idea that migration is an individual or even a family-based phenomenon, eloquently asserting the collective nature of the endeavor. Witness this heartbreaking passage from Danticat's "Children of the Sea": "Since there are no mirrors, we look at each others faces to see just how frail and sick we are starting to look." Amid the trauma of forced relocation, only migrants themselves—along with the writers who document their collective experience—can validate each other's humanity. We see a similar process in Julie Otsuka's "Come, Japanese!," which tracks the creation of a new collectivity encapsulated in Otsuka's innovative first-person plural "we" narrator.
Finally, when taken as a group, the writings included here counter the primacy of the United States in the rhetorical landscape of global migration. Whereas many in the United States think of ourselves as holding a global monopoly on immigration, other countries host a far greater number of migrants relative to total population. For example, only a tiny proportion of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States—even before Donald Trump's inhumane closed-door policy—compared with Turkey, Lebanon, and other countries. Part of my purpose with this anthology is to break the United States' monopoly on the idea of being a "nation of immigrants." Understanding migration within a global scope helps us observe fundamental differences—legal, political, and cultural—as well as shared elements around the world.
Across the many migration routes depicted here, we can observe many recurring symbols. Foremost among these is the ocean, which looms large especially in the writings that recount African enslavement, South Asian indentureship, and their generational reverberations. Equiano writes of a terror of the sea that recurs in later writings on migration, especially in the African diaspora; M. NourbeSe Philip echoes him two centuries later with the loaded phrase "perils / of water." Danticat's narrator asserts horrendous continuities across time, asking, "Do you want to know how people go to the bathroom on the boat? Probably the same way they did on those slave ships years ago." The original sin of slavery generated untold wealth for England, France, Portugal, and the United States; pillaged West Africa of its human capital; and contributed to the displacement of the original people of the Americas. These literary pieces remind us that we can't understand contemporary migrations without understanding slavery and colonialism as their precursor and cause. The pieces also assert commonalities across descendants of enslaved and indentured people, as well as refugees. These voyages imperil both physical and psychic survival; they also unite those who suffer through them. As Danticat's narrator observes, "There are no borderlines on the sea."
At the same time that these readings dramatize the many commonalities among migrants, The Penguin Book of Migration
Literature helps us break apart, or dis-aggregate, the concept of migration. Intersecting categories like race, gender, sexuality, class, physical ability, language, age, and legal status profoundly structure one's experience of migration. For people from Black-majority countries, endemic anti-Black racism can come as a shock. In her poem "Home" (a spoken version of "Conversations About Home," included here), Warsan Shire records the violent and hostile epithets "go home blacks / refugees / dirty immigrants / asylum seekers / sucking our country dry," and worse. In his memoir To Sir, With Love
, E. R. Braithwaite records how, when seeking employment in London after serving in World War II, "I had just been brought face to face with something I had either forgotten or completely ignored for more than six exciting years—my black skin." Within a xenophobic destination, visible markers of religious faith can be as perilous as dark skin. In Shauna Singh Baldwin's short story "Montreal 1962," the narrator's husband finds that "I could have the job if I take off my turban and cut my hair short." Migrants from particularly marginalized groups undergo a sense of hypervisibility and a pressure to positively represent their entire perceived demographic, as Baldwin, Braithwaite, Selvon, and others of our authors illustrate. At the same time, racism can become an assimilation ritual for non-Black immigrants: solidarity among new arrivals and local communities of color may exist but isn't guaranteed.
Gender, too, heavily influences the experience of migration. Across countries and over time, destination countries have shaped their populations by legislating preferences for specific genders, historically gendered professions, and domestic configurations—for example, single men (as in the case of Chinese workers on nineteenth-century US railroads), single women (as in Filipina nurses around the world), or hetero-normative nuclear family units (as in family-based immigration policies in Europe and the United States). Border rape and predatory smugglers may add trauma for all migrants but especially those who identify as female. Further, being a migrant of a gender or sexual minority can make one particularly vulnerable, especially since family-based immigration policies become implicitly hetero-normative if a destination country fails to authorize gay marriage. Shani Mootoo's unassuming but complex short story "Out on Main Street" portrays its narrator navigating swirling eddies of racial, national, sexual, and gender identities. Her story guides us past our possibly limited, proscriptive definitions of family and community.
These readings also allow us to observe a further linked set of factors related to social class: namely, income, occupation, education, language, region of origin (country or city), and immigration status (authorized or undocumented, with much gray space in between). In Otsuka's "Come, Japanese!," class status fragments the narrator's collective "we" into "some of us . . . and some of us." As the narrator tells us, "the girls from first class had never once said hello from beneath their violet silk parasols in all the times they had walked past us up above on the deck." Similarly, in "Children of the Sea," one of Danticat's narrators reports that his fellow refugees "get into arguments and they say to one another, 'It is only my misfortune that would lump me together with an indigent like you.'" Tapping into the critical importance of immigration status and employment status, Deepak Unnikrishnan writes of the "Temporary. People. / Illegal. People. / Ephemeral. People. / Gone. People" whose lives differ radically from permanent migrants. The official discourses of migration employ deceptively discrete categories—economic migrant, refugee, asylum seeker, expatriate, student, stateless person, trafficking victim—that in reality overlap and blur. These literary texts bring to life both the significance and the instability of such categories.
The inter-sectional categories multiply. As our literary texts demonstrate, much depends on when, how, and to where one emigrates. Policies of destination countries—for instance jus soli
(citizenship by birth location) versus jus sanguinis
(citizenship by parents' ethnic origin)—significantly affect migrant lives, as do tolerance, or lack thereof, for minority religious practices. Many of the characters we will meet here have been shaped by multiple diasporas—e.g., the Afro-Caribbean Londoners in Selvon's "Come Back to Grenada," and the IndoCaribbean Canadians in Mootoo's "Out on Main Street." As Mootoo's narrator observes sardonically, "I used to think I was a Hindu par excellence
until I come up here and see real flesh and blood Indian from India." Timing matters as well. Selvon shows how an earlier migration can cushion the impact for later arrivals: "George can't help thinking how things change a lot since he first come England, how now it have so many spades that you bouncing up with one every corner you turn." Djamila Ibrahim narrates the seldom told story of migrant domestic workers threatened by civil war in an already hazardous destination. Depending on the author's perspective and characters' or poetic speakers' experience, we may see isolation or community; dehumanization or empathy; trauma or triumph.
Appropriately for the vast difference in the experiences portrayed, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature
also encompasses a variety of literary styles and techniques. Here are love stories, coming-of-age stories, school stories, and travel narratives; tight rhymes, gliding free verse, and experimental lyrics; heartrending tales and wryly humorous observations. Just as there is no singular migrant experience, there are myriad ways of writing about migration.
I have divided our literary texts into four sections—departures, arrivals, generations, and returns—with the aim of imparting the full range of the migration experience, from the complex and often ambivalent decision to emigrate; to the act of relocating; to the process of adjusting to a new home; to the lives of migrants' first-generation children; to the backflow of many migrations. While useful, this structure implies a uni-directionality that the readings themselves will helpfully disrupt. Similarly, I have arranged each section chronologically according to the time period during which each piece takes place; again, this organization felt generally useful, but may obscure the historical and aesthetic present of each writer. In other words, many of our writers (like Julie Otsuka, or NourbeSe Philip, to name only two) are deeply immersed in a bygone period yet also informed by the political concerns and narrative innovations of their own time. I hope that readers will keep in mind the many links among and across these chronologically ordered sections.
The stories and poems in our opening section present the reasons why people migrate—or don't. As mentioned above, I felt it important to counter a simplistic, unidirectional immigration narrative by acknowledging migrants as people with deep histories—individual as well as collective—that predate their migration, rather than newly created humans whose lives begin on a boat, plane, or desert crossing. We will see homelands portrayed as idyllic (as in Equiano's Interesting Narrative
and Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation
) or hellish (as in Shire's "Conversations About Home"). In the category of voluntary and semivoluntary migrants, many are motivated by misleading myths generated in destination countries. Otsuka's voyagers believe that "in America the women did not have to work in the fields and there was plenty of rice and firewood for all. And wherever you went the men held open the doors and tipped their hats and called out, 'Ladies first' and 'After you.'" In his autobiographical story "Under the Wire," Francisco Jiménez's brother tells him that "people there sweep money off the streets." Djamila Ibrahim, in her short story "Heading Somewhere," writes of "young women who'd left Addis Ababa to work as maids in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and elsewhere, light on luggage and high on anticipation for a better life." The protagonist of Marina Lewycka's Strawberry Fields
seeks out a scene "just like England is supposed to be." Poet Dunya Mikhail goes further, to imagine "another planet / beyond this Earth," free of war, weapons, and police. Here she shares the utopian strain seen in many of these readings, including those that depict escape from the most horrific conditions. These writers can always see a better world, even if it lies past the solar system or (as in Equiano and Danticat) at the bottom of the sea.
This section also conveys the trauma of children left behind, rarely discussed but seen here in Edwidge Danticat's exquisite foreword and Paulette Ramsay's epistolary novella Aunt Jen
, as well as elsewhere in Lisa Harewood's short film Auntie
, Harewood's vital Barrel Stories oral history project, and the compassionate and illuminating documentary The Other Side of Immigration
(all listed, along with many others, in the "Suggestions for Further Reading and Viewing" at the end of this book). After all, those who stay home—whether by choice or otherwise—also belong in the complex story of migration.
In our next section, many migrants find that their destination falls far short of the alluring promises that those migrating voluntarily, at least, had been given. The women in Otsuka's story learn that "the letters we had been written had been written to us by people other than our husbands, professional people with beautiful handwriting whose job it was to tell lies and win hearts." In Baldwin's "Montreal 1962," the narrator observes bitterly that "this was not how they described emigrating to Canada. . . . No one said then, 'You must be reborn white-skinned—and clean-shaven to show it—to survive.'" Migrants find themselves reduced to the labor they can provide, as Emine Sevgi Özdamar's narrator reveals in The Bridge of the Golden Horn
: "While we were working we lived in a single picture: our fingers, the neon light, the tweezers, the little radio valves and their spider legs." They are beset by nostalgia, as Claude McKay's poetic speaker conveys in "The Tropics in New York," when, "hungry for the old, familiar ways, / I turned aside and bowed my head and wept." As well as the lost geographies of home, they may long for far-flung family members separated by cost or by law, and for missed milestones like births, weddings, and funerals.
In an environment that is at best indifferent and at worst murderously hostile, there are also compensations. Like the journey, the arrival may be made bearable by other people. Selvon writes: "Long time George used to feel lonely little bit, but all that finish with since so much West Indian come London." Migrants build communities that are not only national, ethnic, and racial, but also affiliative in other, undefinable ways—for example the connection between Punjabi taxi driver Parvez and English prostitute Bettina in Hanif Kureishi's "My Son the Fanatic" (included as part of our "Generations" section but also relevant here). Throughout this section, as Edwidge Danticat explains in her foreword, the concept of "home" undergoes radical redefinition. Turning to Selvon once more: "When he think 'bout home it does look so far away that he feel as if he don't belong there no more." In all these selections, adaptation is gradual and nonlinear, as Unnikrishnan imparts in his staccato line "Acclimatizing. Homesick. / Lovelorn. Giddy." In that process of adaptation, migrants reinvent the seemingly static national identities of both origin and destination countries.
The next section contains readings that depict the experience of children and adults with migrant parents. This is another fuzzy category within the discourse on migration, as most commentators use "first generation" while others use "second generation" to denote the offspring of migrants. Both terms are imperfect, in that both erase the previous generations in origin countries; both are also overly clean-cut, in that many migrants travel as children themselves, and thus could make up a "generation .5" or "generation 1.5" (depending on the numbering system). In any case, it seemed important to include the reality of these offspring, whom some writers describe as caught between worlds. In "The Time of the Peacock," Mena Abdullah explores the sensation of control—or lack thereof—over one's surroundings: for young Nimmi, growing up in an Indian family in rural Australia, "the hills were wrong." For Zadie Smith's teenaged Irie Jones in White Teeth
, not the landscape but her own body is wrong. Mehdi Charef's narrator characterizes protagonist Majid in terms that sum up many first-generation experiences around the world: "For a long time he's been neither French nor Arab. He's the son of immigrants—caught between two cultures, two histories, two languages, and two colours of skin." For Marjane Satrapi, who moved from Iran to Austria as a young adult, "The harder I tried to assimilate, the more I had the feeling that I was distancing myself from my culture, betraying my parents and my origins, that I was playing a game by somebody else's rules." To Shani Mootoo's doubly diasporic Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian narrator, "we is watered-down Indians—we ain't good grade A Indians." Charef, Kureishi, and others dramatize the parent-child conflict that takes its particular shape from the condition of migrancy. In "Green," Sefi Atta's young narrator differentiates herself from the embarrassing "they" of her Nigerian immigrant parents: "'What's it like being African?' my friend Celeste asked when we used to be friends. 'I don't know,' I told her. I was protecting my parents. I didn't want Celeste to know the secret about Africans. Bones in meat are very important to them. They suck the bones and it's so frustrating I could cry."
However, that isn't the whole story: other writers voice a triumphant mood of presence and innovation. Safia Elhillo's elegantly woven poem "origin stories (reprise)" consists of multiplying and competing origin narratives that eventually settle calmly into a strong matrilineal sense of self. Atta's "Green" closes with the exultant sequence "This is it. Me, scoring. My mom looking like she loves soccer. My dad looking like he really loves the President. Three of us, looking like we really belong." Tato Laviera's vibrant poem "AmeRícan" defies a simplistic model of assimilation as cultural loss, insisting that "we blend / and mix all that is good!" By revising "American" into "AmeRícan," Laviera shows how Puerto Rican internal migrants alter their destination as well as themselves, just as Selvon's migrants forcefully transform Britain into Brit'n. Food, music, religion, names, language: every element of both origin and host cultures changes irrevocably as new generations evolve and thrive.
Many of the pieces throughout The Penguin Book of Migration Literature
emphasize the continual and multi-directional nature of migration, which is not a discrete process but an ongoing condition. Therefore I have also included a brief, one item mini-section to reinforce that sense of flux. Some of the migrations included here may be permanent, but others (such as those depicted in Unnikrishnan's and Lewycka's excerpts) are temporary or partial. In Laviera's description, "across forth and across back / back across and forth back / forth across and back and forth / our trips are walking bridges!" And even when migrations are physically permanent, homelands still linger on an emotional level. This last section consists solely of Pauline Kaldas's short story "A Conversation," which captures a dilemma common to many migrants and their children. Kaldas's unresolved dialogue stands in eloquently for a number of other literary explorations of migrant returns, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah
, Naomi Jackson's The Star Side of Bird Hill
, Tayeb Salih's "Season of Migration to the North", and Zoë Wicomb's October
. These works present a multifaceted and composite vision of migration that is more complex than my own table of contents might indicate.
The Penguin Book of Migration Literature
contains those poems, stories, and excerpts that I have most enjoyed teaching, and feel most compelled to share with a wider audience. My selections are inevitably subjective and massively incomplete; there is practically an infinite number of other gorgeous and compelling works that I could have included. For this reason I have added a list of reading and viewing suggestions at the end of the volume—print sources as well as film and online materials. Here I have gathered many titles that I would have loved to include but could not for reasons of space. While I aimed for a wide range of migrations and migration experiences, given the breadth of the topic, many significant migration routes do not appear in this anthology. The "Suggestions for Further Reading and Viewing" is more comprehensive, comprising important routes (Europe to the United States; West Africa to France; Latin America to Spain); aspects of the migration experience (sex trafficking; statelessness; long-term detention; family separation at borders); and specific catastrophic events (Russian pogroms against Jews; the Armenian genocide; the Holocaust; the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan; the 1948 Palestinian Nakba; mass exoduses driven by armed conflict, in Vietnam, Liberia, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia, among other places). Like the table of contents, the "Suggestions for Further Reading and Viewing" indicates the specific migration routes depicted in a particular text or film.
When planning the anthology I omitted some older materials (such as John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity") that would have enriched the collection but that I felt had already been widely circulated elsewhere; Penguin Classics features an impressive collection of historical writings on European exploration and migration, including the travel writings of Marco Polo, Columbus, and Cabeza de Vaca, as well as the Mayflower
Papers, to which readers may turn. I steered away, as well, from nineteenth and early-twentieth-century US-based writings likely to appear in multiple anthologies of US immigrant literature. Many of these, too, are available in Penguin Classics, from Mary Antin's The Promised Land
to Anzia Yezierska's Hungry Hearts
The writings collected here represent only a sliver of literature on migration. Indeed, one could commit to reading "only" fiction and poetry about migration and still barely scratch the surface of this critical topic. The history of migration, after all, is the history of humanity. Even the supplementary list of suggestions for further reading and viewing is itself necessarily incomplete: migrations will continue; migrants will suffer and flourish; new migration stories will be written, sung, painted, filmed, and coded. I encourage interested readers to visit the website comparativemigration.weebly.com
, where I will keep an ongoing list of migration literature to which I invite you to contribute. In closing, I will turn to our contents pages and ask readers to consider how the bleakness of the first epigraph ("no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark") contrasts with the optimism of the last one ("defining myself my own way any way many / many ways"). It is up to those of us already in destination countries to mitigate the former and ensure the latter—and to act toward better conditions in origin countries—so that all migrations may be as optional and joyous as they are enriching.
THE PENGUIN BOOK OF MIGRATION LITERATURE
No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.
—Warsan Shire, Home
THE INTERESTING NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF OLAUDAH EQUIANO
. . .
That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along the coast above 3400 miles, from the Senegal to Angola, and includes a variety of kingdoms. Of these the most considerable is the kingdom of Benen, both as to extent and wealth, the richness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its king, and the number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants . . . This kingdom is divided into many provinces or districts: in one of the most remote and fertile of which, called Eboe, I was born, in the year 1745, in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka. The distance of this province from the capital of Benin and the sea coast must be very considerable; for I had never heard of white men or Europeans, nor of the sea . . .
As we live in a country where nature is prodigal of her favours, our wants are few and easily supplied; of course we have few manufactures. They consist for the most part of calicoes, earthern ware, ornaments, and instruments of war and husbandry. But these make no part of our commerce, the principal articles of which, as I have observed, are provisions. In such a state money is of little use; however we have some small pieces of coin, if I may call them such. They are made something like an anchor; but I do not remember either their value or denomination. We have also markets, at which I have been frequently with my mother. These are sometimes visited by stout mahogany-coloured men from the south west of us: we call them Oye-Eboe, which term signifies red men living at 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 articles they barter with us for odoriferous woods and earth, and our salt of wood ashes. They always carry slaves through our land; but the strictest account is exacted of their manner of procuring them before they are suffered to pass. Sometimes indeed we sold slaves to them, but they were only prisoners of war, or such among us as had been convicted of kidnapping, or adultery, and some other crimes, which we esteemed heinous. This practice of kidnapping induces me to think, that, notwithstanding all our strictness, their principal business among us was to trepan our people. I remember too they carried great sacks along with them, which not long after I had an opportunity of fatally seeing applied to that infamous purpose.
Our land is uncommonly rich and fruitful, and produces all kinds of vegetables in great abundance. We have plenty of Indian corn, and vast quantities of cotton and tobacco. Our pine apples grow without culture; they are about the size of the largest sugar-loaf, and finely flavoured. We have also spices of different kinds, particularly pepper; and a variety of delicious fruits which I have never seen in Europe; together with gums of various kinds, and honey in abundance. All our industry is exerted to improve those blessings of nature. Agriculture is our chief employment; and every one, even the children and women, are engaged in it. Thus we are all habituated to labour from our earliest years. Every one contributes something to the common stock; and as we are unacquainted with idleness, we have no beggars. The benefits of such a mode of living are obvious. The West India planters prefer the slaves of Benin or Eboe to those of any other part of Guinea, for their hardiness, intelligence, integrity, and zeal . . .
. . .
Such is the imperfect sketch my memory has furnished me with of the manners and customs of a people among whom I first drew my breath . . .
. . .
I have already acquainted the reader with the time and place of my birth. My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter. As I was the youngest of the sons, I became, of course, the greatest favourite with my mother, and was always with her; and she used to take particular pains to form my mind. I was trained up from my earliest years in the art of war; my daily exercise was shooting and throwing javelins; and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner:—Generally when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighbours' premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us; for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence to attack and carry off as many as they could seize. One day, as I was watching at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people come into the yard of our next neighbour but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young people in it. Immediately on this I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded by the stoutest of them, who entangled him with cords, so that he could not escape till some of the grown people came and secured him. But alas! ere long it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh. One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day. For a long time we had kept the woods, but at last we came into a road which I believed I knew. I had now some hopes of being delivered; for we had advanced but a little way before I discovered some people at a distance, on which I began to cry out for their assistance: but my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack. They also stopped my sister's mouth, and tied her hands; and in this manner we proceeded till we were out of the sight of these people. When we went to rest the following night they offered us some victuals; but we refused it; and the only comfort we had was in being in one another's arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears. But alas! we were soon deprived of even the small comfort of weeping together. The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other's arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us; she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days I did not eat any thing but what they forced into my mouth. At length, after many days travelling, during which I had often changed masters, I got into the hands of a chieftain, in a very pleasant country. This man had two wives and some children, and they all used me extremely well, and did all they could to comfort me; particularly the first wife, who was something like my mother. Although I was a great many days journey from my father's house, yet these people spoke exactly the same language with us . . .
This excerpt ends on page 6 of the Penguin Paperback edition.