The great Olaudah Equiano and a fellow sailor


The fist biography by a Black Englishman, was written by Olaudah Equiano in 1789. Olaudah was born in the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now part of Nigeria. As a child he and his sister were captured and sold into slavery, being taken from Africa to the Americas by a slave ship. He suffered many ordeals and was witness to countless more, including severe beatings and the murder of fellow slaves.


Olaudah’s account of his life was a bestseller and its moving details of the outrage and brutality of slavery helped to expedite its abolition. While still a boy, Olaudah was purchased in the Caribbean by an English sea captain, inducted into the English Navy, found himself fighting sea battles against the French during the Seven Years War and even sailing to the Arctic Circle with a crew that included a young Horatio Nelson in a dangerous and failed attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage to India.


The extreme importance of the task he set himself – the dismantling of the inhuman system of enslavement – demanded that in telling his life story, Olaudah should never deviate from the truth; there were many supporters of slavery who were very keen to discredit him, some even spuriously alleging that he wasn’t even from Africa.


During his time as a gunpowder runner on an English battleship The Namur, Olaudah was intrigued by a gunner by the name of John Mondle. John was not an exactly upright citizen: “a man of very indifferent morals,” is how Olaudah described him, but he did have a curious gift. He could sense and see things others could not.


One April night, John awoke from a nightmare in “so great a fright” that he felt compelled to leave his cabin and make for the ship’s deck, where he told those on watch he repented of all his old ways. He even went as far as giving away his stash of hard liquor. He returned to his cabin three hours later, and tried reading from the Bible, but still he could find no peace of mind. He upped and left his cabin again, at the exact moment the Namur was struck by a huge drifting English battleship, the Lynne, under the command of a Captain Clark. The Lynne, recalled Olaudah, “struck our ship with her cutwater right in the middle of his bed…in a minute there was not a bit of wood to be seen where Mr. Mondle’s cabin stood; and he was so near being killed that some of the splinters tore his face.” Both Olaudah and John Mondle were convinced Mondle had been spared through divine intervention.


Olaudah was witness to another and perhaps more extraordinary example of Mondle’s uncanny talents. One particular day, when the Namur was anchored at Bayonne, John Mondle came upon a member of the crew in the gun room. It seems he was surprised to see this sailor in that area of the ship, because he mentioned it to officers when he came onto the quarter-deck. They told him that the man he believed he had just seen was not on board at all. Instead, he was at sea on one of the Namur’s boats, with the ship’s Lieutenant. Mondle, however, was adamant that he had just seen the man, and he managed to convince others to help him search the ship. He was nowhere to be seen. But, Olaudah added,  “when the boat returned some time afterwards, we found the man had been drowned at the very time Mr. Mondle thought he saw him.” These events: the doomed making themselves visible to other persons at the instant of their deaths, is a rare but by no means unique event. The phenomenon, known as a crisis apparition, can involve reported sightings of an apparently solid living individual hundreds or even thousands of miles from the scene of their death.  Perhaps the most famous case was that of Harold Owen, who encountered his brother the famous war poet Wilfred Owen in his own ship’s cabin at the very moment Wilfred was dying on the Western Front



Dale’s Riddle

In 1981 I was working with Dale, a New Zealander who had fought with the South Vietnamese and Americans in the infamous Vietnam War. Dale told me that one of the exercises they had to do out there was patrol the dense local forests, to flush out enemy soldiers. These were extremely dangerous mission, as any accidental noise he or his companions might make, such as snapping a branch underfoot or dropping a piece of equipment, would immediately alert the Viet Cong of their wherabouts, and result in their being shot at and perhaps killed. Hence, the patrol had to be undertaken with the utmost delicacy and in complete silence. But, Dale told me, some of the American GIs would take transistor radios with them, so they could have music for company. Needless to say, a high percentage of these young guys would not survive the mission. Why would they take such a crazy risk, I asked Dale. Because they were high on drugs, was Dale’s conclusion. I couldn’t really see this, as most drugs make the consumer even more cautious, not far less. Dale’s story troubled me. It made no sense. It would play on my mind for almost 40 years.


The UK Government and its senior advisers have been at pains to emphasise and praise the wonderful work so many of us have done to stem the spread of COVID19, and perhaps there have been some parts of the country where the great majority of locals have been pulling together to contain the virus. I can’t know, because Lockdown means I’m only able to make a judgement of my own town, Bournemouth. And here people have more or less abandoned social distancing, even though they’ve been told a thousand times that keeping two metres apart will help keep them and the wider population safe. Debbie and I were walking side-by-side on a clifftop pathway a few days ago. A woman and man were coming from the opposite direction so we slid into single file to give them space to pass by, which they duly did. A few paces later, the man suddenly turned back to face us and said, “Can I just congratulate you two on moving aside for us; you’re the first people who’ve done this since we came out.” I know that the great majority of people who catch COVID don’t get seriously ill, but some do, and of these some get the dreaded Long COVID, and a few get dead. It’s a dangerous condition. 125,000 UK citizens are dead. And yet people get so close to others that they literally rub shoulders. How much effort, I ask myself, is required to move just one pace to the left or right? Too much? Yes, too much. Having to be in a state of high vigilance for months demands more than most people can give, so they simply stop bothering. And at last, after 40 years, I had it – the answer to Dale’s riddle. Why did those young Americans hold radios to their ears when they knew it could be the death of them? Because they were just fed up with all the effort of trying not to die.