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"And he never saw his family again."

For the millions of Africans taken as slaves between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, this sad statement is their story. But not so with Ajayi. In 1821, the 13-year-old member of the Yoruba tribe, from what is now western Nigeria, was eating breakfast when word came that Muslim slave raiders from another tribe were attacking his town.

"The most sorrowful scene imaginable was to be witnessed," Ajayi would later recall. "Women, some with three, four, and six children clinging to their arms, with the infants on their backs, running as fast as they could through prickly shrubs. … While trying to disentangle themselves from the ropy shrubs, they were overtaken and caught by the enemies, by a rope noose thrown over the neck of every individual, to be led in the manner of goats tied together."

Many families were separated this way, Ajayi wrote. But he, his mother, two sisters, and other family members ended up roped together. (He never again saw his father, who survived the raid but later died in a similar battle.)

But as Ajayi was bought and sold six separate times, he did become separated from his family. Despondent and suicidal, he was placed (with about 190 other captives) on a Portuguese slave ship near Lagos, bound for the transatlantic market.

The slavers, however, did not control the seas. Great Britain, which had abolished the slave trade the year Ajayi was born, was now feverishly atoning for its national sin through international abolitionist activities, including steaming its navy along the African coast. The Portuguese slave ship, the Esperanza Felix, hadn't even traveled a day when the Myrmidon and Iphigenia began their attack.

More than half of the slaves died in the attack, ...

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