“But is not the slave trade entirely a war with the heart of man? And surely that which is begun by breaking down the barriers of virtue involves in its continuance destruction to every principle, and buries all sentiments in ruin!” (Equiano). Olaudah Equiano was a slave during the late eighteenth century. After buying his freedom, he later publish his widely known, at that time, autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. It stemmed many discussions of slavery by various critics. This paper delves into those various critic’s ideas and explores the impact of Equiano’s autobiography on the world of slavery and the anti-slavery movement. I will argue that Equiano’s autobiography did indeed have an influential role in the British abolition movement, positively impacting it and the ultimate demise of the slave trade. The above quote is from Equiano’s autobiography and is an example of him speaking out against slavery. He says slavery does not follow God’s teachings or any sort of virtue. From this, one can gather that Equiano was clearly not in favor of slavery.
Review of literature
After Olaudah Equiano passed away, “Frederick Douglass continued the slave narrative tradition with the publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, in 1845. Equiano and Douglass led lives that would have been envied by most slaves. Each man gained his freedom out of bondage–a privilege that the majority of their brethren never knew…Both overcame racism and tyranny so that their message could be heard. They learned to read and write, became free men, and contributed to the abolishment of slavery,” (Miller). There were other slave narratives besides Douglass’s and Equiano’s, such as Ottobah Cugoano, Henry Bibb, Ignatius Sancho, and many others.
It is important to see many of these narratives that were written because it shows what slaves and Africans have gone through throughout the years. They went from not having the privilege of receiving an education to writing their own autobiographies. They had their rights somewhat restored and still continue to fight for them. In the past, “there were no schools in the southern states of America that admitted black children to its free public schools,” (Simkin). According to Henry Bibb’s slave narrative, “slaves were not allowed books, pen, ink, nor paper, to improve their minds.” Those caught trying to teach slaves, no matter the race, were convicted and imprisoned. Although is was legal to create schools for blacks in the North, many were burned down or vandalized. But after many laws were passed, blacks living in America were finally able to go to school and get an education. Although this was in America, similar things were occurring in other countries. Although many whites disapproved of blacks being educated, many “white abolitionists encouraged writing by literate ex-slaves because it disproved the notion that blacks were inferior, irrational being suited by nature for slavery,” (Marren 94).
OLAUDAH EQUIANO’S YOUTH
In the Obeo province of the kingdom of Benin now known as Southern Nigeria, Olaudah Equiano was born the youngest of seven children. His father was leader in the village they lived in and Equiano was supposed to become the next leader of his village, going down the path his family wanted for him. While researching Equiano, Catherine Ancholou, an associate professor of English Literature at Awule College of Education in Nigeria concluded that “Equiano was growing up in an environment where the sky was his limit. He had everything going for him. He had rich parents. He was of a noble parentage and family, and extended family of judges… There was money. There was name. He was a favorite of his parents…” Equiano practically had his future set up for him. He was to be a judge and a leader, as his father and other men in his family were. He was supposed to live a good life. Unfortunately, this was not the life destiny had for him. Because slavery was such a big part of Equiano's tribe, this meant the possibility of being kidnapped was high for anyone and everyone. One day, while he was looking after their home, him and his sister were captured by two men and a woman.
LIFE AS A SLAVE
After only a few days, he no longer had his sister by his side and was alone. For the first six or seven months after his abduction, he remained in Africa and had many different masters as he traveled closer and closer to the coast. Most of the families he was sold to treated him very well, unlike how most slaves were treated at this time. I assume this is because of two things: one, he was still just a child; only eleven years old, and two, he was still in Africa amongst his own race. I believe they took pity on the fact that he was a slave, but still were not about to pass the offer of using him for work.
When the six months had passed by and he was finally brought to the coast, Equiano recalls in his autobiography “the first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo.” He compares himself to that of cargo, seeing as the slave ship’s only real cargo is, in fact, slaves. “These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board…I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they[the white men on the crew] were going to kill me.” The transition of the fear he felt at that moment compared to everything he had experienced before this moment is quite sudden. Right before he described this experience, he speaks about the various countries he had visited in Africa and how different each of his masters were. But then he suddenly talks about this slave ship and how frightened he was just to board it. He describes his first time seeing white men as “their complections too differing so much from ours, their long hair and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever head) united to confirm me in this belief. On his journey to Barbados via the Middle Passage, Equiano illustrates the conditions of the slaves aboard the ship and the ship itself. “…A multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted my fate.” He even went as far as to say, “I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation,” and “I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me.” The horrors of the Middle Passage that Equiano witnessed and experienced first hand is something many slaves had to endure. The inhumanity of this forced dispora is what made Equiano such an active abolitionist later in his life.
Barbados is where buyers bought slaves, but once Equiano arrived, he was not purchased. Because of this, he was sent to the English colony of Virginia and was finally bought. He worked for this master for little than a month before he was sold again. His new master, Michael Henry Pascal, was a Royal Navy lieutenant who owned Equiano for seven years and eventually renamed him Gustavus Vassa. They lived aboard Pascal’s ship and Equiano worked as a deckhand. Because he was obedient and helpful, Pascal not only decided to promise to free him once the Seven Years’ War ended, but he also sent Equiano to his sister-in-law in England so that he could learn to read and write. Pascal’s sister-in-law welcomed Equiano and he was taught how to read and write. While in England, he was converted to Christianity and got baptised. By the time the war ended and the British had won, Pascal sold Equiano to Captain James Doran instead of giving him the freedom that was promised. Equiano went to the Caribbean with Doran and once again got a new master, Robert King. King was an American Quaker merchant who traded in the Caribbean but lived in Philadelphia. He helped Equiano with his English and promised him his freedom if he could cough up forty pounds, which was the amount King bought him for, in return. While with King, Equiano worked with him on shipping routes and even in stores. In order to come up with the forty pounds, he began to trade on the side and sold items such as fruits. He said he was “determined to make every exertion to obtain my freedom, and to return to Old England.” Within two years, he was able to pay King and finally bought his freedom back in 1767.
POST SLAVE LIFE
As Equiano received his manumission he expressed that he had “become my own master, and [was] completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced; my joy was still heightened by the blessing and prayers of the sable race, particularly the aged, to whom my heart had ever been attached with reverence.” After getting his freedom back, he did exactly what he planned. He went back to England and continued to work at sea as a deckhand. He began to do other things as well, such as learning how to play the French horn and becoming an active abolitionist and getting involved in a group called the “Sons of Africa.” He made it known he was against the English slave trade and in 1789, he published his autobiography, which made him very wealthy because of the amount of people who bought it. He eventually settled down and married an Englishwoman named Susannah Cullen. He had two daughters, Anna Maria and Joanna. He then died March 31st, 1797.
IMPACT OF EQUIANO’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: LOCAL IMPACTS
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African was widely read and was praised by critics for showing the degradation of slavery and overall inhumanity of it. It was the very first slave narrative so it was no wonder that it was well read. Equiano’s autobiography became a part of the abolition campaign and significantly helped it. He began it with “a petition addressed to Parliament and ended it with his anti-slavery letter to the queen[of England],” (Hochschild). He went on a book tour to speak out against slavery and many went out to hear him speak.
While writing his autobiography, Equiano moves “the self of his slave narrator from ‘marginal’ to ‘central’ status in the international debate over slavery,” (Earley 1). Because Equiano was not born in Europe and was also an ex-slave, he fit into the “European cultural ‘margins’ category, but after writing his narrative, he moved to a “culturally ‘central’ position” that enabled him to speak his anti-slavery ideals with an “authoritative voice.”
In his article “Literacy and the Humanizing Project in Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative and Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments,” Jeffrey Gunn of the University of Glasgow argues that “the act of writing becomes a humanizing process, as Olaudah Equiano… present[s] a human image of the African slave, which illuminates the inherent contradictions of the slave trade,” (1). He agrees with Earley and a source within his own essay, Geraldine Murphy’s position on Equiano’s writing giving him an “authoritative position to present an authentic or alternative history of slavery beyond the ‘imperial gaze’ of Europeans,” (Murphy, p. 553). He brings up another slave narrative, Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species, humbly submitted to the inhabitants of Great Britain, by Ottobah Cugoano, a native of Africa and compares it to Equiano’s. Both works “became a powerful force in politics from the 1780’s onwards before achieving its goal with the official abolition of the African slave trade in 1807.”
Similar to Gunn’s thoughts, Susan Marren says the “I” that is used in Equiano’s autobiography, along with every other slave author, is meant to “liberate” the author. It creates another “self” within their writing and it, therefore, becomes real, in a sense. She also says that Equiano was “the most instrumental in bringing about an end to the slave trade,” (95). Equiano maneuvers his initial “black African I of his narrative into the position of a secure cultural insider: the royal British social reformer. He then continually evokes and erases the totalizing boundaries that demarcate social subjects and objects in eighteenth-century England…thereby mounting a quiet revolution against the conservative habits of thought that accomplish his social annihilation,” (95). She mentions that he is torn between being his “two opposing allegiances, both heartfelt. In the dedication to the narrative, he explicitly identifies himself as African, yet suggest that his stronger loyalties are to England,” (95). In his letter to Parliament within his narrative, he both flatters Parliament while also referring to the “enslaved African as his countrymen,” (96).
Marren believes Equiano had the most instrumental role of ending the slave trade. “His vigorous activism and the publication of his enormously popular narrative inquiry into that trade, and his book was frequently quoted during the proceedings. The timely appearance of his firsthand account of the enslaved life bolstered the antislavery side considerably,” (95).
IMPACT OF EQUIANO’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: A BROADER SENSE
Besides impacting himself through his writing, Equiano was also very influential in the abolition movement in Britain. As previously mentioned, Equiano went on a book tour but it was unlike the usual book tour. He took more of a political approach, as he wanted to make his writing apart of the abolition campaign at that time. “He began in London, then went on to other cities, later writing to a sympathetic clergyman in Nottingham: “I trust that my going about has been of much use to the Cause of the abolition of the accu[r]sed slave trade– a Gentleman of the Committee the Revd. Dr. Baker has said that I am more use to the Cause than half the people in the country– I wish to God, I could be so,” (Hochschild). Dr. Baker felt that Equiano was of much use to the abolition movement and he was. So many people were reading his book, “tens of thousands of Britons,” (Hochschild) and getting an idea of the true horrors of slavery and how slaves were treated.
Equiano was his own publisher. This was because firstly, he had no connection to look to like a white abolitionist would, and secondly, he had too many poor experiences with being cheated out of money by white people to put enough trust in them to publish his book, emphasizing the distrust that Africans and African Americans felt and still feel towards Caucasian people because of their rich history. The fact that he published his narrative, a work of “black-self representation” (Carey), on his own is very different than what other slaves and ex-slaves did. Even after he published it, he stayed involved with his book, again something different than the normal. “He vigorously promoted it by going on lecture tours around England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and by promoting his book he was also promoting the idea of abolition of slavery… During the early 1790’s, then, Equiano had not just turned his life story into a document opposing slavery, but had transformed his entire life into a sort of anti-slavery document,” (Carey).
The British government passed an act of Parliament in 1807, abolishing British involvement in the slave trade. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography not only helped express a former slave’s point of view of slavery and positively impacted the fight against the slave trade, but it also made him a wealthy and successful man. He impacted himself as well as others and especially influenced the fall of the slave trade. Equiano and other slave narratives encouraged slaves and former slave to write about their experiences with slavery and struggles in life due to it. Despite the efforts of former slaves, white abolitionists, and anyone involved in the anti-slavery movement, slavery still exists to this day. Equiano and others worked so hard to end the British slave trade and though they succeeded, there is still much work to be done about slavery and views towards Africans and African Americans.
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