Olaudah Equiano: “Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” (1789)

O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery. (79)

Olaudah Equiano’s narrative of his enslavement and his successful path toward freedom is one of the richest tests of the eighteenth century Atlantic, and by extension colonial America. He manages to describe the various conditions of slaves across the Atlantic at the height of the slave trade, while also putting together a powerful autobiography. Slave narratives are invariably stories of resistance. The very act of writing down their life story when the white ruling class depended on their silence for the sustaining of slavery is resistance enough, but when coupled with learning to write, escaping captivity, or—as many of them document doing—challenging the very assumption of racial slavery in their everyday lives we must look at these documents as evidence of the universal nature of resistance to slavery. These narratives come to us from men and women, plantation slaves and sailors, people who purchased their freedom and people who ran away. These are unique individuals who were part of that small group that could document their stories, but they are also representatives to humanity for the millions who were worked to death and beaten into silence.

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The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was published two years before Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. As any reader of these two texts knows, the West was engaged in a debate about the meaning, limits and political possibilities of freedom in the Atlantic world. Paine and Equiano stand on the same side of that debate. Yes, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, was the first author of a slave narrative in English, but Equiano’s was the first that is clearly part of the libertarian tradition of the anti-slavery movement.

Equiano begins his narrative with a social history of the Igbo people, who he claimed to belong to. (This is controversial point and some have claimed Equiano was an African-American, making up his African birth, but I will set this aside as irrelevant for my reading.) In this chapter he does several things, most importantly establish clear moral differences between European civilization and the culture of his birth. Careful to present it as culturally and economically complex, Equiano also wants to point out that it was relatively egalitarian compared to Europe, despite being—like Europe—a society with slaves. Social distinctions do exist but they are not manifest in grotesque displays and wealth and power. “As our manners are simple, our luxuries are few. . . . Our manner of living is entirely plain.” (52–53) Equiano makes several comparisons between his people and the Jews, even suggesting some commonalities. This will evolve into an important dialog throughout African-American religious history.

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Equiano then describes the process of his enslavement and his arrival in Barbados. Most of the narrative actually focuses on his labor on various ships, both in slavery and freedom. Like Gronniosaw’s narrative, we find that the line between slavery and freedom is very clear. Equiano sees a clear moral line between the two. Yet, he would acknowledge that exploitation existed at many levels. “Masters” means both the commanders of the ships that Equiano worked on as a freeman and the people who owned him. Since he was not a plantation slave, there was not as radical a change for Equiano from slavery to freedom as there would have been for someone escaping from enslavement in the sugar islands. This is part of the reason why Equiano focused so much of his most politically powerful prose for his empathetic descriptions of plantation slavery. Perhaps he knew that his sufferings as an enslaved sailor were not so far from the sufferings of the free sailors. For his work to become an anti-slavery tract, he needed to identity and expose the most brutal aspect of the system. If he did lie about his origins and enduring the Middle Passage, this was why.

There is a passage that clarifies how exploitation and violence was not reserved for enslaved men and women.

While we were at Gibraltar, I saw a soldier hanging by his heels, at one of the moles: I thought this a strange sight, as I had seen a man hanged in London by his neck. At another time I saw the master of a frigate towed to shore on a grating, by several of the men of war’s boats, and discharged the fleet, which I understood was a mark of disgrace for cowardice. On board the same ship there was also a sailor hung up at the yard-arm. (97)

In this fashion, Equiano suggests that being a free man working on a ship contained its own brutalities and degrees of unfreedom. However, at the same time, working first as a slave and then a freedman on various naval and merchant ships provided Equiano with some space to secure his eventual freedom. Most importantly he was able to make money on the side, which he used to purchase his freedom. He was also given a degree of responsibility, to the chagrin of some of the more racist elements on board the ship.

Chapter five is the core of his anti-slavery writings, and the least autobiographical. Here is explores the nature of plantation slavery in the Caribbean sugar islands. There is no need for a full recounting (even Equiano shy away from descriptions after a while to avoid excess), but he does show that the violence of the system was developed in concert with efforts by slaves to secure some liberty. Power also develops and refines itself in the face of resistance. Without resistance power rarely needs to innovate, defend itself, or exert much effort to sustain itself. This alone suggests the moral necessity of resistance, even if futile, for it makes oppression dearly purchased.

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Equiano devotes a chapter to his conversion to Christianity and another to his growing political activities. We suspect that these are connected. Equiano enjoyed framing slaveholders as false Christians (or “nominal Christians”). His conversion was important as well, because although it involved some acceptance of his master’s culture, it is arrived at after through the logic of his life in the international Atlantic world, not forced upon him. Like Gronniosaw, Equiano came to Christianity as a free moral agent. And for Equiano at least, Christianity was a springboard for political action, not a surrender of earthly paradise for a fantastical heavenly one.

Equiano’s book is one of the most important documents speaking to eighteenth century Atlantic slavery and the emergence of commercial capitalism. For those who borrow from the pro-slavery apologists of the Old South the belief that slavery was some projection of feudalism into the modern world, Equaino’s narrative will reveal that in fact slavery and capitalism were joined at the hip. The abolitionist movement that Equiano helped formed after he settled in England was on the first stage in the struggle against the exploitations, violence, and criminality of capitalism. In fact, if you take slavery out of the Equiano’s story, we are left with a long list of abuses inflicted on free people. Equiano’s struggle may have been morally more urgent, but it was only the start.

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