Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano was a Nigerian-born slave who was kidnapped from his village and experienced the oppression of slavery. Equiano lived during the mid-late 18th century, which is characterized by the formation of and civil unrest within the American colonies as well as the increasing demand for African slaves. A large part of the controversy that came from Equiano’s work came from his display of appreciation towards his master’s treatment of him, despite him fully understanding the loss of freedom his slavery brought. Equiano eventually bought his freedom in 1776 for 40 pounds by running his own business while still completing his slave duties. Equiano published “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself” in 1789 in London where he became an avid abolitionist. Equiano personifies slavery in a way never done before to expose it for the awful institution that it is, to promote the abolitionist movement, and to force slave-owners to acknowledge the cruelty of their actions.

Equiano’s narrative combats stereotypes about slaves and the institution of slavery. There were many common justifications held by slave-owners which were used to support slavery. White Americans believed that Africa was a dark continent filled with savages and that white intervention saved black people from this savagery. Equiano directly combats this ideology when he discusses the diverse, intricate, and vibrant culture he experienced before he was captured from his Nigerian village. Equiano furthers his abolitionist cause by comparing his village’s culture to the practices of Judaism, a culture many of his white readers can relate to. White Americans justified slavery via Christianity through the Curse of Ham. The Curse of Ham is based on a biblical story where Ham and all of his descendants are marked by being turned black. This story presents being black as inherently bad, a literal curse from God, and Equiano directly combats this through his personification of slavery. Equiano displays that he is just like any other human being, that African culture is just like any other human culture, and that black people are just as capable as white people. In fact, Equiano becomes a better voyager than most white men and becomes a better writer than most white men.

During the Revolutionary era, people began to value Enlightenment ideals over religious ideals of the past, and whites began to justify slavery through pseudoscience that claimed black people were inherently unequal in comparison to white people. Equiano directly combats this through his publication in itself. Equiano becomes more educated than most white people despite having suffered through the misfortune of slavery and he becomes a renowned writer. Despite having accomplished these great feats against all odds, critics claimed that Equiano hurts his abolitionist cause when he writes of how appreciative he is of his masters’ kindness and of how he admired white people and wanted to be like them. Equiano controversially writes, “In short he [Equiano’s master] was like a father to me, and some even used to call me after his name; they also styled me the black Christian” (Levine 704). There is a reason to believe that Equiano is simply a kind-hearted man of God who does not want to be boastful in saying that he accomplished all that he did only by himself, but he should have attempted to destroy any and all racial prejudice that suggested black people were content with being slaves.

The white elite spread a propagandistic narrative that black people were biologically inferior to white people in order to emotionally distance themselves from slaves and liken black people to cattle/property. No moral person could ever execute the cruel actions of slavery onto another equal and empathetic person like his/herself, so slave-owners crafted their own reasons to justify the atrocities they committed. Equiano directly combats this by displaying his intellect and showcasing the complex and heart-wrenching emotions he endured during his travels such as being separated from his sister and being brutalized on the Trans-Atlantic trade route. Equiano humanizes himself and displays that he is not lesser than a white person in any way. Equiano sets the stage for his later career in activism promoting abolition with the conclusion of his narrative when he expresses the joy he experienced while exercising his agency and purchasing his freedom. Equiano writes, “Accordingly, he signed the manumission that day; so that, before night, I, who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master, and completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced; and my joy was still heightened by the blessings and prayer of many of the sable race” (Levine 720-721).

“Traite des Nègres (The Slave Trade)” designed by Frédéric Etienne Joseph Feldtrappe (1786–1849) in the early 19th century after a painting by George Morland (British, London 1763–1804 London).

Works Consulted

“Designed by Frédéric Etienne Joseph Feldtrappe | Traite des Nègres (The Slave Trade) | French, Alsace | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. 5 Dec. 2017.

“English Online.” The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano. www.english-online.at/history/slavery/life-of-olaudah-equiano.htm. 5 Dec. 2017

Levine, Robert S. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.