Olaudah Equiano 1745-1797

Study notes

Nigerian. Wrote about his experiences during the Middle Passage. Powerful account of life under slavery. Author of one of the first slave narratives, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789) which gave shape to this autobiographic genre. Sea-going adventure, spiritual enlightenment, and economic success in England and the Americas. Espoused the highest ideals of his ear. Seventeen editions. Most influential work of English prose by an African American in the eighteenth century.
Appears to have been the first to write the story of his life himself, without the aid or direction of white ghostwriters or editors. Emphasis on the atrocities of slavery and pleads more insistently for its total and immediate abolition than any previous slave narrative. Freedom emerges as the top priority of his life in slavery. Christianity and abolitionism go hand in hand. This mating of the spiritual and the secular in the Life was prophetic of the ideological orientation of most nineteenth-century A. A. protest literature.
Use of African origins to establish his credibility as a critic of European imperialism in Africa. Although his origins have been called into question, Africa, for Equiano, is neither spiritually benighted nor socially backward.
Equiano attempted to liberate his white reader from a culturally enforced sense of superiority that prevented many whites from feeling a common bond of humanity with black people.
His book testifies in unforgettable ways to the atrocity that was the Middle Passage. Self-interested desire to master their technology and thus carve out a place for himself in the white world. Describes his successful assimilation in practically every sphere. He worked for a few different masters, learning skills along the way. By age 21, the aspiring black man was able not only to buy his freedom but also to launch his own business career. Self-emancipated, he moved to England and had quite an adventurous life. The sale of his book enabled the author to prosper as an English gentleman. Prescient and provocative example of “double-consciousness”–the African American’s fateful sense of “twoness” born of a bicultural identification with both an African heritage and a European education.

From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself

Volume I
The volume begins with a short preface in the way of a letter written “To the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain.” Equiano says the chief reason for his work is to excite “a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed.” He has endured much, but he has also gained a religion and a nation. Basically, gentlemen…I lay this work at your feet.

Chapter 1
Born in a village called Essaka in Eboe, Africa. Must have been much inland for I had never heard of white men, Europeans or the sea. My father was an elder and had the body modification to show he was grand. Description of African culture in detail. Topics explored are laws, marriage, dress, jewelry, food, perfume, housing, money and markets, land use. “Every one contributes something to the common stock…” People, farming, war, weapons, prisoners of war and slaves.
“As to religion, the natives believe that there is one Creator of all things…” Describes god, holiday rituals, circumcision, naming. The name Olaudah means fortune, one favoured, well spoken and having a loud voice. There is no cursing. The wise men make rules, do magic and doctor people. There are snakes and poisonings.
Equiano believes there is a strong connection between the African people and the first people mentioned in the bible. He discusses skin color and closes the chapter with this:
“These instances, and a great many more which might be adduced, while they shew how the complexions of the same persons vary in different climates, it is hoped may tend also to remove the prejudice that some conceive against the natives of Africa on account of their colour. Surely the minds of the Spaniards did not change with their complexions! Are there not causes enough to which the apparent inferiority of an African may be ascribed, without limiting the goodness of God, and supposing he forbore to stamp understanding on certainly his own image, because ‘carved in ebony,’ Might it not naturally be ascribed to their situation? When they come among Europeans, they are ignorant of their language, religion, manners, and customs. Are any pains taken to teach them these? Are they treated as men? Does not slavery itself depress the mind, and extinguish all its fire and every noble sentiment? But, above all, what advantages do not a refined people possess over those who are rude and uncultivated. Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous. Did Nature make them inferior to their sons? And should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, No. Let such reflections as these melt the pride of their superiority into sympathy for the wants and miseries of their sable brethren, and compel them to acknowledge, that understanding is not confined to feature or colour. If, when they look round the world, they feel exultation, let it be tempered with benevolence to others, and gratitude to God, ‘who hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth; and whose wisdom is not our wisdom, neither are our ways his ways.’”

Chapter II
I was the favorite of my mother and was always with her. I was trained in the art of war. At age eleven my sister and I were kidnapped. My sister was taken from me. The first place they put me to work I was treated well, but nonetheless spent my time scheming how to get home. My mom taught me never to lie and I was rarely beaten at home, so when I accidentally killed a chicken I got scared and ran away instead of sticking around for the punishment. I then learned my home was so far away that I would never be able to find it by myself. I finally had to go back to the house, but I was not punished.
I was sold again. As I traveled through Africa I learned two or three new languages. I was unexpectedly reunited with my sister. “I must acknowledge, in honour of those sable destroyers of human rights, that I never met with any ill treatment, or saw any offered to their slaves, except tying them, when necessary, to keep them from running away.” My sister was then taken from me a second time.
Sold again, this time to a merchant. “…I was washed and perfumed, and when meal-time came, I was led into the presence of my mistress, and ate and drank before her with her son. This filled me with astonishment: and I could scarce help expressing my surprise that the young gentleman should suffer me, who was bound to eat with him who was free; and not only so, but that he would not at any time either eat or drink till I had taken first, because I was the eldest, which was agreeable to our custom.” I came to like this place, but I was taken again.
I had a sense of never feeling settled or secure.
I came to live with people who did not circumcise. They would scar themselves and file their teeth into points. I continued to travel over land and sea. I observed farming and the various foods grown.
I was then taken aboard a slave ship where I saw black people of every description chained together. Black people were paid to bring me onboard. I began to lose hope. I was taken down under the decks where there was an unbearable stench and people crying together. “I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me…” I was severely flogged. “I would have jumped over the side, but I could not…” Those who refused to eat were beaten. Among the chained I found some from my own nation. The white people acted cruel, savage and brutal. “One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute.” I kept trying to make sense of things I’d never seen before. The whole ship’s cargo were confined together so as to become “pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate”, the crowding and suffocation. “This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration.” This brought on a sickness. The galling of the chains, the children and mothers wailing. The groans of the dying. The white men would eat the better food until they were full then throw the rest overboard rather than give it to us.
There were those who jumped overboard to their deaths. We lived on the edge of death by suffocation for want of fresh air. I saw so many unexplainable things that “I was now more persuaded than ever that I was in another world, and that every thing about me was magic.” “They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people.” “We were not many days in the merchant’s custody before we were sold after their usual manner, which is this:–On a signal given, (as the beat of a drum) the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamour with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of the terrified Africans…” Relations and friends were separated, never to see each other again. “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 should do unto you?”

From Chapter III
Next, some of us were shipped off to North America and were fed better on this journey with rice and pork. I was around Virginia where I was set the task of weeding and gathering stones. I was constantly grieving and pining and wishing to die. A plantation gentleman who was sick needed fanning so he could sleep and they put me to the task. In the house, I saw a black slave woman who cooked, but she had on an iron muzzle so she could not eat or drink. At this place I was called Jacob.
Later, Michael Henry Pascal came to the plantation. He was a lieutenant in the royal navy and commanded a trading ship. He gave 30 or 40 pounds sterling for me and intended to make a present of me to friends in England. On the sail there I liked laying on the sails and the food and people were good. I began to see that not all white people acted the same. My captain and master named me Gustavus Vassa. At first I did not accept this new name, but he would hit me every time I didn’t, so I eventually accepted it.
Now it was the spring of 1757 and I was about twelve. I could not comprehend the snow that fell or the god they described or the books they read.

From Chapter IV
“It was now between two and three years since I first came to England, a great part of which I had spent at sea; so that I became inured to that service…” My fear had been an effect of my ignorance which wore away as I began to know more English. I liked the countrymens’ manners and spirit and I took every opportunity to improve. I wanted to learn reading and writing, so eventually my master sent me to Miss Guerins who treated me kindly and sent me to school. “I was baptized in St. Margaret’s church, Westminster, in February 1759, by my present name.