A Discussion of “The Life of Olaudah Equiano” (by Stephen Basdeo)

A Discussion of “The Life of Olaudah Equiano” (by Stephen Basdeo)

The slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807. However, it was during the late-eighteenth century that the Abolition movement in Britain gained momentum. In 1772, a judge, Lord Mansfield, had already ruled that slavery in England itself was neither ‘allowed nor approved by the law’ (Howell, 1816, p.82). Olaudah Equiano’s narrative of his life as a slave, published in 1789, was written to convince the public of the evils of the slave trade. This essay is an analysis of Equiano’s narrative which will particularly focus on the religious themes in his book, and how he used these themes to convincingly convey his message.

Equiano’s narrative places his birth in the year c.1745 in the Essaka region of Africa (Equiano, 1789, p.10). Carretta raised a debate concerning the validity of Equiano’s claim to having been a native of Africa. Carretta found that certain naval ships’ logs listed Equiano as a native of the American Carolinas (Field, 2009, p.16). Carretta argued that Equiano’s narrative was in fact a representation of various slaves’ experiences, embellished to further the cause of Abolition (Bugg, 2006, p.1426). However, in this review, the account of Equiano’s birth as a native of Africa will be taken at face value.

The narrative contained an account of Equiano’s life in Africa. The narrative then moved on, giving the account of how he was captured when he was a young boy and sold into slavery. In his life as a slave, Equiano witnessed and was subjected to ‘various interesting instances of oppression, cruelty, and extortion’ (Equiano, 1789, p.8). In the latter half of his narrative, Equiano detailed his conversion to Christianity, freedom, and his work in the Abolition movement. The intended audience of this narrative was the literate members of society in the middle and upper classes in Britain, particularly those who sympathised with the Abolitionists. The 1814 ‘Preface’ to Equiano’s narrative listed some of the subscribers to Equiano’s work. A large cross section of the elites of society is revealed. There are members of the royal family, the Dukes of Marlborough, Northumberland, and Bedford, and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (Equiano, 1789, p.3). Additionally, Equiano dedicated his narrative to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in the hope that when the matter of abolition was raised in Parliament, they would vote for it (Equiano, 1789, p.2). Thus Equiano had tried to reach as many influential members of society as was possible.

Equiano’s life was presented as a spiritual journey. The Christian tone is marked from the outset with a Biblical quotation on the first page; ‘Behold, God is my shepherd, I will trust and not be afraid for the Lord Jehovah is my strength’ (Equiano, 1789, p.1). Equiano’s frequent citation of Biblical texts supported his purpose of convincing his readers of the evils of the slave trade. Many times, simply to survive, Equiano found himself having to trust in ‘God’s providence’ (Equiano, 1789, p.97), or ‘call on the God of Heaven to assist [him]’ (Equiano, 1789, p.116). Furthermore, as Equiano was a Christian, was he not also, in the words of Wedgewood’s motto, a man and a brother? To emphasise the fact that black slaves were not sub-humans, Equiano quoted another scripture, Acts XVII: 26, which stated that God made ‘of one blood all the nations of men for to dwell upon the earth’ (Equiano, 1789, p.22). Equiano’s Christian journey was therefore included in his narrative to refute the prevailing racist ideology that endorsed slavery on religious and racial grounds (Corley, 2002, p.146). The religious language employed by the Abolitionists was powerful enough in people’s minds to eventually outweigh the economic arguments for the continuance of the slave trade. As Hilton has observed:

For a long time it was fashionable to suppose that the religious language used by anti-slavery campaigners was humbug, and that Britain took the lead in Abolition because its colonial sugar islands were no longer profitable…However, most historians today believe that Britain derived considerable and still increasing benefit from slave sugar (Hilton, 2006, p.120).

Equiano’s Christian message was conveyed to his readers in a direct manner. He wrote in the first person. Yet he was clear that although the narrative was his life story, he stressed that his story could be applicable to any of his countrymen. This was because he believed that although his sufferings had been great, when he compared his sufferings to those of his countrymen, they were nothing (Equiano, 1789, p.10). This style of writing was successful for sales of the book were high. Ultimately, ‘his first-hand account of the brutalities of the slave trade played a major role in informing and influencing popular opinion and became a roaring success’ (Hague, 2007, p.120). Thus an appeal to people’s Christian morals, combined with a direct way of conveying his message, was successful and achieved its intended purpose.

Unwittingly, Equiano’s narrative reveals certain aspects of pre-colonial African society. Men were allowed to practise plural marriage, yet adultery was illegal among African women, and the penalty for many crimes was to be sold into slavery (Equiano, 1789, p.11). Battles between the small African kingdoms were common. After these battles, prisoners of war on the losing side were often enslaved (Ibid p.11). These battles were probably in part fuelled by Europe’s demands for slaves. The prominent contemporary abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce blamed Africa’s internal instability on Europe’s slave traders. They held that the slave trade ‘plunged [Africa] into a chaos of gory internecine wars, and the responsibility for these endless wars and slave hunts lay with the Europeans’ (Abramova, 1978, p.22). Thus the prevalence of wars, slave hunts, and the frequent punishment of crimes with slavery, which Equiano described, can be attributed to the slave trade.

In conclusion, Equiano’s narrative is useful for studying the history of the slave trade, doubts about his origin notwithstanding. His narrative provides a convincing, first-person account of the evils of the slave trade. Additionally, it illuminates the way in which the Abolitionists, in many ways the first pressure-group, conveyed their message, namely, by an appeal to their readers’ morals. Finally, the narrative unwittingly illuminates aspects of pre-nineteenth-century colonial Africa.

Bibliography

Abramova, S.U. (1978). ‘Ideological, doctrinal, philosophical, religious and political aspects of the African slave trade’ in UNESCO (1979) The African Slave Trade from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century. Paris: United Nations Publications

Bugg, J. (2006). ‘The Other Interesting Narrative: Olaudah Equiano’s Public Book Tour’. PMLA 121(5) pp.1424-1442

Corley, I. (2002). ‘The Subject of Abolitionist Rhetoric: Freedom and Trauma in “The Life of Olaudah Equiano”’. Modern Language Studies 32(2) pp.139-156

Equiano, O. (1789). The Life of Olaudah Equiano 1999 Edition. New York: Dover Publications

Field, E.D. (2009). ‘“Excepting Himself”: Olaudah Equiano, Native Americans, and the Civilizing Misssion’. MELUS 34(4) pp.15-38

Hague, W. (2007). William Wilberforce. London: Harper

Hilton, B. (2006). The New Oxford History of England: A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? Oxford: Oxford University Press

Howell (1816). State Trials. Vol.20 Columns 1-6 pp.79-82

Article originally published at http://stephenbasdeo.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/a-discussion-of-the-life-of-olaudah-equiano/

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