Abolition, Ethnicity, and Identity in The Interesting Narrative

March 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

Published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano is an autobiography detailing his experiences as a captive in the transatlantic slave trade. Equiano presents the narrative of his life as a story meant to inform and entertain, but also to further the cause of abolition.1 This underlying purpose must be considered in conjunction with other historical details in order to gain a full understanding of the author and his work. Firstly, it is necessary to recognize that Equiano was speaking as a member of a minuscule minority in the eighteenth century—that of the African scholar. In contrast, his intended audience was principally the wealthy, educated classes in the Western world that might have had some power to bring an end to slavery. Wilfred Samuels argues in “Disguised Voice in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” that the author’s handicap in achieving this aim was the prevalent, supposedly scientific belief that Africans were not developed enough to articulate themselves in an educated way.2 The Interesting Narrative is thus an entertaining biography, but also a plea to be treated as a serious, historically based work. The strength of Equiano’s abolitionist argument depended on the credibility of his evidence; many of his readers were loath to even believe that an African had written a book, while others attacked his assertion of African origin.3 It is the battle against such opponents that frames the story of Equiano’s life—the story of how an enslaved African escaped his unfortunate station by obtaining an education and, as the author himself said, by receiving the “mercies of Providence.”4 Additionally, in traveling back and forth across the Atlantic and transforming from a captive slave to an educated scholar, Equiano develops an identity as a displaced African, a resident of the New World, and eventually an Englishman. This unique combination enables him to become the rare spokesperson for Africans who truly understands slavery from both sides. Equiano’s diverse experience colors the tone of his autobiography, as he gently tries to show a hostile audience the evils of slavery. Equiano presents his antislavery argument on a variety of fronts, both subtle and explicit. In editing and updating his autobiography, Equiano refuted claims of fabrication and published a series of recommendations of his work by educated persons. A “List of English Subscribers” attached to The Interesting Narrative, including notable landowners from that era,5 establishes validity by indirectly suggesting to the reader that if important people actively follow Equiano’s work, then it must hold merit. In a more explicit way of directing attention to his true agenda, Equiano utilizes a supplicatory tone in an introductory letter addressed “To the Lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons of the Parliament of Great Britain.”6 He entreats the audience to look upon The Interesting Narrative with compassion, sympathy, and open-mindedness. Still, Equiano takes care to write with delicacy here; if he were to seem too bold, like a Negro who does not know his place, then he would certainly inflame anger and rebuke in the reader’s heart.7 Another point raised by the Narrative is the complicated question of Equiano’s ethnicity. When describing life in his homeland in Chapter 1, Equiano writes, “Our day houses are left open … we sleep … insects which annoy us during the night.”8 By identifying with the practices of Africans, he establishes himself as one as well. Equiano states that he is from “a section of the kingdom of Benin called Eboe.”9 Yet, as Byrd goes on to say, this does not necessarily create a sense of nationalism or pride, because Igbos may not have been self-aware of their country in relation to others nearby. The reader learns that Equiano is an Igbo, but not what the importance of this distinction is. Though Equiano is African by birth, he has lived so long with Europeans and New World colonists that he writes in a way they can easily understand. In fact, when Equiano published Narrative, he had spent three-fourths of his life traveling and living with Europeans and colonists in the New World.10 This time had greatly shaped Equiano’s character and opinion of whites. Three years after moving to England, he says, “I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners…”11 Equiano’s strong admiration for the English shows that he has adopted their ways and wishes to be recognized as one of them. It seems that although Equiano is African by birth and recalls with fondness his childhood on the continent, he identifies more readily with Western culture, mannerisms, and society. He strives to be like the English in all ways—except, of course, for their espousal of slavery. The Interesting Narrative offers great insight to the issues of race, ethnicity, and slavery as they existed in the eighteenth century. Equiano’s unique life history allows us to understand the viewpoints of (some) Africans during the transatlantic movement, slave traders, slave sympathizers, New World colonists, and Englishmen. The assortment of people and experiences that inform his account make it truly invaluable.____________________1Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (New York: Penguin Group, 2003), 32.2Wilfred Samuels, “Disguised Voice in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.” Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 64-69. JSTOR. (28 Sep. 2009).3Alexander X. Byrd, “Eboe, Country, Nation, and Gustavus Vassa’s Interesting Narrative,” The William and Mary Quarterly, January 2006 (28 Sep. 2009).4The Interesting Narrative, 31.5The Interesting Narrative, 15.6The Interesting Narrative, 7.7“Disguised Voice,” 65.8The Interesting Narrative, 36.9“Eboe,” 3.10The Interesting Narrative, ix.11The Interesting Narrative, 77-78.

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