Equiano’s Multilayered Appeal for Abolition of Slavery

May 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

By the time Olaudah Equiano died in 1797 he had amassed a sizable fortune, visited four continents, and written a detailed account of his enslavement in the British colonies (Carey). It was this latter act that reserved him a place in history as one of the earliest influential Black abolitionist authors. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano was an adventurous tale, reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, and coupled with Equiano’s gift for enthralling narrative, gave critics “no doubt that this was a book of the moment” (Carey). But more importantly, the narrative served as a “strongly political act,” a plea for the abolition of slavery (Carey). Equiano used his autobiography to convey this appeal in at least four distinct ways: he attempted to dispel notions of black inferiority, incorporated religion into his text to sway his pious readership, presented a pragmatic economical argument for the outlawing of slave trade, and used fervid imagery and narrative to connect with his audience on an emotional level. Using his own character as proof, Equiano sought to dispel the myth that the African race was inferior because of its skin color. Contemporary audiences should remember to examine the novel in its context; in the antebellum South and to the minds of his primarily Anglo-Saxon readership, one of the prevailing justifications of slavery was the supposed subhuman and animalistic status of Blacks. As one scholar asserted, “The charge that free black should be nothing but servants or thieves stung Equiano and forced him to take a public role in the slavery debate” (Equiano 16). To do this, Equiano cited several studies that demonstrated that “complexions of the same persons vary in different climates” and he hoped that this fact would “remove the prejudice that some conceive against the natives of Africa on account of their color” (56). He reiterated this several times in the novel, claiming that “understanding is not confined to feature or color” (56). He also pointed out that slaves were not unintelligent, just “ignorant of [the European] language, religion, manners, and customs,” and were kept uneducated because no “pains [were] taken to teach them these” (56). As for the supposed Black moral inferiority, he argued that it was caused by the misguidance of slavery, asking “does not slavery itself depress the mind, and extinguish…every noble sentiment” (56). And finally, in portraying himself as a well-spoken, benevolent gentlemen and a capable businessman, he disputed the theory that free Blacks behaved in an uncivilized manner. Equiano’s arguments may seem painfully obvious to today’s readers, but during his era they would have been controversial. Were they effective? Although Equiano directly addresses color prejudice only once in his narrative, his entire novel portrays him as a man who is, in every respect, equal to his white counterparts in intellect and etiquette. If people had any doubt that a Black man could be accomplished and successful, Equiano’s narrative could likely challenge their notions. Religion had a strong place in Equiano’s narrative, and was a major player in his argument against slavery. Equiano must have understood that a deep founded religious faith was prevalent to the nineteenth century and very influential to the politics of the era. Many historians feel that the extent of Equiano’s relationship with faith was ambiguous; some argue that he exaggerated the role of Christianity in his life in an attempt to appeal to religious readers, or to use religion as a social critique (Elrod). Regardless of how influential faith was in Equiano’s life, he certainly used it to claim that the slave practice not only violated basic human rights but “divine” laws as well. First, to make himself relatable to his devout Christian readers, he portrayed himself as a moral, pious and introspective man, even getting baptized: “I early accustomed myself to look for the hand of God in the minutest occurrence, and learn from it a lesson of morality and religion” (214). He then argued that the cruel and inhuman treatment of slaves was “unchristian” and insisted Black presence in the world was a natural result of God’s hand, saying “God carved them in ebony” (56). Quoting numerous passages from the bible, he claims that abolitionists and slave sympathizers will be rewarded for their Christian views, saying “the blessings of the Lord [will] be upon the heads of all those who commiserated the causes of the oppressed Negroes” (212). Equiano was certainly brave in using religion as justification to end slavery- especially considering that his opponents were attempting to do the opposite. Traditionalists would sometimes insist that “some people are slaves as part of the natural order of the universe, or as part of God’s plan.” (Southern) These people also noted that “in the Bible, Abraham had slaves” (Southern). To suggest that slavery was unchristian would undoubtedly trigger refutation by some, and because of the subjectivity of the debate, it would be hard to prove either contention. Yet Equiano appeals to religious sentiments in a way which would have made his argument compelling to many of his devout and sympathetic readers, especially if they believed him to be the pious man portrayed in his novels. In today’s world, using religion to support an argument is unadvisable, but Equaino was a man of his times; his religious arguments would have warranted serious contemplations in his day. One of Equino’s most obvious pleas for the outlawing of slavery, placed cleverly at the end of his narrative so as to remain imprinted in reader’s minds, was in his analysis of its economic influence upon Britain; he argued that slavery was economically illogical, and that ending the institution would create vast new consumer markets that would prove financially lucrative. Calling for political leaders in Britain to heed his requests, he proposed that halting the slave trade would allow Africa’s population to regenerate itself, which in turn would enable “ a system of commerce [to be] established in Africa [causing] the demand for manufactures [to] rapidly augment as the native inhabitants…adopt British fashions, manners, customs &c” (Equiano 212). In fewer words, Equiano believed Africa’s inhabitants (and freed slaves) would create a huge consumer base from which Britian’s industries would benefit. He also believed in Africa’s potential to become an important trading partner to Britain, reminding readers that “the continent [is] nearly twice as large as Europe, [and is] rich in vegetable and mineral products” (212). Perhaps Equiano’s arguments against the slave trade were logical, but were they founded upon any real evidence? Probably not, considering that slavery was still widespread and any predictions of the economic effects of its future abolishment would be pure speculation. But what really matters is whether or not Equino’s economic argument held enough weight during his era to convince his readers. Counterarguments of the period included the prediction that abolishing slavery would “have a profound and killing economic impact on [areas with agriculture based economies] where reliance on slave labor was the foundation of their economy” (Southern). Equiano’s argument, while introducing an optimistic possibility, neither discredits nor refutes such opposing arguments, and yet he calls it “a theory founded upon facts, and therefore an infallible one” (Equiano 213). While his argument is articulate and commonsensical, it certainly is not “an infallible one” because it ignores certain realities (for example that slaves cost relatively little in upkeep) and lacks the comprehensive analysis that would make it really effective. Therefore, it is the weakest of his for arguments against slavery.The last and most obvious argument Equiano makes against slavery is that it is a cruel and unjust practice, and he does this by describing its injustices in a way that play to readers’ emotional sentiments. Especially to his potential allies in the North, he conveys a more accurate and appalling image of slavery than the one which had been widespread by biased proslavery authors. It is imperative to consider that Equiano’s narrative was one of the first of its kind; few slaves were literate enough to document their experiences, let alone publish them to widespread appeal and audience (Halsall). So, while the evils of slavery are well accepted contemporarily, during Equiano’s era, it is not a stretch to assume that many northern Whites had been fed imperfect and biased information on the practice. Equino’s experience surely produced new emotions of anger and disgust toward slavery and eliminated some of the ignorance of its cruelties. Equiano described horror stories of slaves being killed to collect insurance money, flogged until beyond recognition, and overworked until their life expectancy was a mere seven years. He documented various torture devices used on slaves, the “neck-yolks, collars, chains, hand-cuffs, leg-bolts, drags, thumbscrews, iron muzzles, and coffins; cats, [and] scourges” and described the “human butchers, who cut and mangled the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes” (Equiano 105, 213). He accounted his own mistreatment at the hands of racism, detailing an incident in which a ship captain punished him without warrant: “He made some of his people tie rope round each of my ankles…and hoisted me up without letting my feet touch any thing. Thus I hung, without any crime committed” (194). He also described his grief at being forced to separate from his beloved sister, saying “my sister and I were then separated….while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continuously; and for several days I did not eat anything” (58). Equiano’s personal experiences are rich enough to draw readers in and informative enough to leave audiences with a distinct and negative image of slavery. His character is amiable and keeps readers invested in his fate, and his accounts of the experiences of others also helps demonstrate the universally negative effects of slavery. Equiano presents the horrors or slavery with vividness and clarity, and invokes sympathy from readers. Emotional appeal is clearly the most effective tool Equiano employs in his argument against slavery; he uses it to his advantage often and with great skill but never goes so far as to appear histrionic. Equiano could have faded into obscurity, but he used his outstanding intellect and affinity for writing to create an engaging and lasting piece of abolitionist literature. It’s important to remember that Equiano’s arguments against slavery were most effective because they were made in conjunction with each other- his devotion to religion would have made him seem human, his humanness would have helped touch reader’s sensitivities, and that emotional appeal would have made it easier for readers to buy into his economic argument. While his pleas for the abolition of slavery were certainly effective (perhaps with the exception of his economic reasoning and his religious argument only by considering his audience), his narrative also managed to be a thoughtfully written and enthralling adventure story. And although his arguments are outdated today (by 1797 the slave trade had been outlawed in the British colonies), Equiano’s narrative serves as a reminder that at some point, two hundred years ago, they had to be made (Olaudah Equaino). Works CitedCarey, Brycchan. “Olaudah Equiano: A Critical Biography.” Brycchan Carey. 03 Aug 2007. Web. 17 Oct 2009. .Elrod, Eileen. “Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative – Critical Essay.” Business Network. 2001. Web. 17 Oct 2009. .Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin, 2007. Print.Halsall , Paul. “Modern History Sourcebook: Life of Gustavas Vassa.” Fordham University . Aug 1997. Web. 17 Oct 2009. .”Olaudah Equiano.” PBS. Web. 17 Oct 2009. .”The Southern Argument for Slavery.” U.S. History Online Textbook. 2009. Web. 17 Oct 2009. .

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