Olaudah Equiano Book Report
Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is one of history’s most raw and multifaceted arguments for the abolition of slavery. Seized and forced into the slave trade when he was only eleven, Equiano tells his story as a member of the African upper class, to a subjugated slave, and finally as a free man. This novel stands out because it provides more insight into the wrongs of slavery other than simply describing its physical horrors. Thus, Equiano’s narrative proves to be an effective antislavery text because it looks at slavery from a three-dimensional perspective, and aims to convince the reader of slavery’s crimes toward social stratification, intellect, religion, and economics.
As aforementioned, Equiano originated from an upper class family of the Kingdom of Benin in Africa, and his upper class background strongly shapes Equiano’s views of slavery. As a result of his family’s privileged status, Equiano was exposed to the institution of slavery at an early age, as his family owned many of them. However, what Equiano aims for readers to understand is that the slavery Westerners know is much different than the slavery that took place in Africa. In the west, slaves are treated as second-class citizens, while in Africa slaves were treated exactly the same as regular citizens, with the absence of their freedom only. “How different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies! With us, they do no more work than other members of the community, even their master; their food, clothing, and lodging were nearly the same as theirs” (40-41). Though most likely due in part to his former upper class status, it is interesting to note that Equiano never once denounces his village’s use of slavery, even as his arguments become increasingly against slavery as the book goes on. Thus, the value Equiano places with class makes him hate slavery all the more, as slaves are not only lower class, but essentially subhuman.
In addition, Equiano values knowledge and intellect, and appeals to his readers to abolish slavery, as slavery crushes any intellectual and societal potential African slaves would have. Already acutely aware of social status, Equiano realizes what the white men do to set themselves apart, and he longs to acquire these skills. “I 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…” (72). Thus, Equiano has a strong grasp on class lines and status, and what one must do or not do to transverse these sectors. Equiano’s eventual freedom from slavery was due largely to his ambition and longing for knowledge, as Equiano acknowledged that these things placed one higher on a class list. He learned to read and write and impressed his white masters and befriended them as tutors, enabling him to embark on a whole new mission within the abolitionist movement. Within Western society, slavery was not questioned because society put forth the idea that Africans and whites were not even of the same species, giving whites no reason to not enslave their black counterparts. Equiano’s desires to learn and please enabled him to challenge this antiquated thought and humanize himself for the good of his people. Intelligence allowed Equiano to renounce societal barriers and establish his own identity, but his experiences were rare, and most slaves were never given the opportunity to learn literary skills. Therefore, to Equiano, a man who values both knowledge and status, slavery is appalling because enslaving a person prevents them from blooming into an upstanding member of society, disabling them from reaching their full potential, a right which every man should have.
In his quest for knowledge, Equiano is introduced to Christianity, which thereby becomes one of Equiano’s strongest antislavery arguments. Often quoting directly from the Bible, Equiano points out the “Golden Rule”, or Matthew 7:12, which states, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12 NIV). Equiano uses this verse to denounce readers for their lack of exerting even the most fundamental human compassion and the most fundamental Golden Rule. After Equiano’s conversion to Christianity, he is faced with the remarkable incompatibility that the institution of slavery poses for Christianity. Whether slave owners are kind or cruel to their slaves, slavery is not in accordance with Biblical teachings, especially in the New Testament, which Equiano highlights by saying, “Jesus tells us, the oppressor and the oppressed are both in his hands” (108). In this way, Equiano pleads with readers to consider the horrors of slavery as both people of faith, as family members, and as friends.
Although Equiano was set apart by his intelligence and ambition, Africans were nonetheless thought of as animals. Equiano’s rationality throughout the novel but especially in his appeal to faith, defies his stereotype in a society that relied on this animal stereotype to perpetrate slavery by dehumanizing them. Using Scripture allowed Equiano to remind his audience that slaves too are humans, despite the animals society tries to make them out to be. Not only did Equiano use his faith to argue against slavery, he also relied heavily on prayer and what he believed was God’s plan for his life during the more difficult times as a slave. Thus, Equiano’s faith became an increasingly large portion of the argument against slavery, as slavery is in discord with Biblical teachings of how men should treat one another, as well as their value in God’s eyes.
Although horrible because Equiano comes upon this realization after himself propagating the horrors of slavery, another argument Equiano makes for slavery’s abolition is that its abolition would help Britain’s economy. In an effort to acquire enough money to purchase his freedom, Equiano finds himself a slave trader, witnessing firsthand the “tortures, murders, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity” (194). While he stoops to the level of enslaving others in order to free himself, his experiences added bulk to his antislavery argument. “Population, the bowels and surface of Africa, abound in valuable and useful returns… it lays open an endless of field of commerce to the British manufactures and merchant adventurer. The manufacturing interest and the general interests are synonymous” (194). An uncommon argument for slavery’s abolition, economic impact is certainly of considerable value. As stated, Africa was a land saturated with lost riches sure to spark the curiosity of industrialized Britain, who could, if slavery was abolished, act upon this advantageous opportunity. Trading with Africa as a free people would westernize Africa as well as increase Britain’s production and trade, proving to be beneficial for both parties.
Though its means of realization were abhorrent, the positive economic effect of abolishing slavery was no doubt very appealing to Parliament when Equiano pleaded with them near the end of the novel. Slavery’s graphic horrors are usually the basis for antislavery arguments, but Equiano adds credibility to his argument by giving it depth, and appealing to even the uncompassionate ones, because everyone loves economic gain. Thus, already a leader in the abolitionist movement due to being born in Africa and having been captured and sold into the slave trade, Equiano makes sure to fully develop his antislavery argument by proving slavery’s detestability in many different areas other than the typically cited physical and emotional horrors. Slavery makes Africans into second-class citizens, stifles any potential for intellectual growth, directly conflicts with Christian teachings, and limits possibilities for a more westernized and economically healthy world. Therefore, Equiano’s antislavery narrative surpasses the persuasive potential of one-dimensional, emotional arguments, and once again reinforces the idea that Africans are to be re-humanized and slavery is unfavorable for all parties involved.
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Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is one of history’s most raw and multifaceted arguments for the abolition of slavery. Seized and forced into the […]