The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, first published in 1789 in London, is the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano. The narrative is argued to represent a variety of styles, such as a slavery narrative, travel narrative, and spiritual narrative. The book describes Equiano's time spent in enslavement, and documents his attempts at becoming an independent man through his study of the Bible, and his eventual success in gaining his own freedom and in business thereafter.
- Slavery in West Africa vs. slavery in the Americas
- The African slave's voyage from Africa (Bini) to the Americas and England
- The cross-cultural and geopolitical journey from slavery to freedom and heathenism to Christianity.
- Institutional slavery can raise the master as an above man as the slave is forced beneath, both corrupting the master with power and crippling the slave with the lack thereof
Before Chapter 1, Equiano writes: "An invidious falsehood having appeared in the Oracle of the 25th, and the Star of the 27th of April 1792, with a view, to hurt my character, and to discredit and prevent the sale of my Narrative." Like many literary works written by black people during this time, Equiano's work was discredited as a false presentation of his slavery experience. To combat these accusations, Equiano includes a set of letters written by white people who "knew me when I first arrived in England and could speak no language but that of Africa." In his article, Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext Henry Louis Gates Jr. discusses the use of prefaces by black authors to humanize their being, which in turn made their work credible. In this section of the book, Equiano includes this preface to avoid further discrediting.
Equiano opens his Narrative with an explanation of his struggle to write a memoir. He is empathetic about hardships that memoir writers experience. He explains they often have to defend themselves against those who question their work. He apologizes to his readers in advance for not having the most exciting story, but hopes it helps other slaves in his position. He states, "I am neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant." He begins his story with a description of his homeland and the district in which he was born. He was born in the Kingdom of Benin. Benin was a part of Guinea. He details his district, Eboe (now Nigeria), and the isolation of Essake, the small province of his birth in 1745.
Eboe, Equiano's district (now known as Igboland), had well established rules and laws of governing. Their system of marriage and law were strictly enforced. His father—an elder in the district—was in charge of punishing criminals and resolving issues of conflict within the society. Within the district, women were held to higher standards than men. Marriage was seen as extremely important. The bride's family was responsible for providing gifts for the family of the husband, and the wife was "owned by her husband".
Dancing was a huge part of the culture within the kingdom. All dancing as separated into four divisions of groups of people, and they all represented key life events. The kingdom was made up of many musicians, singers, poets, dancers, and artists. The people of the kingdom lived a simple life. Nothing was luxurious. Clothes and homes were very plain and clean. The only type of luxuries in their eyes were perfumes and on occasions alcohol. Women were in charge of creating clothing for the men and women to wear. Agriculture was the primary occupation, because the kingdom sat on rich soil and facilitated abundant growth. Though slaves were present in the kingdom, only those who were prisoners of war or convicted criminals were traded in Eboe.
Hardships came with an unusual amount of locusts and nonstop arbitrary wars with other districts. If another district's chief waged war and won, they would acquire all slaves. In in losses, chiefs were put to death. Religion was extremely important in the Equiano's society. The people of Eboe believed in one "Creator." They believed that the Creator lived in the sun and was in charge of major occurrences: life, death, and war. They believed that those who died transmigrated into spirits, but their friends and family who did not transmigrate protected them from evil spirits. They also believed in circumcision. Equiano compared this practice of circumcision to that of the Jews.
Equiano also explains the customs of his people. Children were named after events or virtues. Olaudah meant fortune, but it also served as a symbol of command of speech and his demanding voice. Two of the main themes of the Eboe religion were cleanliness and decency. Touching of women during their menstrual cycle and the touching of dead bodies were seen as unclean. As Equiano discusses his people, he explains the fear of poisons within the community. Snakes and plants contained poisons that were harmful to the Eboe people. He describes an instance where a snake once slithered through his legs without harming him. He considered himself extremely lucky.
Equiano makes numerous references to the similarity between the Jews and his people. Like the Jews, not only did his people practice circumcision, but they also practiced sacrificing, burnt offerings, and purification. He explains how Abraham's wife was African, and that the skin colour of Eboan Africans and modern Jews differs due to the climate. At the end of the first chapter, Equiano asserts that Africans were not inferior people; the Europeans considered them as such because they were ignorant of the European language, history, and customs. He explains it is important to remember the ancestors of the Europeans were once uncivilized and barbarians. He states, "Understanding is not confined to feature or colour."
Equiano explains how he and his sister were kidnapped and forced to travel with their captors for a time until the two children are separated. Equiano becomes the slave-companion to the children of a wealthy chieftain. He stays there for about a month until he accidentally kills one of his master's chickens and runs away. Equiano hides in the shrubbery and woods surrounding his master's village, but after several days without food, steals away into his master's kitchen to eat. Exhausted, Equiano falls asleep in the kitchen and is discovered by a higher ability slave who thinks that they will harm him if he takes Equiano to the master. The master is forgiving and insists that Equiano shall not be harmed.
Soon after, Equiano is sold to a group of travelers. One day, his sister appears with her master at the house and they share a joyous reunion; however, she and her company leave, and Equiano never sees his sister again. Equiano is eventually sold to a wealthy widow and her young son. Equiano lives almost as an equal among them and is very happy until he is again taken away and forced to travel with "heathens" to the seacoast.
Equiano is forced onto a slave ship and spends the next several weeks on the ship under terrible conditions. He points out the "closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate added to the number in the ship" suffocates them; some slaves even preferred to drown, and one was saved but to be flogged later, as he had chosen to die rather than accept slavery. At last they reach the island of Barbados, where Equiano and all the other slaves are separated and sold. The author mentions the impact of their selling away, as "on the signal given, (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where they are confined, and make the choice of that parcel they like best. [...] The noise and clamor [...] serve not a little to increase the apprehension of the Terrified Africans."
Throughout the whole passage, Equiano refers to white people as cruel, greedy, and mean. He is very surprised by the way they relate to each other, as they are even cruel between them, not only to the slaves. However, as he meets more white people and learns about their culture he comes to the conclusion that the white men are not inherently evil but that institutional slavery has made them cruel and callous.
Equiano is lonely at the new plantation and completes his work alone. One day, while in the kitchen, he is shocked at the sight of one of the women slaves wearing an iron muzzle. As he continues looking around the house he notices a watch on the wall and a painting. He is disconcerted by both of these objects because he fears they are spying for the Master. On the plantation, he was called "Jacob", though earlier he had been called "Michael". One day, a man called Michael Henry Pascal, comes to the Master's house, wanting to purchase Equiano. He pays £30 to £40 for him and Equiano leaves to work on a ship. He prefers life at sea because his shipmates are nicer to him and he eats better than previously. He is again renamed, as "Gustaulas Vessa". Although he does not like the name, he does not mind it in order not be punished. On the ship he develops a friendship with a man named Richard Baker. Richard becomes a companion and interpreter for Equiano, who does not understand the language spoken by everyone else on board. He becomes very close to Richard and mourns him deeply when Richard leaves to his family in 1759.
It has now been two or three years since Equiano first came to England. He has spent the majority of his time at sea. He did not mind the work he was doing and spent a lot of time there he almost considered himself an Englishman. He could speak English decently, and could understand everything that was said to him. He also started viewing the others on the ship as his superiors instead of being barbaric and scary. He wanted to be like them. Equiano went to London with his Master and was sent to serve for the Guerins. He liked it there and they provided him an education. He got baptized with the help of Miss Guerins. After a while his Master got called back to sea, so Equiano had to leave school to work for his Master. They went to Gibraltar, which allowed him to get cheap meat and tell the story of losing his sister. A person who lived in the area told him that he saw his sister and took him to her, but the person was mistaken. Equiano met another servant named Vallando while working for his Master and he quickly became a big part of his life. He taught him a variety of things like religion, education, and how to draw. Equiano viewed him almost like a father and tried to repay him with sugar or tobacco whenever he could afford it. The ship left to go to London in December because they heard talk to peace and the end of the war. When they got there his Master gave him away to Captain Doran, even though he did not want to go.
In mid-May, Equiano was summoned by Captain Doran and was told he had been sold to a new Master, whose name was Mr. Robert King. King wanted to purchase him because he liked his character and his work ethic. Other people offered King up to one hundred guineas for Equiano. King was good to Equiano and said he would put him in school and fit him for a clerk. King fed his slaves well and sometimes got criticized by others for it. King's philosophy was: the better fed the slave; the harder the slave would work. King had Equiano perform gauging, or measurement of boat, while on the ship. He also put Equiano in charge of the Negro cargo on the ship. While working for King, Equiano saw clerks and other white men rape women, which made him angry, because he could do nothing about it.
Chapter 6 opens with Equiano's explanation that he has witnessed a lot of evil and unfair events as a slave. He recounts a specific event that happened in 1763. He and a companion were trying to sell limes and oranges that were in bags. Two white men came up to them and took the fruit away from them. They begged them for the bags back and explained that it was everything they owned, but the white men threatened to flog them if they continued begging. They walked away because they were scared, but after a while they went back to the house and asked for their stuff back again. The men gave them two of the three bags back. The bag that they kept was all of the Equiano's companion's fruit, so Equiano shared one-third of his fruit. They went off to sell the fruit and ended up getting 37 bits for it, which was surprising. During this time Equiano started working as a sailor and selling and trading items like gin and tumblers. When he was in the West Indies, he witnessed Joseph Clipson, a free mulatto man, being taken into slavery. Equiano said that happened a lot in the area and decides he cannot be free until he leaves the West Indies. He starts to save the money he earns to buy his freedom.
Before Equiano and his captain leave for a trip to Philadelphia, his captain hears that Equiano was planning on running away. His Master reminds him how valuable he is and how he will just find him and get him back if he tries to run away. Equiano explains that he did not plan on running away and if he wanted to run away he would have done it by now given all the freedom the Master and the captain give him. The captain confirms what Equiano said and decided it was just a rumor. Equiano tells the Master then that he is interested in buying his freedom eventually.
When they got to Philadelphia, he will go and sell what his Master gave him and also talked to Mrs. Davis. Mrs. Davis is a wise woman who reveals secrets and foretells events. She tells him he wouldn't be a slave for long. The ship continues on to Georgia and while they are there, Doctor Perkins beats Equiano up and leaves him lying on the ground unable to move. Police pick him up and put him in jail. His captain finds out when he does not come back the night before and gets him out of jail. He also has the best doctors treat him. He tries to sue Doctor Perkins, but a lawyer explains that there is not a case because Equiano is a black man. Equiano slowly recovers and gets back to work.
Equiano grew closer to purchasing his freedom with the money he saved from selling items. His ship was supposed to go to Montserrat—where he thought he would get the last of the money he needed—but the crew received an order to go to St. Eustatia and then Georgia. He sold more items and earned enough money to buy his freedom. He went to the captain to consult with him about what to say to his Master. The captain told him to come when he and the Master had breakfast. He went in that day and offered to purchase his own freedom for 40 pounds. With a little convincing from the captain, Equiano's master agreed, and Equiano was granted complete freedom. The narrative ended with Equiano's Montserrat in full text.
In chapter 8, Equiano expresses his desires to return to England. He has reoccurring dreams of the ship crashing, and on the third night of his travels, his nightmares became a reality. The ship was headed towards a rock, but the captain failed to be helpful in this moment of crisis. Although Equiano was terrified and felt sure he was going to die, he was able to collect himself and prevent the ship from crashing. This traumatic event also caused him to reflect on his own morals and his relationship with God. Eventually, the crew ended up on an island in the Bahamas, and they were able to find another ship that was heading to New England. Once they reached their destination, Equiano went to work on another ship that was going to Pennsylvania . After a few interesting interactions in Pennsylvania, he found a spot on a ship that was sailing to Massachusetts. Before leaving for Connecticut, Equiano comes across a black woman who needed some education for her child. No white person would help her, so Equiano agreed to teach before he departed for his journey.
Chapter nine of this memoir describes Olaudah Equiano's journey with Christianity. Early in the chapter, Equiano described a reunion with John Annis, a black man who was recommended to work on the ship, but was forcefully removed by his previous owner. Equiano tried and failed to liberate Annis. Throughout this chapter, Equiano became greatly concerned with salvation and guaranteeing his place in heaven. After learning about predestination from multiple figures, Equiano worried he would never be able to fully repent and reach heaven. He contemplated suicide but did not want to upset God, as he considered suicide a sin.
Controversy about origins
Originally published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vass, The African, played a large role in "[altering] public opinion" towards the debate over abolition in Britain. Equiano was viewed as "an authority" in relation to the slave trade. His claims of being born in Eboe (now southern Nigeria) and being captured and traded as a child gave him definite credibility. However, several people questioned his credibility in the 1790s to eliminate rising abolitionist sentiments. There were rumours that Equiano was actually born in the West Indies, but these claims were thrown away for being "politically motivated."
Paul Edwards edited The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in 1967 and sparked further debate about the validity of the story's origins.
In 1999, Vincent Carretta published findings of two records that questioned Equiano's birthplace in Africa. Carretta found Equiano's baptismal record dated 9 February 1759 from St Margaret's Church in Westminster, London, where Equiano was recorded as "Gustavus Vassa, a Black born in Carolina, 12 years old", and a naval muster roll from 1773 where Equiano likewise identified his birthplace as "South Carolina". These documents were enough for Carretta to believe Equiano's claims about his early life were "probably fictitious". Aside from contradicting Equiano's account directly, these records suggested that, even if Equiano were born in Africa, he would have been at most seven or eight years old when he was sold into slavery (given that he must have been purchased by Michael Henry Pascal in Virginia no later than December 1754). This made Carretta doubt the reliability of Equiano's first-hand descriptions of his home "country" and "countrymen". Carretta believes his findings indicate Equiano had borrowed his account of Africa from others, and said the timing of the publication was not an accident. Carretta noted "the revelation that Gustavus Vassa was a native-born Igbo originally named Olaudah Equiano appears to have evolved during 1788 in response to the needs of the abolitionist movement."
Carretta explains that Equiano presumably knew what parts of his story could be corroborated by others, and, more importantly if he was combining fiction with fact, what parts could not easily be contradicted.
"Equiano’s fellow abolitionists were calling for precisely the kind of account of Africa and the Middle Passage that he supplied. Because only a native African would have experienced the Middle Passage, the abolitionist movement needed an African, not an African-American, voice. Equiano’s autobiography corroborated and even explicitly drew upon earlier reports of Africa and the Middle Passage by some white observers, and challenged those of others."
Paul E. Lovejoy disputes Carretta's claim that Vassa was born in South Carolina because of Vassa's knowledge of the Igbo society. Lovejoy refers to Equiano as Vassa because he never used his African name until he wrote his narrative. Lovejoy believes Vassa's description of his country and his people is sufficient confirmation that he was born where he said he was, and based on when boys received the ichi scarification, that he was about 11 when he was kidnapped, as he claims, which suggests a birth date of about 1742, not 1745 or 1747.
Lovejoy thoughts on the baptismal record are that Vassa couldn't have made up his origins because he would have been too young. Lovejoy goes on to say:
"If Carretta is correct about Vassa's age at the time of baptism, accepting the documentary evidence, then he was too young to have created a complex fraud about origins. The fraud must have been perpetrated later, but when? Certainly the baptismal record cannot be used as proof that he committed fraud, only that his godparents might have."
Lovejoy also believes Equiano's godparents, the Guerins and Pascals, wanted the public to think that Vassa was a creole instead of being a fully Black man born in Africa. He claims that this was because the perceived higher status of Creoles in West Indian society and Equiano's mastery of English.
In 2007, Carretta wrote a response to Lovejoy's claims about the Equiano's Godparents saying: "Lovejoy can offer no evidence for such a desire or perception." Carretta went on to say: "Equiano’s age on the 1759 baptismal record to be off by a year or two before puberty is plausible. But to have it off by five years, as Lovejoy contends, would place Equiano well into puberty at the age of 17, when he would have been far more likely to have had a say in, and later remembered, what was recorded. And his godparents and witnesses should have noticed the difference between a child and an adolescent."
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first widely-read slave narratives. Eight editions were printed during the author's lifetime, and it was translated into Dutch and German. The structure and rhetorical strategies of the book were influential and created a model for subsequent slave narratives. The different kinds of aspects and ideas in his narrative, such as travel, religion, and slavery, cause some readers to debate what kind of narrative his writing is: a slavery narrative, a spiritual narrative, or a travel narrative.
The work has proven so influential in the study of African and African-American literature that it is frequently taught in both English literature and History classrooms in universities. The work has also been republished in the influential Heinemann African Writers Series.
A short adaptation of the childhood of Equiano was narrated in a documentary titled Equiano in Africa written and directed by Jason Young. It was screened as part of Southwark Black History Month.
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano at Standard Ebooks
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African at Project Gutenberg
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- Catalog record for The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African at the United States Library of Congress
- The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano: A short animation partially adapted from the book with a third act set in 1838 when slavery is abolished.
- "North American Slave Narratives: Alphabetical List of Slave and Ex-Slave Narratives". Documenting the American South. The University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2004. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
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