Equiano Benin 1745-1799 Travels Slave Narrative  Research Paper

  • Length: 10 pages
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  • Subject: Literature
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Equiano (Benin, 1745-1799): Travels ( slave Narrative). Report written Ductive format. Also research


In many ways large and small, Equiano's Travels: The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, is a remarkably fascinating read. This autobiographical account of a African slaves triumph over the forced bondage of chattel slavery that eventually results in his becoming an internationalist abolitionist of both slavery and the slave trade that propels it is intended to be a read as a victorious story of survival against odds that were decidedly decimating. Yet despite the fact that Equiano was able to extricate himself from such inauspicious beginnings to eventually aid others who have been entrapped in such noxious circumstances, there is a subtle undercurrent that runs throughout his Interesting Narrative that is also supported by the text and as widely important as, or perhaps even more important than, the aforementioned motif. In order to remove himself from the most dire conditions of slavery, Equiano had to give up virtually all claims to his native Africa in order to fully immerse himself in the largely European culture that had brutally and forcibly removed him from his native environment. As a result, Equiano lost many of his cultural ties and mores, and seems to have replaced them with a somewhat naive deference and valuing of the same European culture that was responsible for the displacement of his own -- and that of several thousand (if not million) other indigenous peoples. To that end, it may be posited that although the author widely intended this narrative to be a triumphant story of the human spirit and a cautionary tale voicing unequivocal disapprobation towards the institution of slavery, it actually depicts the cultural isolation and loss of self-identity in a powerful tale that warns of the ills of assimilation.

The best way to demonstrate this thesis within this narrative is to utilize a rhetorical approach that analyzes the author's voice, intended target audience, and his goals for composing this particular narrative. Despite the fact that many of these aims have been alluded to in the preceding paragraph, it is best to ascertain these ends based upon the author's own text, which can be readily identified and examined throughout the course of this manuscript. There is a duality that lurks within Equiano's narrative, which can be measured perhaps most discernibly within his goal for composing this manuscript, as the following quotation, excerpted from his address to the British Parliament that prefaced this work, readily indicates. "Permit me, with the greatest deference and respect, to lay at your feet the following genuine Narrative; the chief design of which is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen." This quotation is fairly straightforward in its outlining the author's primary objective in composing this narrative, which is to induce a "compassion for the ills of the slave trade which Equiano and several other Africans and West Indian people suffered from. It is interesting to note that one particular rhetorical device the author uses is his basis for the compassion which he hopes to evoke. That basis is the authenticity of this true-life tale, which Equiano refers to as being "genuine." The fact that the horrible suffering and losses endured within the leafs of this manuscript actually took place and are not the embellishment of an author of fiction is noteworthy and aids in Equiano's goals of eliciting sympathy for the slave trade.

But the duality that is alluded to in this paper's thesis becomes readily manifest in the following quotation, which appears directly after the preceding sentence in the aforementioned quotation. "By the horrors of that trade was I first torn away from all the tender connexions that were naturally dear to my heart; but these, through the mysterious ways of Providence, I ought to regard as infinitely more than compensated by the introduction I have thence obtained to the knowledge of the Christian religion, and of a nation which, by its liberal sentiments, its humanity, the glorious freedom of its government, and its proficiency in arts and sciences, has exalted the dignity of human nature. (Equiano 2008, p. 5)" The implications of this quotation are fairly staggering. Equiano is exalting the same European powers that were responsible for the slave trade that decimated his family and that of several of his countrymen, for their "dignity" and "human nature." Virtually the only explanation for such a surprising, imprudent assertion (which is actually thanking one's oppressors for the oppression which they have afforded one -- who in this case is Equiano), is that the author now feels that he has joined this nation (Britain) and completely immersed himself within its culture. This point is further reinforced by Equiano's disclosure of the fact that the murder, inhuman treatment, and perverse, inversive cruelty afforded by slavery and the institution of slave trading is acceptable, because it allowed him to become Christian. Christianity has been largely used to subjugate and inflict harm upon many non-European, indigenous people, many of whom justified their violent, sexually lascivious acts based upon the fact that they were civilizing 'pagans' who were not Christian. By essentially justifying his enslavement on the grounds that it introduced him to the religion that largely propagated the institution of slavery, Equiano is actually demonstrating just how much he has become a believer of, and fully immersed within, the European culture that subjugated him and enslaved him -- despite the fact that at the time of this writing, he was a free man.

In a way, then, the aforementioned quotations demonstrate that the intended audience of Equiano's manuscript is the European powers that propagated slavery during the time of the work's publication. The directly preceding quotation, in particular, can be considered a form of toadyism, in which the author is hoping to win his way (which he has explained is the desisting of the slave trade) through the use of flattery, by revering the nation that played a substantial part -- through the triangle trade -- in his enslavement and that of others like him. The following quotation is largely indicative of the tone of voice Equiano uses to characterize the majority of this body of work, while also elucidating certain aspects of his regard for his own country/culture and that of the one which he exchanged it for. "I hope the reader will not think I have trespassed on his patience in introducing myself to him with some account of the manners and customs of my country. They had been implanted in me with great care, and made an impression on my mind, which time could not erase, and which all the adversity and variety of fortune I have since experienced served only to rivet and record; for, whether the love of one's country be real or imaginary… I still look back with pleasure on the first scenes of my life…" (Equiano, 2008 p. 24).

This quotation indicates the type of rhetorical tone of voice Equiano uses throughout his Interesting Narrative. The author is writing in the first person, and occasionally employs elements of apostrophe to involve the reader in as much of the manuscript as possible. The effect of this tone of voice is that it not only engages the audience, but it also provides a feeling of intimacy with the experiences and events recorded in the manuscript that help to illicit sympathy (as well as other emotions, but primarily sympathy, although perhaps empathy would be the better term) from the reader. By invoking a tone that is conducive to sympathy, Equiano is able to more efficaciously produce the desired end of his manuscript -- that of convincing people of the ills of slavery and of the need to end the slave trade. Yet what he actually ends up doing, even more than reaching his desired goal, is merely emphasizing the nature and the degree to which he has been assimilated into European culture. The preceding quotation merely indicates that the author's regard for his homeland is simply idyllic, and that although he remembers it fondly, he largely regards that land and the culture which it bred as a simple memory of the past that while being pleasantly remembered, is no more than that. An examination of the rhetorical tone of voice employed in this manuscript indicates that Equiano's conception of and feelings towards his African homeland exist largely in the past because he has effectively moved on and embraced European lands, customs, and traditions, which are often times at odds with those of Africa.

Even in passages where the author most ardently campaigns for the abolition of slavery, he simply ends up emphasizing the notion that he has exchanged his mores and heritage for those of a European descent. The following quotation suggests this alarming tendency which, although it does not quite undermine the author's initial goal of ending slavery, certainly attest to the psychological…

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