Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative and Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
During the 18th century, laws ensured that slaves could not legally learn how to read and write, but many did so anyway and, with the help of antislavery activists, managed to publish their poignant accounts of slavery based on their first-hand experience. For modern readers, these narratives continue to provide an eloquent but disturbing description of the brutal conditions that existed for four million black people in the Land of the Free as recently as 140 years ago or so. The first such first-hand account of a slave's experiences was Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative. Equiano's vivid descriptions of his adventures are supported by documents written by those who knew him as well as the historical record. Likewise, Harriet Jacob's Incidents in The life of A Slave Girl represented the first such slave narrative written by a female. This paper will argue that a comparison of these two narratives reveals a number of common features, but their differences can rationally be attributed to and exacerbated by the authors' differences in gender. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
During the 1500's and 1600's, the colonization of the New World by Europeans resulted in the rapid expansion of slavery; however, changing moral attitudes about slavery helped to bring about its decline during the 1800's. One of the literary vehicles used by the antislavery movement were the narratives written by slaves and former slaves which described the brutality and inhumanity involved in the institution of slavery. These slave narratives helped to document slave life from the invaluable perspective of first-hand experience. The first such slave narrative was Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative. In sharp contrast to the depredations and hardships described by Harriet Jacobs, though, Equiano narratives also describes his exciting adventures on the high seas, which included not only travels throughout the Americas, Turkey and the Mediterranean; but participation in major naval battles during the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War), as well as in the search for a northwest passage led by the Phipps expedition of 1772-1773 (145). During his period of enslavement, Equiano assisted his merchant slave master and worked as a seaman. When he was 44, Equiano wrote and published his autobiography in 1789 (Allison in Equiano 1995). Furthermore, it is difficult to challenge Equiano's accounts of his experiences, since his editor emphasizes that Equiano had an excellent memory, maintained a meticulous journal and incorporated testimonials from people in positions of authority to help establish his credibility. Equiano's stark accounts of the brutal treatment of his fellow slaves, though, only makes a contemporary reader wonder how he could actively participate in such a practice. Equiano himself admits he participated in the slave trade willingly for his own personal benefit by making himself as valuable as possible through self-improvement and hard work to avoid being sold, as well as recognizing that it would be a good business opportunity for himself in order to save enough money to buy his own freedom: "I used to double my diligence and care, for fear of getting into the hands of those men who did not allow a valuable slave the common support of life" (93). While Equiano's condition in life was not enviable by any means, it would seem that, from his perspective, it was better than some that might result if he failed to keep his master happy - even if this meant working harder at promoting the slave industry in the process. The author states he was "often witness to cruelties of every kind, which were exercised on my unhappy fellow slaves. I used frequently to have different cargoes of new Negroes in my care for sale; and it was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and others whites," he says, "to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves; and these I was, though with reluctance, obliged to submit to at all times, being unable to help them" (93). This is not to say, of course, that any person in a similar position at this point in history may not have acted the same way (or even more selfishly); it is to say, though, that Equiano's eventual arguments against slavery appear to be moral equivocations compared to Jacobs' in view of his continuing role in the slave trade - even after he purchased his freedom on July 10, 1766. Certainly, Equiano's hard work, diligence, self-improvement and keen eye for business helped him achieve his success, but at a price. While no one can blame the author for engaging in some modest enterprises on his own (this was, after all, a common practice among favored members of a ship's crew), it is somewhat startling to recognize that these personal business endeavors were taking place alongside an active slave trade that Equiano himself helped to support, even after he bought he freedom. Further, by continuing to work hard in the slave industry, Equiano was only helping to perpetuate a cruel industry that he had experienced first-hand. It is also clear that Equiano preferred this career path to the other, less favorable circumstances available to freed black men of the day.
As noted above, the slave narratives were used by the antislavery movement as compelling examples of the brutal conditions under which slaves were forced to live in the South. The economics that fueled the agricultural-based South demanded that blacks be brutalized and dehumanized every day, and Gates and McKay say that Harriet Jacobs was the first woman to author a slave narrative in the United States. Although before the publication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), several freeborn African-American women had proudly portrayed their spiritual journeys and social struggles in autobiographies that featured the trials and triumphs of true Christian womanhood. Jacobs's successful struggle for freedom," they say, "not only for herself but for her two children, represented no less profoundly a black woman's indomitable spirit" (Gates & McKay 1997:207). This is in contrast to Equiano's accounts, with Jacobs' highly emotional accounts of the hardships she endured as a result of America's ability to treat some people as chattel through a love of money; both accounts, though, are chilling in their intimacy and frightening in their immediacy. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Jacobs' accounts, and the part where they depart so drastically from Equiano's own accounts, is the reluctant acceptance of the slaves' miserable lot, and how it affected the blacks' perception of themselves and reinforced white prejudices. Time and again Jacobs points to individuals incidents in which her white owners took special pains to ensure that the blacks were acutely aware of their lowly status, and the whole slavery mentality only served to bring out the worst in everyone involved. For instance, in Chapter 8 of Jacobs' Incidents of a Slave Girl, the author writes, "Some poor creatures have been so brutalized by the lash that they will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters. Do you think this proves the black man to belong to an inferior order of beings? What would you be, if you had been born and brought up a slave, with generations of slaves for ancestors?." In Chapter 4, Jacobs describes the mentality of the day when she writes of the escape and capture of Benjamin: "When my grandmother returned home and found her youngest child had fled, great was her sorrow; but, with characteristic piety, she said, "God's will be done." Each morning, she inquired if any news had been heard from her boy. Yes, news was heard. The master was rejoicing over a letter, announcing the capture of his human chattel."…