Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African Essay

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Equiano and Slavery

Equiano's main purpose in writing this Narrative was to inspire Parliament to abolish the African slave trade, which he stated at the beginning when he presented it in 1789. Part of his strategy was to describe himself as a humble "unlettered African" grateful to the West for obtaining knowledge of Christianity, liberalism, and humanitarian principles who is petitioning on behalf of his "suffering countryman" (p. 2). For the benefit of the gentlemen in Parliament at least, he describes himself as a very loyal English subject who has fought in its wars against France from a young age -- the Seven Years War in this case. His Calvinist-evangelical Protestantism was evidently very heartfelt and sincere, and in that respect his views were quite different from the deism, skepticism or even atheism more commonly associated with the Enlightenment. Equiano reacted quite sharply against such ideas when he hears them, however, and evidently derived great comfort from religion. Equiano regarded the professions of Christianity and humanitarianism in the Western world as mostly nominal rather than sincere, although personally he was committed to the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. For most of his life, though, he was dependent on the patronage and goodwill of powerful white men, and came to identify with their culture. Even as a freed slave, his condition was very far from true freedom and equality with whites, although far better than that of plantation slaves.

According to his autobiography, Equiano was only eleven years old when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery with his sister, so this was certainly a factor in how he remembered his own culture, and in facilitating his adjustment to a new one. Had he been a mature adult, such an adjustment would probably have been far more difficult, perhaps impossible. He was very young and frightened when he was taken to Barbados and then Virginia and England, and had never even seen a horse before, or a watch, a painting or snow. As a pre-adolescent child, then, he was thrown in alone with whites and Africans whose languages he could not understand, and literally having no idea where he was in the world and for a time he wished he were dead. Rather than commit suicide, though, he somehow found within himself the strength and determination to survive, and learn the rules for existence in this strange new world -- which must have seemed like some other planet to him. In Virginia, while working on a plantation he "was constantly grieving and pining, and wishing for death rather than anything else" (p. 91). In this case, he deserves a great deal of admiration, because many persons in that situation probably would not have survived. Culture shock is far too mild a term to describe his experience, for he had everything taken from him, including his name. From his master, a ship's captain, he learned English as well as trade, commerce and warfare, since he fought as a privateer in the wars with France. Equiano simply seemed to move into this role naturally, only learning to use new types of weapons he had never seen before, and he reports that "I was trained up from my earliest years in the art of war; my daily exercise was shooting and throwing javelins; and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors" (p. 48). Powerful men in Africa did have their own slaves and servants, and he reports feeling quite attached to his master, who was a kind of father-figure, and to another boy of the ship who was like a brother.

From a very young age, then, he not surprisingly came to identify with his master and the ship, and also with his master's country and its wars against France. On board the ship, he even met the famous General Wolfe and took part in the attack on Louisbourg. In a few years, he learned "to speak English tolerably well, and I perfectly understood everything that was said. I now 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; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners" (p. 133).…[continue]

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