Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, is the story of the eponymous real-life character, Olaudah Equiano, his life, trials, tribulations and journey from slavery at an early age to freedom. For Equiano, it seems that slavery is almost a metaphysical phenomenon.
His entire life is essentially characterized by the different experiences relating slavery, from Africa to the Middle Passage to plantation life in the West Indies and United States. Equiano’s views on slavery are tough to articulate and truly complex. Throughout the novel he makes reference to different ‘degrees of slavery,’ at times condemning the practice, and at other times contradicting himself and seemingly lauding it. I believe that his conflicting views are products of his first hand experience with nearly all aspects of the practice, and near the end of the novel it is clear that he is in favor of ending slavery.
See more: what is a narrative essay
Although he was kidnapped at the age of eleven, Equiano’s familiarity with slavery actually begins long before that. Born in a region that is today known as Nigeria. His father a chief, (and ironically himself would eventually reach the same status if not for his kidnapping years later), Equiano’s family was considered ‘upper-class,’ and thus owned their own number of slaves. I believe that this is the beginning and serves as the basis of which he compares the slavery he experiences later in his lifetime to, and also what may serve as the beginning of his conflicting emotion towards the practice in general.
He makes note that slaves in this community, while under the direction of a master and with clear distinction of a ‘lesser importance,’ are still treated in a humane way. On his own account, these slaves do a comparable amount of work to that of other members of the community. When put into perspective, with no knowledge of what’s to come (in regards to subsequent experiences in different aspects and degrees of slavery) at this point it is easy to see why Equiano has not yet condemned the idea or practice of slavery.
Shortly thereafter, Equiano is kidnapped (along with his sister, though the two are eventually separated), He narrates being taken on a long, arduous voyage through a variety of African regions, during which he had “often changed masters.” He is first sold across Africa, first to a chieftain, and shortly after to a widow. After which, he is ultimately sold to the owner of a ship destined for the West Indies.
Equiano dubs this Atlantic voyage himself “The Middle Passage,” and this is where I believe his journey truly begins. Equiano elaborates on his introduction and subsequent alienation to the European culture and their treatment of slaves. He details the substandard living conditions and destitution of living aboard the slave ship, and being a stark contrast to the concept of slavery he knew back in Africa, I believe this is the defining moment where his viewpoint regarding slavery is partitioned.
I think it’s important to note that when Equiano is enslaved by fellow Africans, he makes note of the strong contrasts and class distinctions between himself and them. He makes direct comparisons between himself and the class he hails from, and these other Africans, going as far as to call them “barbaric” and “uncivilized.” I believe that this is worth noting, because it’s almost paradoxical how he is very quick to condemn these people and their form of slavery, while at the same time not criticizing the slavery that took place in his own village when he was a child. Though not yet acknowledging it, I believe that this is when he begins to form his own ‘tiers’ of the practice of slavery.
After arriving at the West Indies and experiencing the sale of slaves firsthand, Equiano continues along with the slave ship to North America, and ultimately purchased by a naval captain, Michael Pascal to work in Virginia. Again he is subjected to cruel treatment inside the slaveholders’ homes. This is, I believe, the turning point that eventually leads to Equiano’s final resolution. He details being shocked and hurt to the point where he tries to wash the color of his skin off his face. While travelling the seas with Pascal, Equiano has many more encounters in and with Britain. With more and more exposure to Christianity and European culture, he details that he was no longer frightened and apprehensive towards it, beginning to show confluence of African and European cultures. He was eventually sent to school in Britain, educated and shortly after, baptized.
It is worth noting that later in the novel he often relates his new religious standpoint to his enslavement. While becoming a Christian himself, whether or not he holds responsible God, himself, or the hypocritical Christian Europeans for his enslavement is left ambiguous. Ultimately, (and after brief stints of being purchased by other masters) Equiano is sold to Robert King. Educated and under the direction of a master treating him relatively fair, Equiano here observes another facet of slavery. He is further educated and directed along the path of Christianity, which I believe further adds more conflicting emotion, due to it being comparable to his original notion of slavery from his childhood.
While working for King on shipping routes, he determines himself to save some money on the side, in order to buy his freedom from King. Interesting to note though, in the novel he explicitly states that he would like to return to Old England, not Africa. While I think this is further evidence of his confluence of English and African cultures, I believe that this is also the beginning of his plea against the practice of slavery, as later in the novel we find out that he does indeed buy his freedom, and much later returns to London and become involved in the abolitionist movement.
In conclusion, it is clear to see that in the mind of Equiano, slavery is not simple a one-sided condemnation. From birth until freedom, he has lived and experienced all aspects of slavery, from his family owning slaves to being purchased himself. It’s an interesting and unique point of view that few (if any more) people who were involved in the practice of slavery experienced themselves.
In the end, I think it is clear to the reader that Equiano is against the notion of slavery, but I believe that’s a conclusion he came to because of personal experience along with education and indulgement of European culture. While I don’t believe he accepts the practice of slavery, I believe that he accepts slavery as part of how he defines of himself, almost as if slavery could not be abolished were it not conceived in the first place.