The Autobiography of Anti-Slavery: The Philosophy of Olaudah Equiano Essay
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Slavery was the norm of 18th century America. American colonial life depended primarily on slave labor, procured mostly from the almost unknown continent of Africa. The “procurement” of slaves in the Western shore of Africa was without suffering or hardship. Most of the slaves were kidnapped from their homeland and chained in ships to be sold in the slave market.
Aboard the ship, the slaves experienced the cruelest forms of inhumanity. They were fed once every two days. Some women were raped.
Those who resisted were thrown to the sea. Mockery and discrimination were also directed to them; partly because of the perceived cultural superiority of the Europeans. It was as if the slave was the lowliest form of subhuman animals existing in the unknown part of the world.
Here, the life of Olaudah Equiano represented the dissent of the slaves on the question of the functionality of slavery. One man, a slave presented compelling arguments against slavery. By arguing that slavery is in itself a perverse functional structure, he eliminated the basic principle of that system (the principle of filial protection).
By arguing that Africans were equal of the Europeans, the assumption of racial or individual superiority was questioned. No doubt, among those who advocated the abolition of the system, he was the first to declare that all men are equal by nature – precisely years before the Third Estate of France declared that all men are created equal.
Before presenting his main arguments, there is a need to discuss some of his experiences as a slave. Equiano was born in the year 1745 in an area in Guinea called ‘Eboe.’ He was the son of a tribal chief. When he was 11 years old, he and his sister were kidnapped by slave traders while playing. Negotiations over the market price of the slaves occurred after the ship landed in the Thirteen colonies.
Equiano was sold to an officer in the Royal Navy named Michael Pascal. As a slave of an officer in the Royal Navy, he was introduced to a naval way of life. His master refused to transfer him to a plantation field in South Carolina. He was brought to England and was able to read and write the English language. During the Seven Years War, he served as sailor in the Royal Navy. His job was to carry gunpowder from the storage area to the cannon decks. After fighting with his British ‘master’ in Canada and the Mediterranean and having been baptized, he felt that freedom and land were near. He was cheated.
The prize money was taken by a British captain. His freedom was sold to another captain and again to a Quaker named Robert King. Equiano’s fear of the plantations soon dissolved after his master refused to send him to the cotton plantations in the Caribbean (he was then a very educated man). His master trained him as a gauger – a person who estimates weights and measures. While in Monserrat, he saw the most gruesome afflictions the slaves faced. After sometime, he bought his freedom from King. After a year, he wrote his autobiography.
Men are raised equal in the eyes of God (Equiano 40). This is a statement cherished not only by Western liberal countries but also by Equiano. Here are some of his main arguments:
- He assumed that the soul undertakes a spiritual journey; a sort of testimony to God’s action in life. This spiritual journey is manifested in everyday living; in essence a form of individual consecration of life. Thus, if another individual obstructs the soul’s spiritual journey or makes attempts to restrain it, then he/she violates God’s law;
- And, since every man undertakes his own journey, then it is fitting to say that an individual soul cannot be a slave of another’s. Hence, every soul is equal in the eyes of God.
Advocates of slavery presented their arguments as follows:
- It is the duty of the white man to spread civilization to the savages;
- In order to do this, a functional system of filial protection must be established between the white men and the savages;
- In the end, all of mankind will reap the benefits of civilization – traces of the old savage lie will disappear;
- Freedom is relative. Those who spread civilization possess absolute freedom. Recipients of civilization possess limited freedom.
Equiano refuted the arguments of the advocates of slavery by showing that all civilizations are in essence of the same cultural substance and origin. He argued that all civilizations started from scratch. Once a civilization entered a glorious phase, another civilization would follow suit. Filial protection then between two groups of people could not be moral since it impinges the territory of God’s law. Slavery, for him (as he had witnessed) bore no good fruit.
Equiano’s arguments against slavery are generally religious in essence. By today’s standards, his arguments would seem weak when compared to the anti-slavery thesis of Martin Luther King. The functionality of an argument today seems essentially based on empirical and social principles, largely undeveloped during his time. To quote, “At the same time, his Christian piety, and his admiration for the Christian colonizing work of the West, places limits on that critical stance, causing him to espouse viewpoints that now seem to us patently contradictory, viewpoints that, ironically, empowered him with a sense of both integrity and survival” (Elrod 15).
Elrod, Eileen Razzari. “Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative.” African American Review, 2001: 12-35.
Equiano, Olaudah Equiano. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Ed. Shelley Eversley. New York: Random House Inc., 1794/1990.