On Olaudah Equiano

Olauduah Equiano’s life as a slave was uncommonly more bearable than that of most other slaves. Though passed countless times from master to master, his experiences exempted the cruel punishments and torture of which he was witness to. However, he was, nonetheless, betrayed and cheated by many of the whites he came into contact with.

Equiano deemed himself inferior to the whites. Hence, he adopted their manners, customs, and their religion. His assimilation into their culture placed him a step up from the unbaptized, savage Negro in the eyes of the whites. Equiano’s mobility as a slave allowed him to eventually gain his freedom. But this mobility resulted from his conformance to “civilized” society and, consequently, a rejection of his own culture. However, it seems that his conformance  to English society was borne out of a will to survive. His opening statement alone evidences this assimilation. He evokes the Christian god and his rhetoric is very much English. His rhetoric is reminiscent of Phillis Wheatley, an African American poet who similarly evokes the Christian god and colors her poetry with decorative rhetoric.

Equiano’s many near death experiences and primarily kind treatment throughout his travels nearly render the account questionable. It appears that positive slave narratives are those that are published, promoted, and widely circulated. Other than Equiano, the other instances that come to mind are Harriet Jacob’s and Frederick Douglass’s narratives. The fact that most slaves could not read or write may account for this slant. A slave’s ability to read and write typically meant that he was better treated than those who could not. And a slave’s literacy also put him in a better position for further mobility.

The skills that Equiano developed during his travels enabled him to eventually free himself. But the fact that he even acquired these skills was the sheer luck or “Providence” of being led to humane situations with individuals who cared for him and perceived him as a man. “Providence’” was certainly on his side during his several near death experiences and also enabled him to earn his freedom. He caught a fatalistic fever, small pox, was nearly killed on board his ships more than once, nearly died from injuries, among other incidences. Captain Doran’s death also happened at the right time. Equiano states that if the captain had died five months earlier, he would not have acquired his freedom, for it was Captain Doran that appealed to his master that allowed Equiano to get permission to draw up his manumission. Incidences such as these demonstrate the exceptionality of Equiano’s life as a slave.

Equiano’s life as a sailor also enabled him to travel and work in a position uncommon to many slaves. He learned new skills and he fought in naval battles. He was not out working in the fields and therefore was spared many of the horrific treatments that commonly befell slaves. He also manned slavers and witnessed many slaves come on board. In one such incident, the ship he was manning, the Nancy, became shipwrecked and the entire crew and slaves were almost decimated. However, due to Equiano’s cunning and foresight, he and three other black sailors were able to save everyone on board. The captain wanted him to latch the slaves down so that they could not escape into the small lifeboat. However, Equiano could not bear to do such a thing—to condemn them to die in that way. This and several other instances such as the time he shared his fruit with an elderly slave who had been robbed demonstrates that he definitely empathized with his people, though he was, apparently, greater than they were in the hierarchy. His relation of and horrific reaction to the instances of cruelty endured by his fellow slaves also evidences this empathy. For example, he states that he had to submit to the will of the whites and was unable to help his fellow slaves on board the ships. He speaks of the rape of African girls and the inequalities in the way they are allowed to be treated as compared to white women. He states that these atrocities are the “disgrace not of Christians only, but of men” (Equiano 74).

Equiano’s travels as a sailor also led him to be present at a few great historical events. He mentions that he was present at a celebration in Charlestown at the “repeal of the stamp-act” (Equiano 94). The  Stamp Act was repealed in 1765 and was a major influence on the American Revolution. The colonies felt oppressed by it. Another historical event or figure that Equiano came into contact with was Reverend George Whitfield. He was able to listen in on one of Whitfield’s sermons and from this experience understood why the church was so crowded.  Equiano was impressed at the fervor and passion Whitfield exerted. He states that “I saw this pious man exhorting the people with the greatest fervor and earnestness, and sweating as much as I ever did while in slavery on Montserrat-beach” (Equiano 98). The comparison Equiano makes here is interesting. He compares Whitfield’s sweating to that of himself working hard as a slave. Whitfield was an excellent orator and was also a trained actor.

Equiano foreshadowed the conflicts he would endure as a free man. Earlier on, he recounts the story of a free mulatto man who was snatched and taken into slavery. It was well known that he was a free man by the inhabitants on the island and by those on board Equiano’s ship. Despite his protests and proof that he was free, he was unable to defend himself. This man had a family whom he more than likely never saw again. Equiano states that it was thought to be better to be a slave because free men lived “in constant alarm for their liberty”. They could be snatched at any given moment and could not defend themselves. He states that,  “. . .is it surprising that slaves, when mildly treated , should prefer even the misery of slavery to such a mockery of freedom?” (Equiano 89). Equiano relates stories of his own struggles as a free man. He is threatened to be whipped along with another man and a woman even though he is free. In another instance, two white men pretend to recognize him as one of their runaway slaves. He is ability to speak good English helps him escape them and also his knowledge that such tricks were commonly played on other free black men.

Equiano’s knowledge and skills assisted him greatly in his life as a slave and thereafter. His belief in the Christian god, knowledge of the English language, knowledge of travel, good conduct and reputation, helped him to get into a position to help others who shared his fate.  As with Phillis Wheatley, Equiano’s rhetoric and belief in the Christian god allowed them to have a voice—to get a foot in the door to help others. Equiano’s position as a sailor put him in a position to where advancement was much easier.

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