The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African

by Gustavas Vassa

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Answer the following questions regarding The Interesting Narrative of Life of Olaudah Equiano:

  • Why is Equiano allowed to be kept on deck rather than in the hold?
  • What new "refinement in cruelty" does Equiano accuse his captors of practicing?
  • Why do you think the captive Africans were treated so brutally?  Consider (a) how the crew probably viewed them, (b) how the number of crew compared to the number of Africans, and (c) how the Africans reacted to their situation.
  • Who do you think are the "nominal Christians" that Equiano refers to in the last paragraph? Do you agree with this epithet (label)?
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    The fact that Equiano was allowed to stay on deck likely had to do both with the fact that he was younger than most of the slaves being transported and that he was able to befriend the sailors on the ship. His age made him vulnerable to sickness, so for selfish reasons, the slavers were more likely to care for his health, but it also seems likely that his young age made it possible for him to elicit more pity from his racist captors and for them to be less likely to view him as a threat.

    Equiano discusses the forced separation of families as a "refinement in cruelty." As many Black writers will later note, the separation of slaves from their families during and after the middle passage functioned as an attempt to break down African culture and the networks of care and support that would otherwise have been central to enslaved Africans lives.

    The brutalization of Africans was inherent to the slave trade. To enslave them, it was necessary for their captors to dehumanize them, and as slavery evolved, as a system the racialized dehumanization of Africans grew more and more intense. The larger number of slaves on the ship and their completely understandable desire to resist their captors and pursue freedom can be used to understand why their captors might feel that brutality was necessary. This underscores the way in which dedication to maintaining a system of domination (such as slavery) leads to further atrocities (such as the need to brutalize and punish enslaved Africans).

    As Equiano is writing his narrative through the lens of Christianity, he argues that the true Christian position is an abolitionist position and that those who support slavery are only "nominal Christians." That is, they take the name of Christianity but none of the substance. We can question whether this is a fair depiction, given that Christianity was actively used to justify slavery, but it as least an attempt by Equiano to use an argument that might be persuasive to the society he lived under.

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    1. Equiano was allowed to stay on deck because he was young, only 11 years old at the time. They probably cared more for his survival, because a young, healthy slave would be worth more.

    2. The "refinement of cruelty" that Equiano refers to is the practice of separating families when they are sold to slave owners. He feels that this was the ultimate cruelty, because family was the only comfort they had to endure the conditions of slavery.

    3. Africans were treated this way because white European Christians saw them as inferior and subhuman because they were so different from them as far as religion, language, skin color, and so on.

    4. Equiano calls the people who participated in the slave trade as "nominal Christians" because they were not true Christians and weren't following the basic tenets of Christianity, such as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," humanity, charity, and humility. They acted on greed, which goes against Christian teachings, and had no compassion for others. I would have to completely agree with this, as they were not treating the slaves as fellow humans and did not care about their feelings or well-being.

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    Equiano is also young, and as such, is not chained below. There are far more Africans than there are crew members, and the crew used brutal punishments to maintain discipline, both among the slaves and themselves. The "nominal Christians" are those involved in the slave trade itself, which, as an abolitionist, he views as incompatible with Christian teaching.

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    Equiano is able to stay on deck, instead of in the hold, because of the relationships he forms with the sailors on the ships. Some of the sailors befriend him, and given this friendship, he is allotted special treatment.

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