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Clearly, the "autobiography" of Olaudah Equiano is written by an educated and accomplished recorder in the style of eighteenth century writers, and, therefore, it appealed to European readers of that time. Here is an example of this writing of which the Victorian writer Charles Dickens would be proud:
This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smell, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice. [one sentence]
But, aside from the dispute over the authenticity of the authorship, the poignant tale of a boy who lived like a prince in his own country, and who was torn from a loving family and so abusively treated, touched chords in the hearts of readers, especially abolitionists. A year after the book's success in 1791, Equiano was settled in London where he was married to an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen; he never returned to the United States.
Certainly, the detailed horrors of the description of the slave ship with its unsanitary and lethal conditions, both from disease and floggings, written in a more direct and simple style, stir the readers until Equiano concludes,
Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions and my opinion of the cruelty.... Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives?
Always the exploitation of beings by other beings is cause for emotional and psychological revulsion and sympathies. Truly, just as American readers have been moved by similar lines related by Huck Finn, who is so incensed that Jim, the escaped slave, fears he will never see his family after being separated from them that he resolves to help Jim, a reader cannot help making an emotional connection with the text of the abused and forlorn Equiano.
Olaudah Equiano was a hairdresser by trade. His occupation suggests a cultivation of appearances.This is a theme that is found throughout his autobiography. He adopts the European name Gustavus Vassa to assimilate himself into European culture. Similarly, he also adopts European dress and mannerisms.
Some of the most blatant and forward ways he tries to appeal to white Christians are found before the narrative even begins. Right after the title page is a scriptural passage from the book of Isaiah in the old testament. He makes an appeal to one of the oldest and most respected philosophical/religious texts in European culture. He also places a list of all his European subscribers at the front of his book. This list is alphabetical but begins with "His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales."
Equiano declares his intent of publishing his narrative in a letter before the first chapter. In it he makes appeals to the Christian faith. He asks for compassion, hope, dignity, and benevolent behavior, all values central to the Christian faith, and asserts that slavery as an institution is in direct opposition to these religious beliefs. He makes a final appeal for Abolition and then begins the narration.
In Chapter Five, the chapter after Equiano has been baptized, he discusses the cruel, horrific, and repulsive behavior of many white slaver owners:
"I was often a witness to cruelties of every kind, which were exercised on my unhappy fellow slaves. I used frequently to have different cargoes of new negroes in my care for sale; and it was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves"
"Another negro man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer. Thus by repeated cruelties are the wretched first urged to despair, and then murdered, because they still retain so much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and retaliate on their tyrants! These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. "
These descriptions of the treatment of Africans are horrific regardless of cultural background. These stories make a strong ethical appeal for the humane treatment and freedom of those who are enslaved to a religion that professes to teach salvation and mercy.
This religious/ cultural appeal continues in chapter ten of the narrative where Equiano discusses his conversion to Christianity. In doing so he is implicitly asserting that he as an African man is no different from the white Europeans and deserves the same rights and freedoms.
One piece of information that is interesting to consider while reading the narrative is that there is substantial evidence that Olaudah Equiano was actually born in South Carolina. Thus, this theme of the cultivation of an appearance is given another dimension.
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