How is it possible to describe The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African as a captivity narrative, spiritual autobiography, travel memoir, adventure story, and as an abolitionist tract?
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The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, is a story of slavery from capture to freedom. A native of Benin, West Africa, Equiano’s memoir is not only a graphic depiction of the slave trade, but a story of adventure and of a spiritual awakening. Written for and submitted to the British Parliament, the book provides vivid portraits. Equiano had produced a travelogue as much as slave narrative. Between his time in captivity, during which he was sent to North America on a slave ship, and his subsequent years as a “free-man,” he traveled widely, and provided detailed descriptions of the places he visited, including Turkey and Portugal.
Equiano’s memoir is at its most poignant when relating the story of his capture into slavery and his forced separation from his beloved sister:
“The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other's arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us; she was torn from me, and immediately carried away . . .”
Wrenching though this description is, Equiano’s tale of life aboard the slave ship is even more so:
“I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.”
In describing his surroundings, Equiano paid meticulous attention to detail. He describes his native Benin, including precise distances between points, the foods the people of West Africa ate, and attire worn by his fellow Africans:
“The dress of both sexes is nearly the same. It generally consists of a long piece of callico, or muslin, wrapped loosely round the body, somewhat in the form of a highland plaid. This is usually dyed blue, which is our favourite colour.”
Equiano confronted many challenges, including the shipwreck off the Bahamas and his voyage with "Doctor Irving" to the Arctic region. It was the hardships endured during this latter voyage that provided the foundation for his spiritual transformation:
“Our voyage to the North Pole being ended, I returned to London . . . during which I began seriously to reflect on the dangers I had escaped, particularly those of my last voyage, which made a lasting impression on my mind, and, by the grace of God, proved afterwards a mercy to me; it caused me to reflect deeply on my eternal state, and to seek the Lord with full purpose of heart ere it was too late.”
Abolitionist Tract: Upon submitting his memoir to the British Parliament in 1789, Equiano included a letter that argued for an end to slavery:
“Permit me, with the greatest deference and respect, to lay at your feet the following genuine Narrative; the chief design of which is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen. By the horrors of that trade was I first torn away from all the tender connexions that were naturally dear to my heart . . .”
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