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

by Gustavas Vassa

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What is Olaudah Equiano’s purpose and point of view?

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Olaudah Equiano’s purpose is to bring attention to how brutal the slave trade is. He writes in first-person and describes what he experienced as an enslaved person.

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The Interesting Narrative of the Life Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African is an autobiography written by Oluadua Equiano in 1789. In the introduction to the text, Equiano writes that his purpose is to “excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countryman.” In other words, he is trying to show how brutal the slave trade is. He hopes that this work will help end the slave trade.

Equiano writes in first-person to show readers what the slave trade was like from his point of view. As a formerly enslaved person, his perspective provides insight into just how horrible the slave trade was. He does not shy away from how cruel the white men were and how the enslaved people were treated like they were less than human. He recounts many cruel aspects of the experience, from being physically beaten to being so hopeless that he wished for death. For instance, recall his detailed descriptions of the Middle Passage. He writes:

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 any thing. 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. I had never experienced any thing of this kind before.

Detailed descriptions like this provided a rare, raw glimpse into what the slave trade was really like. The average reader in Equiano's time was not familiar with how bad it was the way we are today. Because he is writing as someone who really experienced all of these things, his perspective is credible and impactful.

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