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

by Gustavas Vassa

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The long personal story of Olaudah Equiano established the slave-narrative genre in literature. Equiano takes the form of the spiritual autobiography that Saint Augustine used in his fifth century religious conversion work Confessiones (c. 400; Confessions) and adds to its pattern a new dimension—that of social protest. The spiritual conversion account follows a three-part structure in describing a life of sin, a conversion experience, and the emergence of a new religious identity. Equiano relates his spiritual undertaking in that manner, but he also parallels his battle to free himself from a life of sin with his struggle to escape from the physical bonds of slavery.

The prose style of The Life of Olaudah Equiano alternates between a florid, lofty tone typical of many eighteenth century works and a plain and graphic manner of writing. The latter style is the one Equiano uses effectively to describe his personal experiences and dangerous adventures.

Equiano presents himself in the early part of his narrative as a picaresque figure who is both fearful of and awe-stricken by the technical marvels of the white world. He allows himself to enter into the cultural life of the West, but he never becomes blind to the defects of that world. His personal experience with slavery and his fond, vivid memories of his African homeland impel him to reveal the truth about the evils of human bondage and to give an accurate account of the laws, religion, and customs of the African society.

In a remarkable manner, Equiano also presents himself in his work as an enterprising and heroic character. He relates how he labors hard after his slave duties are done so that he can save funds to buy his freedom. This act, of course, is important to Equiano, and he shows this by including his manumission paper in the middle portion of his autobiography. From that point on, he writes about his life in a more exuberant and authoritative tone. He confidently describes how he takes on many different and challenging roles until he finds the one in which he feels he can do the most good—that of a fighter in the struggle against slavery.

Much of Equiano’s autobiography is based on his extensive reading in the travel and antislavery literature of his day. He relies on the popular primitivistic works of the travel writers who paint edenic or idealistic pictures of remote areas of the globe. Equiano uses these descriptions of Africa and mixes them with his own recollections of the country of his youth. Despite his reliance on what he reads, he is always careful to present the true condition of the Africans, many of whom he sees as suffering under the corrupting influences of the white world’s technology and materialistic practices. Thus, he describes how Europeans introduce instruments of warfare on the African continent while they stir up animosities and greed to implement their trafficking in human cargo.

Equiano’s work is the first slave narrative that details the horrors of the slave-ship crossing from Africa to the West Indies. This terrible ordeal is indelibly impressed upon the mind of the young slave, who witnesses men and women packed in the suffocating hold of the ship and experiencing filth, stench, disease, tortures, sexual abuse, and near-starvation. In a reversal of Western notions about native savages, Equiano views the white slave traders as cannibals and depicts his fears of being eaten by these strange-looking, long-haired, red-faced dealers in human flesh.

As he writes his narrative, Equiano attempts to erase several misconceptions that his white readers possess about black men and women. The best way...

(This entire section contains 770 words.)

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he believes he can accomplish this is by demonstrating through the account of his life that a black person is as much a human being as a white person. Thus, Equiano’s life achievements stand for the abilities of all blacks to fulfill themselves as members of the human race if they are allowed their physical and spiritual freedoms. He stresses through his own experiences that these dual freedoms are necessary for the attainment of a person’s proper role in life. Equiano shows that slavery degrades him but that his freedom permits him to succeed in many areas in which he can employ his talents and industrious habits. He strongly proves his point by depicting himself surmounting all types of obstacles, from his youthful slave days to his successful mature years, through much hard work and dedication. In this manner, he resembles his contemporary Benjamin Franklin, who climbed from rags to riches by means of the American free-enterprise spirit of self-reliance, diligent work, and frugal practice.


Critical Context