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

by Gustavas Vassa

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African is considered the first major slave autobiography in English literature. It served as the prototype for the numerous fugitive slave narratives used in the fight against slavery by the abolitionist groups during the period prior to the Civil War.

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In the mid-1750’s in West Africa, the eleven-year-old Olaudah Equiano and his sister are kidnapped and sold into bondage. After serving for a short time as a slave in Africa and being separated from his sister, he is purchased by European slave dealers. Equiano undergoes the worst terrors of the Atlantic crossing known as the Middle Passage, an experience shared by countless Africans tightly packed in slave ships sailing to the New World and to a life of cruel servitude.

The slave ship takes Equiano to Barbados, where he is put up for sale. He is not purchased there, however, and soon the frightened and bewildered youth is sent to Virginia. Eventually, a British Royal Navy captain purchases Equiano and puts him aboard a trading vessel.

Equiano is called Gustavus Vassa, the name of a Swedish freedom fighter, and the young slave spends the next ten years working on various ships plying the Atlantic between England and the Americas. Thus, he is spared a crueler existence on a Caribbean or an American colonial plantation. He is befriended by two sailors, Richard Baker and Daniel Queen, who introduce him to religion and reading. Queen provides fatherly instruction and arouses Equiano’s desire for freedom. Of the several captains Equiano must serve, he becomes closest to Thomas Farmer, and it is Farmer who urges Equiano’s master to allow the young slave to purchase his freedom.

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Because of his enterprising activities, Equiano saves enough money to buy his liberty on July 10, 1766. Thereafter, he works as a free man on commercial vessels and at times sails on scientific expeditions to regions in the Arctic and in Central America. He also becomes a Christian convert and learns how to read and write. Finally, he settles in England, where he becomes involved in the controversial and disastrous plan to transport poor black men and women to the African colony of Sierra Leone. In the late 1780’s, the crusade to abolish the slave trade begins in Great Britain, and Equiano decides to write his two-volume autobiography, a harsh indictment of the institution of slavery.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308

Andrews, William L. “Voices of the First Fifty Years, 1760-1810.” In To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Explains how Equiano’s unique slave experience permitted him to lead a bicultural life as a person who belonged to two worlds. Because Equiano understood the realities of both the Western and African ways of life, he was able to force the reader to examine cultural values concerning race and morals.

Costanzo, Angelo. “The Spiritual Autobiography and Slave Narrative of Olaudah Equiano.” In Surprizing Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings of Black Autobiography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Analyzes the text’s position in the tradition of spiritual and secular autobiographical writing. Demonstrates how Equiano employs many of the literary devices that autobiographers use, such as the creation of a strong character type, the before-and-after contrast of an individual’s life, and the journey motif, which depicts a person undergoing experiences on the road from innocence to maturity.

Edwards, Paul. “Three West African Writers of the 1780’s.” In The Slave’s Narrative, edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Discusses the importance and popularity of Equiano’s autobiography and explains the difficulties that the former slave encountered in his experiences with the white society. Describes how even a few members of the British abolitionist group revealed their racist attitudes toward Equiano when he assumed a significant position in the political struggle to end the slave trade.

Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. A useful study of the development of the slave-narrative genre.

Williams, Kenny J. They Also Spoke: An Essay on Negro Literature in America, 1787-1930. Nashville, Tenn.: Townsend Press, 1970. A history of African American literature from Equiano’s time through the Harlem Renaissance.

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