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

by Gustavas Vassa

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Student Question

How does Olaudah Equiano appeal to white European Christians in his autobiography?

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In short, the text of Olaudah Equiano is written in a classical style that appeals to European readers. It is the detailed descriptions of the horrible conditions of slavery on board ship with its details of physical and psychological horrors that brings tears to the eyes and hearts of readers. In addition, it is his own personal narrative—written before he was educated as an adult—that touches readers as they are able to see how a slave boy became so accomplished.

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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.

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