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

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Olaudah Equiano's life and narrative purpose

Summary:

Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, aims to expose the brutal realities of the slave trade and inspire compassion to help end it. Equiano's firsthand accounts of his harrowing experiences, including the Middle Passage, provide a credible and impactful perspective that was instrumental in the abolitionist movement and inspired future slave narratives.

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

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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What is the narrative of Olaudah Equiano's life?

What we know of Olaudah Equiano's life is mainly derived from his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Published in 1789, it became an archetypical slave narrative, the first of many published in an attempt to draw attention to the horrors of slavery. Scholars dispute many aspects of its authenticity, but the story would have been typical of thousands of slaves. Equiano was taken from his family in the interior of Africa, apparently in what is now Nigeria. He served as a slave in Africa, but eventually he wound up being purchased by Europeans and sailed to Barbados, and ultimately to Virginia, aboard a slave ship, where he describes the conditions as follows:

I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind...I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; I was soon put down hinder the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life...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...

Equiano survived, however, and was ultimately purchased by a British officer, and he served on board a merchant ship. There he learned to read and write, and converted to Christianity. (He also became known as Gustavus Vassa while enslaved.) He saved enough money to purchase his freedom, and worked on board several different ships, including some important scientific expeditions in Central America, before finally settling in England. He published his book as an expose of the evils of slavery and the slave trade, just at the moment when abolitionist sentiment was becoming very strong in England. His book was inspirational not just to this movement, but to a slew of slave narratives that would become a staple of antislavery literature. 

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What is the summary of Olaudah Equiano?

In "An African Narrative by Olaudah Equiano (1791)", Olaudah describes the feeling of terror as he sails alongside others also captive aboard a slave ship going to Barbados. He makes observations about the men who have taken them and proceeds to narrate the many cruelties they endure at these men's hands. He calls the white men "savages" for the way they treat not only the captives but also each other.

Soon, they arrive at Barbados and are examined and prepared to be sold. He soon finds that they are in the company of other slaves who comfort them and allay their anxieties about being eaten alive. They are told of their actual purpose there, which is to be put to work by those who will purchase them.

Olaudah then describes the slave trade, pointing to how families were being painfully separated in the process. He is included among those who've remained unsold, and so he is transported yet again, this time to Virginia, where he finds himself rather more well-provisioned compared to previous experience. He is eventually bought by a captain of the British Royal Navy, and it is in these voyages that he acquires the necessary skills to enrich himself and make him more knowledgeable in his field. Alongside knowledge, he also discovers religion. Olaudah Equiano embraces Christianity, and he is given a new name to reflect his "rebirth"—Gustavus Vassa. He earns his own freedom with his own money and becomes instrumental in eradicating the slave trade with this autobiographical account of all the horrors he'd endured.

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What is the summary of Olaudah Equiano?

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African is an autobiography published in 1789. Olaudah Equiano (16 October 1745 – 31 March 1797), also known by the European name Gustavus Vassa, was born in what is now Nigeria. He was a member of the Igbo tribe who was kidnapped from his family and sold to slave traders. The opening of the book describes tribal life in some detail.

Equiano was part of a large group of slaves sent across the infamous Middle Passage to Barbados in the British West Indies and describes in detail the horrors of the voyage. After some time on the plantation, he was resold to an Englishman and shipped to England.

Equiano learned English and converted to Christianity. By working hard and saving money after he completed his tasks as a slave, he managed to save enough money to purchase his freedom.

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What is the summary of Olaudah Equiano?

In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Equiano shares one of the first major slave autobiographies published in English literature. Equiano writes of his experiences as he is kidnapped from his homeland Africa. When Equiano was eleven years old, he and his siter were both kidnapped and sold into slavery first in Africa. It is interesting to note that Equiano first served as slave for other African tribes. This point proves that the natural African was also involved or in collaboration with the white European slave dealers. 

After being transported from one check point to the other in Africa, Equiano was later placed on a slave ship which belonged to European slave dealers. Equiano learns of the terrors of being packed and cramped onto a slave ship:

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.

While on the slave ship, Equiano experienced starvation and cruel treatment by the European slave traders as they crossed 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 Equiano's autobiography, he writes of the truth of his horrible experience. Also, he points out that the Africans are not savages, but the white European slave trader caused him to "fear being eaten by these strange-looking, long-haired, red-faced dealers in human flesh."

Equiano was first put up for sale in Barbados. He was not purchased. Next, he was sent to Virginia. A British Royal Navy captain purchases Equiano. The British Royal Navy captain places Equiano on a trading ship. Equiano becomes an expert at his profession. Befriended by various sailors, Equiano learns to read and write. He is also introduced to religion. Equiano becomes a Christian. He is given a new name. He is named after Gustavus Vassa, a Swedish freedom fighter. Equiano saves his money and buys his own freedom:

Because of his enterprising activities, Equiano saves enough money to buy his liberty on July 10, 1766.

Equiano continues to work on commercial vessels. Likewise, he becomes a part of the crusade to abolish slavery and decides to write his autobiography to reveal the horrors associated with the slave trade:  

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.

No doubt, Equiano influenced other slaves to write their own slave autobiographies. The slave autobiography became a very important genre which helped to abolish slavery.  

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