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

by Gustavas Vassa

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Student Question

What American experiences or values does Equiano embrace in his "Narrative of Life" and how does he portray Western culture?

Quick answer:

Olaudah Equiano is an African slave who was born in 1745. He is a Muslim and former slave who writes about his life as a Black man in the 1700s and 1800s. His story spans roughly forty-four years, from 1759 to 1797. The narrative begins with the account of his capture by "the white men." Later on, Olaudah Equiano describes how he came to be enslaved. He recalls that his village was raided by tribesmen who sold their captives to slave traders. In this way, Equiano became one of the many slaves transported to various parts of the world including Spanish colonies in South America and the West Indies.

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Olaudah Equiano portrays Western culture candidly. His narrative includes both positive and negative experiences with Europeans and Americans.

Although Equiano suffered injustices from cruel white men, he also received fair treatment from others. In the narrative, we are told that Captain Doran sold Equiano to Robert King, a Quaker who lived in Philadelphia. For his part, Equiano was distressed at leaving Captain Doran's employ. He described the captain as a master who "possessed a most amiable disposition and temper, and...very charitable and humane." Doran never beat or mistreated his slaves; when they failed to meet his expectations, he merely parted with them.

Equiano also had other champions. We see evidence of this after Equiano is beaten up by Doctor Perkins and "a ruffian of a white man" at a dock in Georgia. At the time, Doctor Perkins was drunk, which further exacerbated his already cruel nature. The doctor and his employee beat Equiano so ferociously that the latter almost died from his grievous wounds. When the captain of Equiano's ship discovered what had transpired, he inquired about suing Doctor Perkins. However, none of the lawyers in town would take the case. They maintained that Perkins would never be convicted for savaging a black man.

Angered by the news, the captain confronted Doctor Perkins and challenged him to a fight, but the coward refused. Meanwhile, a Doctor Brady operated on Equiano, and the captain himself tended to Equiano throughout the ordeal. Due to the attentions of principled white men, Equiano was able to get out of bed after sixteen to eighteen days. The captain also advocated for Equiano when the latter approached Robert King (Equiano's master) to petition for his freedom. For his part, King signed Equiano's manumission papers on the same day the latter acquired it.

Equiano's narrative clearly delineates both the magnanimity and cruelty of both Europeans and Americans. He portrays Western culture as flawed but also vibrant in its many possibilities. While there were white masters who saw fit to abuse slaves, there were yet others who treated their slaves more humanely.

In the narrative, Equiano relates that he eventually embraced European and American cultural values. His conversion to Christianity is the greatest evidence of this. Equiano's numerous references to Bible scripture and the Christian God show how he relied on his new faith to sustain him throughout his many trials in England and America. One example of this is the event of Equiano's near drowning after the ship he was on crashed against a rock.

And in the midst of my distress, while the dreadful surfs were dashing with unremitting fury among the rocks, I remembered the Lord, though fearful that I was undeserving of forgiveness, and I thought that as he had often delivered he might yet deliver; and, calling to mind the many mercies he had shewn me in times past, they gave me some small hope that he might still help me.

According to Equiano, God heard his prayers, and his life (and that of his shipmates) were spared. Equiano's conversion to Christianity was not entirely smooth, however. He explored various denominations and found many of them wanting. Eventually, Equiano embraced a religion of grace, rather than of works.

Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Equiano believed in the religion of his forefathers. He trusted that good spirits (the souls of those who did not undergo transmigration at death) would protect him against evil, malignant spirits.

So, at the beginning of his journey into slavery, Equiano was most afraid of white men, whom he considered evil, tormenting spirits. At the time, Equiano believed that he would die at the hands of cannibalistic white foreigners, men who would sacrifice him to the gods. After a few years in England, however, Equiano's perspective changed.

I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners; I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement; and every new thing that I observed I treasured up in my memory.

Equiano not only embraced Christianity (once a foreign religion to him), but he also embraced the Western emphasis on education. Inspired by the opportunities that education afforded, Equiano made it his personal priority to learn how to read and write.

As to the last part of your question, it appears that Equiano most feared one thing: that his efforts to abolish slavery would meet with failure and that the despicable trade in human flesh would never cease in his lifetime. During the latter part of his narrative, Equiano relates how he participated in efforts to ship former slaves back to Sierra Leone. However, the project failed because of mismanagement in one way or another. Equiano himself was implicated in the failure, despite his innocence in the matter. Yet, despite this trial, Equiano remained optimistic. He hoped to live to see "the renovation of liberty and justice resting on the British government."

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