Olaudah Equiano

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What made Equiano view death as both terrifying and friendly?

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During the course of his capture and enslavement, Equiano was placed in various dangerous situations in which he was frightened of dying. However, the horror of his experiences often made death seem like a welcome release.

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In chapter 2 of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Equiano describes how he was kidnapped and enslaved at the age of eleven, along with his sister. He refers to himself as being like a deer hunted through the forest:

Ev'ry leaf and ev'ry whisp'ring breath
Convey'd a foe, and ev'ry foe a death.
At this point, Equiano is simply terrified of death, constantly frightened by the dangers that surround him. However, this is merely the beginning of his long trial. The brutal experience of enslavement was such a shock after the freedom of his early childhood that Equiano often thought death would be preferable to captivity. Soon after expressing his terror of death in chapter 2, he confesses that he felt "an anxious wish for death to relieve me from all my pains." This idea of death as a welcome release does not replace Equiano's sense of terror, but alternates with it. Sometimes, he simultaneously sees death as friendly and terrifying. Smelling the stench on board the slave ship, he says:

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.

This punishment for actively choosing death over captivity was apparently common on the ships of the Middle Passage, and Equiano later describes it happening to others. However, almost immediately afterwards, he adds:

I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner.

In such desperate circumstances, the longing for death does not extinguish the fear of dying.

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