Homework: Narrative of Olaudah Equiano

Tonight, you will read a selection from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, detailing his experiences with the trans-Atlantic slave system.  Please respond to the following prompt on a separate sheet of paper:

In the full narrative of Olaudah Equiano’s experiences with slavery, he describes his personal background and the cultural from which he was taken as a slave.  While the portion of the narrative you have does not directly provide information about Equiano’s background, it does, however, suggest certain things about his culture.  What assumptions might you make about Equiano’s background, based on what he writes in this passage?  (Are there any guesses as to his cultural practices, social norms, taboos, or beliefs which you would feel comfortable making based on what you’ve read?

Consider when and why Equiano wrote his narrative.  To whom does he think he is writing?  Do you think that might have had an effect on WHAT he chose to write?  If so, why?

Please try to provide specific textual references as you answer the above discussion points!

3 thoughts on “Homework: Narrative of Olaudah Equiano

  1. Based on details in Equiano’s narrative I would assume he is from a West African animistic culture. He is obviously close to the coast for the Europeans to get him there. I would say Northern Africa, but North Africa was at that point predominantly Muslim, and Equiano says he thought of the Europeans as spirits, which indicates animistic culture. North and West Africa were the two most commonly visited places for trade and extraction of slaves due to its proximity to Europe and the South American colonies. Therefore it seems logical to me that he could very well be from a Western African kingdom practicing an animistic faith.

    I believe Equiano wrote this seeing an opportunity. to abolish slavery in the British Empire. I believe he was speaking to the White men in the British government, hoping to bring an end to slavery. This takes place shortly after the American revolution, a revolution promoting freedom for all (Kind of). It is entirely possible that he planned to piggyback off this freedom movement, but take it in another direction. I believe he was speaking to the Europeans because he uses terms such as “savage” to describe their manner, effectively comparing them to those who they viewed as savages, the very people they were enslaving. Also, in the final paragraph, Equiano quotes the bible saying, “might not an African ask you — Learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”. The use of “Your God” would speak to European Christians, and “might not an African ask you” implies that he is speaking to people who he believes view Africans to be of a lower social class and of less importance, which also outlines most Europeans at that time.

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  2. Based on the reading, I know that from the West African kingdom of Benin when he was captured by slave traders. Equiano is terrified and mesmerized by the slave ship and the people on the ship, which was his first experience with white skinned people. Equiano also never experienced being on a ship because he asked many questions concerning the slave ship, such as “how the vessel could go?”. Equiano states that he was already a slave before he boarded the ship, but his treatment on the ship was brutal unlike his treatment in West Africa. I assume that Equiano is from a non-Christian society that treats slaves with more respect than the British, which is emphasized when Equiano expresses that he “really thought [the British] were spirits” whenever the British would stop the vessel.

    Equiano wrote his narrative during the British antislavery movement in an attempt to abolish the slave trade in Britain, after he purchased his freedom. In order to capture the cruelty that the slaves faced, Equiano included many brutal scenes to convince British officials to realize the error of their ways. He focused a major portion of the selection on his time aboard the slave ship, which would be very convincing in disproving the morality of the slave trade. Equiano directs the narrative at Christians, who he believes “add fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.” Including stories of the harsh treatment he faced might affect British officials on a moral level, and including the excerpt geared towards Christians might have affected officials on a personal level, all to abolish slavery in Britain.

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