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The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) is an autobiography by the formerly enslaved African man Olaudah Equiano. It details the cruelty of slavery from the real perspective of one who has lived through it. Read on for a summary of Equiano's text, as well as an analysis of its themes and key quotes.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, content warning, StudySmarter

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Summary

Olaudah Equiano opens his text by describing the customs and culture of his home country, Eboe, now modern-day Nigeria. Eboe has a strict patriarchal culture, with the men treated as superiors and the women expected to prioritise marriage and home-making. Eboe is ruled by various wise elders who make decisions on behalf of the community. One of these elders is Equiano's own father. Eboe culture also prioritises music, art, and dance. They place deep faith in a god they believe created all and controls all.

In the context of a text about slavery, Equiano engages in these descriptions to argue that black people are in no way inferior to white people; they merely have a different culture that white people do not understand. He does this by drawing similarities between the Eboe people and the Jewish people. For example, both groups have circumcision as a common cultural practice. Equiano also makes the point that the Eboe community does have enslaved people, but in a very different way than white people do. In Eboe, enslaved people are exclusively criminals and prisoners of war. Equiano maintains that those who are enslaved by white people are treated much worse.

When he is eleven, Equiano and his sister are captured by enslavers and sold into slavery. Equiano is moved between multiple enslavers, permanently separated from his sister. He details the surprisingly positive experiences he has at times. For example, he accidentally kills a chicken that his enslaver owns and flees the house in fear. However, when he returns out of hunger, his enslaver insists he not be punished.

This does not last, and Equiano is sold again, being moved onto a ship full of enslaved people, which is sailing to Barbados in the Caribbean. This ship is Equiano's first encounter with the barbarity of the international slave trade. The conditions on the ship are cramped, hot, and inhumane. Some enslaved people even try to commit suicide. As a young boy onboard this ship, Equiano is terrified. He finds the white enslavers extremely intimidating, and he speaks no English, so has little idea what is happening.

Equiano is then brought to a plantation in the U.S. state of Virginia and forced to work. He still does not speak English and feels very detached. Each day he becomes increasingly more taken aback at the cruelty of the white enslavers.

A plantation is a large estate where crops like tobacco, cotton, and sugar are grown. Those who work on a plantation are often residents there too. Plantations have become synonymous with slavery as many enslaved people were forced to do backbreaking labour on them.

While Equiano is working on the plantation, a man named Michael Henry Pascal comes to visit and decides he wishes to purchase Equiano. Pascal is a navy officer, and so he installs Equiano as a part of his ship's crew. They travel to England and, over the next few years, spend their time between England and the seas. Equiano describes this period of his life in relatively positive terms. Pascal treats Equiano and the other enslaved people well, seeming to hold some respect for them. In Equiano's experience, this was an extremely unusual way for a white man at this time to behave.

Equiano also begins to feel at home in England, learning the language and culture. He spends some time working for the Miss Guerins, two relatives of Pascal's. They give Equiano access to education and teach him about religion, eventually helping him be baptised into Christianity. Equiano and the other members of Pascal's crew also fight in the Seven Years War (1756-1763), a conflict between many European countries, particularly Britain and France, over control of various colonies. After the war, Equiano hopes that Pascal will give him his freedom for his bravery in the war. However, Pascal betrays him, stealing Equiano's money and allowing him to be sold to another enslaver, Robert King.

After leaving Africa, Equiano is very rarely referred to by his real name. Instead, he is given names by his enslavers. These include Jacob, Michael, and Gustaulas Vassa. Even Pascal refuses to call Equiano by the name he wishes. This was a common practice by enslavers. It dehumanised enslaved people and also made it much harder for loved ones to ever find them.

King runs a business that trades goods in the West Indies, and Equiano works on his ships as part of this. He becomes close friends with one of the ships' captains, Thomas Farmer. As these trade missions continue, Equiano finds a way to sell small goods, like fruits, and make money. He wishes to use this money to buy his freedom and enlists Farmer's help in this. The two convince King to allow Equiano to buy his freedom. He continues to work for King for a time which proves to be a bad decision as he is almost forced back into slavery. However, Equiano eventually escapes and returns to England.

Equiano resumes contact with the Miss Guerins and learns a trade as a hairdresser. However, his expertise lies in seafaring, and he works on various Mediterranean voyages, this time able to choose who he wishes to work for. Along the way, Equiano also has a religious epiphany, finding God and devoting himself to religion. Additionally, Equiano becomes involved in the Abolitionist movement. He takes part in a British government scheme to help poor former enslaved people in London be returned to Sierra Leone. However, he is removed from the scheme for challenging the corruption he sees in it. Equiano ends his text by imploring the British monarchy and British politicians to abolish slavery. He argues against the idea that African people are in any way inferior and further points out that Africa could make a fruitful trading partner for Britain.

In the context of slavery, an Abolitionist is one who wants to abolish slavery.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Publisher

Equiano's autobiography was published in 1789. It is unknown exactly when he began to write it. The text was published by a man named T. Wilkins to huge acclaim and success. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was the first book of its kind to detail the true inhumanity of slavery from one who had suffered it. Today, texts like these are known as slave narratives. The popularity of Equiano's autobiography led to multiple editions and reprints.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, the cover of Equiano's autobiography including a portrait of him, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The cover of Equiano's autobiography.

However, the popularity of the work also led to criticism. Some defenders of slavery challenged Equiano's story and tried to disprove it. Seemingly anticipating this, Equiano included a preface to his book, which contained letters from white people confirming that he knew nothing of the English language or culture when he first arrived there, proving that he was from Africa. In a deeply racist society, backing from white people gave the text validity.

The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano: Themes

Equiano's autobiography is a highly important one that exposes the brutality of slavery in the 1700s. Analysing its themes can help better understand the text. However, it should be remembered that real experiences and suffering are being discussed here.

Racial prejudices

In an autobiography written about the experiences of a formerly enslaved person, racial prejudices will always be thematically at the forefront. Equiano investigates the conditions and impacts of slavery, detailing the tangible ways it forced black people to suffer. He details the ways in which white people, particularly enslavers, thought themselves inherently superior because of their whiteness. Therefore, they had little issue with abusing the enslaved people under their control. For example, while on the ship to Barbados, a young Equiano witnesses enslaved people being threatened with flogging because they attempted suicide due to their inhumane treatment. The enslavers believe they have the right to inflict whatever treatment they see fit because they believe the enslaved people are lesser than they.

Flogging is a cruel form of punishment, usually involving beating someone with a whip.

Equiano also addresses the prevalent idea at the time that Africans needed to be civilised. Many used this argument to justify colonising various African countries. This is why Equiano opens his autobiography by detailing the customs of his home region of Eboe. He is making the point to his white readers that African culture is not inferior, it is merely different.

There are some instances in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in which Equiano seems to agree in part that Africans are less civilised. He himself is immensely invested in becoming part of European culture. From your reading of the text, why do you think this may be?

Religion

In the latter parts of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, religion becomes central for Equiano. The Miss Guerins introduce him to Christianity and help him to become baptised. However, it takes some time for Equiano to understand and settle into Christianity. This is partly because many of the enslavers that Equiano encounters are devoutly Christian. Equiano sees them as going against the tenets of Christianity by treating their fellow humans so poorly.

However, as a free man, Equiano gradually comes around to the idea of being a Christian, eventually joining a Methodist church. This conversion is dependent on two moments of epiphany that Equiano experiences, both of which occur on a ship. While travelling close to the North Pole, Equiano has a near-death experience. This encourages him to study the Bible more closely and try to understand God's words. He then has a moment of clarity while sailing to Spain that alleviates his fears about religion and allows him to follow the teachings of the Bible instead.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

Equiano published his autobiography when he was forty-four. Its popularity made him a well-known public figure. He became involved in many Abolitionists movements and causes in London. Equiano was also a member of the prominent Abolitionist group 'Sons of Africa', made up exclusively of Africans who had gained their freedom. He argued publicly for the rights of black people worldwide. Equiano was also involved in groups campaigning for reform of Britain's democratic system.

In his personal life, Equiano married Susannah Cullen, a white woman from Cambridgeshire, in 1792. The couple had two daughters. Susannah passed away in 1796, and Equiano died the following year in 1797. Their estate and belongings were left to their only surviving daughter, Joanna when she was twenty-one.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Quotes

Direct quotes are key from any text, but they are perhaps most important from a text like Equiano's. His autobiography details his lived experiences as an enslaved person. The first edition of the text even emphasised that it was specifically written in Equiano's own words.

QuoteChapterExplanation
'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.'Chp. 2.This quote comes when Equiano is on the voyage to the Caribbean. It showcases the extreme barbarity and cruelty that enslaved people were exposed to. Although still a young man, Equiano was beaten severely for refusing to eat.
'O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God?'Chp. 2.Equiano touches on both themes of racial prejudices and religion here. He addresses enslavers, many of whom were devout Christians, and questions whether God would approve of the immense cruelty they inflict on enslaved Africans.
'I hope to have the satisfaction of seeing the renovation of liberty and justice resting on the British government, to vindicate the honour of our common nature.'Chp. 9.This is from the final chapter of Equiano's autobiography, and it represents his Abolitionist views. He calls directly on the British Government to play their part in abolishing slavery and returning dignity to currently enslaved people.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano - Key takeaways

  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is a 1789 autobiography by formerly enslaved man Olaudah Equiano.
  • It details his traumatising experiences of slavery and his long journey back to freedom.
  • Equiano's book was a considerable success but also faced criticism from defenders of slavery who questioned the validity of his text.
  • Two key themes in the book are racial prejudices and religion.
  • After gaining his freedom, Equiano became a prominent Abolitionist in London. He also married and had children.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

Equiano wrote his book to expose the brutality of slavery.

Equiano's autobiography is important because it describes slavery from the perspective of one who experienced it. Texts like these helped the Abolitionist movement.

Equiano describes his life, from living at home in Eboe, to being kidnapped and forced into slavery all across the world.

Equiano's book can be summarised as an exploration of his life, from being forcibly removed from Africa as an enslaved person to working on plantations in America and ships throughout Europe. He eventually bought his freedom after many years of enslavement.

The message of Equiano's text is that black people are in no way inferior to white people, they are equals.

Final The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Quiz

Question

When was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano published?

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Answer

1789.

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Question

What type of text is Equiano's book?

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Answer

Autobiography.

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What was Equiano's home country called?

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Answer

Eboe.

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What is the modern name for Equiano's home country?

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Answer

Nigeria.

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What are two key themes in Equiano's text?

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Answer

Racial prejudices and religion.

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Which branch of Christianity does Equiano eventually join?

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Answer

Methodism.

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On his first overseas voyage, where is Equiano brought?

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Answer

Barbados.

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What is an Abolitionist?

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Answer

One who wishes to abolish slavery.

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Which Abolitionist group in London did Equiano join?

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Answer

Sons of Africa.

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Why does Equiano describe his home in such detail at the beginning of his text?

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To show that Africans aren't inferior to white people, they just have a different culture.

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Why are letters from white friends included in the preface to Equiano's autobiography?

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To give the text validity in a racist society.

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Which profession does Equiano gain expertise in?

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Seafaring.

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How does Equiano earn the money to buy his freedom?

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By selling small goods while working at sea.

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What issue does Equiano have with Christianity?

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Many of the cruel enslavers he has met have been Christian.

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How does Equiano conclude his autobiography?

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By imploring the British government to abolish slavery and treat black people with respect.

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