Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)
Contributing Editor: Angelo Costanzo
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I use Equiano as an introduction to American slave narrative literature
and demonstrate the important influence of autobiographical form and style
on the whole range of African-American literature up to the present day,
including its impact on such writers as Richard
, Ralph Ellison
, and Toni
Students are particularly interested in the way the whites conducted
the slave trade in Africa by using the Africans themselves to kidnap their
enemies and sell them into slavery. Equiano was sold this way. Also their
interest is aroused by Equiano's fascinating descriptions of Africa as
a self-sufficient culture and society before the incursions of the whites.
Students are moved by the graphic scenes of slavery, the Middle Passage
experience described by Equiano, and his persistent desire for freedom.
Most of all, they enjoy reading the first-person account of a well-educated
and resourceful former slave whose life story is filled with remarkable
adventures and great achievements.
Since students have no prior knowledge of Equiano's life and work, I
give background information on the history and commerce of the eighteenth-century
slave trade, placing in this context Equiano's life story--his kidnapping,
Middle Passage journey, slavery in the Western world, education, religion,
and seafaring adventures. I also describe his abolitionist efforts in Great
Britain, and I say something about his use of neoclassical prose in the
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The students need to know about the slave trade and the condition of
slavery on the Caribbean islands. As for the literary aspect of Equiano's
work, the students should be instructed about the genre of spiritual autobiography,
its structure, methods, and styles. In particular, information should be
given on how spiritual autobiography was used in the formation of the new
genre of slave narrative literature, mainly the three-part structure of
slavery, escape, and freedom that corresponds to the spiritual autobiography's
three parts that describe the life of sin, conversion, and spiritual rebirth.
Equiano's great autobiography illustrates influences from several popular
schools of personal writing current in the eighteenth-century Western world.
Among these are the spiritual autobiographical writings of St. Augustine
and John Bunyan, the descriptive travel literary works of Daniel Defoe
and Jonathan Swift, and the secular stories that display a hardworking
youth's rise from rags-to-riches in the commercial world. The latter pattern
can be seen quite well in Benjamin
, a work that shares some interesting
parallels with Equiano's narrative. Equiano, like Franklin, is an enterprising
young man rising up in life and playing numerous roles that help to develop
his character in a free world of possibility. Both Equiano and Franklin
use self-ironic humor to depict their adventures, and frequently they see
themselves acting the role of the picaro figure--a stratagem used many
times for survival purposes.
Another eighteenth-century mode of writing observed in Equiano's work
is the primitivistic style that is related to the noble savage ideal. Equiano
was aware of this type of writing, especially in the books on Africa by
Anthony Benezet, the Quaker antislavery writer; when Equiano recalled his
early days in Africa, he relied heavily on his reading in the primitivistic
literature. However, Equiano's autobiography is remarkable in the account
he gives of his African days because his re-creation is a mix of primitivistic
idealism and realistic detail, in which he never expresses shame or inferiority
regarding his African heritage. Africa is an edenic place whose inhabitants
follow their own cultural traditions, religious practices, and pastoral
pursuits. But although Africa is a happy childhood land for Equiano, he
is not blind to the evil events that lately have befallen his people.
The Europeans have entered to plunder, enslave, and introduce the despicable
inventions of modern technological warfare. Equiano himself is a victim
of that situation when he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. His early
experiences in the American colonies are recreated with a sense of awe
and wonder as the young picaro slave observes the Western world's marvels.
He is saved from a life of plantation slavery, but his seafaring service
gives him the opportunity to witness firsthand the brutal practices of
slavery in several areas of the world. Equiano's life story is a journey
of education in which he goes from innocence in edenic Africa to the cruel
experience of slavery in the West.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
I always discuss Equiano's work in conjunction with the whole genre
of spiritual autobiography. I show how Equiano adapted the autobiographical
form to his invention of the slave narrative. I also explain the primitivistic
elements in his work and say something about the eighteenth-century neoclassical
style of writing.
In accordance with the pattern of spiritual autobiography, Equiano's
narrative follows the three-part structure of spiritual and physical enslavement,
conversion and escape from slavery, and subsequent rebirth in a life of
spiritual and physical freedom. Not until he gains his physical liberty
is Equiano able to build his character along personal, religious, and humanitarian
lines of development. This is the reason he places his manumission paper
in the center of his narrative and records his jubilation on attaining
his freedom. From that point on in the autobiography, Equiano uses a confident,
exuberant, and crusading tone and style as he relates his immersion in
the honorable aspects of Western society while he denounces the West's
inhumane practices of slavery.
I emphasize the fact that Equiano's reading audience was mostly composed
of American and European abolitionists. His immediate purpose was to influence
the British political leaders who were debating the slave trade issue in
Parliament in the late 1780s. However, Equiano's work was read and discussed
by numerous religious and humanitarian readers on both sides of the Atlantic.
His work went through nineteen editions and was translated into several
languages. It appeared in print well into the middle of the nineteenth
century, and its influence on the whole range of slave narrative literature
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The best comparison is with Frederick
(1845), which follows the three-part pattern
of spiritual and slave autobiographical work. Douglass's work depicts the
same search for identity involving the attainment of manhood, education,
especially the ability to read, and the securing of physical and spiritual
liberations. Other connections concentrating on the spiritual conversion
account in Chapter 10 of Equiano's work may be made with the Narrative
of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson
Edwards's Personal Narrative
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Questions may deal with definitions of primitivism, form of autobiography
(spiritual and secular), history of slave trade and slavery, and eighteenth-century
2. (a) Why does Equiano stress that the Africans are "a nation
of dancers, musicians, and poets"?
(b) Chapter 1 contains a mix of borrowed information and personal recollections
by Equiano on traditions, familial paractices, and religious observances
of the Africans. Do you find this technique assists Equiano's aim to erase
Western readers' misconceptions about Africa?
3. (a) Describe the primitivistic elements in Equiano's description
of his stay in Tinmah.
(b) What kind of picture does Equiano paint of his African slave experiences
as opposed to his later encounters with slavery in the Western world?
(c) What signs of European influence does Equiano observe during his
slave journey to the coast?
(d) Discuss the reversal situation of the cannibalistic theme demostrated
by Equiano's initial meeting with the white slave traders on the African
(e) What are some of the white world's magical arts Equiano observes
with a sense of awe and wonder?
(f) Equiano's account of the talking book is a commonly described experience
in early slave works. What significant traits of the young enslaved person
does the story reveal?
4. How does Equiano's conversion account compare with the spiritual
narratives by Johathan
Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American
. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
(See especially Chapter 2.)
Costanzo, Angelo. Surprizing Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings
of Black Autobiography
. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. (See
especially Chapter 4.)
Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. The Slave's Narrative
New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. (See Paul Edwards' essay, "Three
West African Writers of the 1780's.")
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings
Ed. Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin, 1995. (Contains introduction
and extensive explanatory notes.)
Much of my research and writing has centered on Equiano. As a result,
a great deal of the information required for an understanding and appreciation
of Olaudah Equiano's great work can be found in my book.