Eleven-year-old Olaudah Equiano is carelessly tossed aboard a slave ship as cargo. He looks around helplessly at the horrible men with their light complexions and long hair and is sure that they mean to eat him. After he refuses to eat the food they offer him, he is tied down and severely flogged. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African is a detailed narrative in which Equiano describes being kidnapped from his family in Africa and then being sold into slave labor. The purpose of Equiano’s narrative was to provide a convincing argument to abolish the slave trade, and most of all, to serve as a detailed record of the brutalities that the Africans suffered.
One of the many reasons why Equiano provided such a convincing argument to abolish the slave trade was because of his strong ability to read and write. In his narrative, he frequently draws on information from many different sources, such as the classics, political and even scientific information. However, most of his quotes and paraphrases are scripture from the Bible. In his narrative, Equiano recalls when the Bible became an “unsealed book” (144) and he was able to hear it speak to him: “I prized it much, with many thanks to God that I could read it for myself . . . Whenever I looked in the Bible I saw things new, and many texts were immediately applied to me with great comfort, for I knew that to me was the word of salivation sent” (145). Being able to read, specifically from the Bible, allowed Equiano to draw religious readers into his argument and to convince them that the slave trade was cruel, not only by his words, but by the words of God. His knowledge on such topics is impressive and characterizes him as a well-rounded and a sophisticated Christian. This image must have appealed to many people, especially for any religious reader.
Another aspect that persuaded readers that the slave trade needed to be abolished was the fact that the narrative was written by an African. It served as a first hand account of the cruelties that were inflicted on himself and on other Africans. One of the first cruelties that Equiano described was being kidnapped from his family in West Africa, and then being separated from his younger sister. “. . . My sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms . . . She was torn from me and immediately carried away” (33). Although many of Equiano’s stories about his life as a slave are just small examples of the cruelties that the white men had inflicted on the Africans, Equiano wanted them to be told in remembrance of all of those who had not been able to tell their own stories. Allowing for such detail in the events that he described transformed the narrative from what could have been a boring account of places that he had traveled to in his life to a narrative that seems to jump right out of the pages. It also provided an actual memory that had come from somebody who had lived through slavery. Another horrific event that Equiano described in remarkable detail was his voyage to Barbados aboard a slave ship:
“The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time . . . The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself . . . the shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable” (40-41).
Such events are included in his narrative because he wanted the people to see and to feel what a slave had to go through and to describe how inhumanly they were being treated.
However, in order to do this Equiano first had to present himself as a human being. One way in which he did this was by appealing to people’s sympathies. He described gruesome and cruel events with the hope that people would realize what was being done to people- to human beings. He narrated, “…and both of them struck me with the first weapons they could get hold of. I cried out for as long as I could for help and mercy; but . . . it was to no purpose. They beat and mangled me in a shameful manner, leaving me near dead” (96). These events can be found on almost every page of his narrative. One of the ways in which he made his readers identify with himself was by characterizing himself as an average person who was “neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant,”(19). He could make the readers see that he was an acceptable person who did not deserve to be a slave. Therefore nobody deserved to be a slave, including Africans. By making people aware of this, they would be less likely to just sit back and let it happen. Equiano was hoping that people would realize that slavery was wrong for him just as it was for them and that they would join the effort to abolish slavery.
Equiano had a very challenging argument to write since it seemed almost everybody was against him. However, his narrative provided a very effective argument to start the motion of abolishing the slave trade. By being well read, he was able to write about religion, describe the brutalities that he witnessed and experienced through his own eyes, and present himself as a human being. All of these were important points to discuss when his readers were mostly white Christians who viewed his race to be less human than their own. For a former slave, Equiano could write amazingly well. During a time when few blacks had published anything, he gave people an inside look of what he believed slavery really was, cruel and barbaric. By portraying himself as an average person, with which people could easily identify with, Equiano was able to get many people to agree to the fact that slavery was wrong, which ultimately saved his race.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.