The Life of Olaudah Equiano

Abolition, Ethnicity, and Identity in The Interesting Narrative

Published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano is an autobiography detailing his experiences as a captive in the transatlantic slave trade. Equiano presents the narrative of his life as a story meant to inform and entertain, but also to further the cause of abolition.1 This underlying purpose must be considered in conjunction with other historical details in order to gain a full understanding of the author and his work. Firstly, it is necessary to recognize that Equiano was speaking as a member of a minuscule minority in the eighteenth century—that of the African scholar. In contrast, his intended audience was principally the wealthy, educated classes in the Western world that might have had some power to bring an end to slavery. Wilfred Samuels argues in “Disguised Voice in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” that the author’s handicap in achieving this aim was the prevalent, supposedly scientific belief that Africans were not developed enough to articulate themselves in an educated way.2 The Interesting Narrative is thus an entertaining biography, but also a plea to be treated as a serious, historically based work. The strength of Equiano’s abolitionist argument...

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