The Life of Olaudah Equiano

What kind of picture does Equiano paint of his African slave experience, as opposed to his later encounters with slavery in the western world?

Equiano encounter in the western world

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In Chapter Two of the Narrative, we find one of the section which is most often included in history or literature anthologies in high school and college classrooms, for good reason, since it gets to the heart of slavery's injustice. He details how his idyllic life in Eboe was cut short by his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement. After a few brief situations with African masters, he is shipped onboard a slave ship bound for the West Indies, and his vivid account of the Middle Passage is heartrending in its evocation of grief, fear, despair, violence, and fetidness. Equiano's utter confusion and terror is highly subjective and emotional - he is able to evoke the feeling of how Africans felt when removed from their home. In this way, it is markedly different from Chapter 1 which, as previously discussed, uses the more objective tone of travel writing. Whether or not Equiano was born in Africa, he certainly knew some version of a slave ship experience, and his writing has a sharper edge because of it.

The Narrative details all four stages of the African slave trade:

1) the capture by native Africans, and the dangerous, exhausting journey to the European ships waiting at the coast;

2) the Middle Passage, in which slaves were transported across the Atlantic in the most hellish conditions imaginable;

3) the gradual introduction to a life of forced labor and a disease-ridden environment, after slaves arrive in the West Indies but before they are put to work;

4) and the actual period of enslavement.

In this chapter, as in many others, Equiano seeks to differentiate between the brutality and immorality of the "civilized" Europeans and their African counterparts. This distinction begins even when he is enslaved by native Africans. His experience while still on the continent varies wildly depending on the masters, and he experiences nowhere near the sense of dehumanization as he would when put on a ship. Some of them even treat him as nearly a peer.

However, what most marks the white slaveowners is what he observes while at sea. He is astonished at their wastefulness, deliberate in the context of so many hungry people below deck. Their behavior to their captives is avaricious, violent, and depraved. The horrific details of the text speak for themselves.

Equiano even points out that Africans near the coast were markedly more immoral and corrupt because of their closer contact with the whites. They were unclean, their women were much more brazen, and they showed a disrespect for their bodies through the alterations they made. This idea was not original to Equiano's work. In a 1774 work entitledThoughts upon Slavery, John Wesley wrote, "the Negros who inhabit the coast of Africa...are represented by them who have no motive to flatter them, as remarkably industrious...As fair, just, and honest in all their dealings, unless where Whitemen have taught them otherwise,...And as far more mild, friendly and kind to Strangers, than any of our Forefathers were." In other words, they have lost any innocence and grace to the corruption of the slavetrading Europeans.