GradeSaver (TM) ClassicNotes: The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Themes

by Olaudah Equiano

Major Themes

The destructiveness of the slave trade

Perhaps more than anything else, the work is centered around the destructiveness of the slave trade. Equiano's own life bears testament to how terribly it harms everyone involved. Africans, including children, were kidnapped from their homes and severed from their families. The bonds of mother and child, husband and wife, and brother and sister were destroyed. Slaves were given new names, their identities virtually erased. Any sense of history, culture, tradition, values, etc. were almost obliterated by the dominant society that kept them as chattel. They were subject to the most horrible punishments, delivered for capricious and unjust reasons. The chastity of female slaves was violated. Deleterious behavior resulted from the unnatural elevation of the white man over black. Furthermore, Christianity was perverted. Even white men were corrupted by the slave trade, since it pushed them towards their baser instincts and turned otherwise decent people into monsters. Though different masters show Equiano wildly varying degrees of cruelty or kindness, they are all complicit in its horrors, and hence does he endeavor through his work to show them the error of their ways.


The book's main narrative is that of a man who is allowed no identity early in life, but perseveres to shape one in spite of the world. As an African and a slave, Equiano had no identity. He was invisible, erased, a void. He had no control over his own movements, his property, or even his own name. Equiano endeavored from early on to discover who he was, but slavery limited his opportunity for self-discovery. After he was freed, however, Equiano was finally able to fashion himself a true identity and discover a real sense of self. He made his own decisions regarding where he went and what sort of employment he pursued. He proved his worth at sea, and garnered the approbation of those around him. He resisted oppression and violence. He converted to Christianity and began to define himself in terms of that religion. He entered the public world of the British empire, becoming involved with the abolitionist movement. He presented a petition to the Queen, protested the government's criticisms of him, and, of course, published his autobiography. This work asserted that Olaudah Equiano was a man, a British citizen, and a Christian. Equiano thus developed an identity forged from his manumission, his experiences at sea, his conversion to Christianity, and his movements in the public arena. It is a fiercely individual identity, not beholden to any one creed but instead full of complications.


The autobiography is very much an examination of Christianity, its many sects and the way it allows many worshipers to engage in the hypocrisy of slavery. Equiano distinguishes between the Christianity of white slaveholders and the "true" Christianity practiced by himself and his Methodist and Quaker friends. He even touts the simple faith of his African brethren as being more honest and legitimate, comparing them with the Jews. White Christians involved in the slave trade perverted their faith; they did not live up to the simplest tenets outlined in the Bible. They allowed greed, lust, pride, and anger to permeate their hearts in spite of their professed faith. They usurped God's authority by placing His creatures in bondage, and blindly defined their slaves as immoral, full of vice, and ignorant. They pretended to be pious by attending church, exulting in their public displays of religiosity while, in private, beating and cursing their slaves. They ignored the Ten Commandments and blasphemed the name of God. Equiano, on the other hand, exemplifies the true tenets of Christianity. He tries to control his pride, relies on God for all things, tries to live by the Commandments, and evinces the virtues of fortitude and patience. He eventually finds his greatest serenity in the Methodist church, for it values sincerity and prizes faith and humility as equally important to virtuous works (actions). Equiano continues to labor on behalf of his enslaved brethren, demonstrating thereby kindness and mercy on their behalf. He is chaste and charitable. Overall, Equiano is a far better example of a true Christian than those Europeans who twisted and manipulated the Scriptures to fit their lifestyle and enlarge their pocketbooks.

The dignity of Africans

Equiano may identify with British culture, manners, and religion, but he is equally aware of his African race, history, and culture. He presents his Eboe brethren as dignified, rational, moral, and possessed of great fortitude. Their religion is not much different than that of Europeans, they value cleanliness and rectitude, and they maintain intact, fulfilling family structures. They do not participate in slavery unless a person is a prisoner of war or a criminal. In contrast to that of Europe, their society is one characterized by harmony, mercy, and an adherence to the fundamental laws of nature. Reading the Narrative would have impressed upon British readers the fact that Africans were not uncivilized or backwards - they were simply different in some particulars, and lacked formal education. Finally, Equiano himself is a testament to the dignity of Africans. He may be emotional in some cases, but he retains a strict sense of personal pride, works diligently, understands and adheres to a moral code, and respects legitimate authority.

Freedom and liberation

The themes of freedom and liberation permeate the text. After being mired in slavery for the better part of his youth, Equiano is able to procure his emancipation from Robert King. This physical liberation from slavery turns him from object into subject and from slave into man. He takes control of his own personal and economic affairs and solidifies that sense of self that he had so fitfully pursued during his enslavement. Similarly, he experiences liberation when he learns how to read and write. As a young slave, he pondered how the books "talked" to people. Learning how to read opened up a new world of knowledge for him, and learning to write allowed him to thrust himself into the very public world of letters to influence the abolitionist movement. Also, Equiano's conversion to Christianity represents a liberation from sin; his embrace of God's salvation changes him. Finally, Equiano devotes his later years to ensuring the physical liberation of the millions of Africans still in bondage, making implicit argument through his work that freeing them would lead them towards a spiritual freedom like his own.


Capitalism serves Equiano well; through industry and planning, he is able to make good money both when free and when still a slave. As a slave, he began purchasing goods and then turning them around in other ports for a small profit. In effect, he was taking advantage of the laws of supply and demand. Even though he faced difficulties as a black man, he was able to participate in business and eventually save up enough money to purchase his freedom. As a free man, he found myriad ways to support himself. He continued trading and got involved in other skill-based industries. He was for the first time able to choose which ships he wanted to work on, and to spend his wages as he saw fit. However, capitalism is also the economic system that enables slavery to flourish. It supports the private ownership of property, which, in this case, is human beings. The owners of property can use it (them) as they see fit, while facing no challenge from government. The exchange of goods and services in the free market is central, and explains how otherwise-decent men could be led to engage in such horrific activity. Equiano is not truly considered a player in capitalism until he is free; before that, he languished as a commodity. This contradiction - between a fierce crusader for freedom, and a businessman exploiting one of the systems that prohibits it - is one of his most interesting.


For long sections of the Narrative, one could be fooled into forgetting that this is a slave narrative. Equiano became enamored of the sea as soon as he was no longer frightened by it, and most of his life's success is due to it. In a way, the sea provided an equalizer; once he established himself as a competent sailor, he could distinguish himself in spite of his skin color. Of course, he still faced myriad problems and oppressions on ships, but the looseness of sea life (as opposed to the strictness of land life) allowed him to flourish and ultimately make money to buy his freedom. Finally, the book is often as much adventure story and sailing narrative as anything else, which reveals how fully ingrained into Equiano's consciousness the life of a sailor was.

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