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The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis

by Olaudah Equiano

Preface

Summary

The preface is comprised of several notes and letters.

In a note to the reader, Equiano explains that he has recently been accused of misrepresenting his birthplace in previous editions of the book. An article printed in the Oracle had claimed that he was actually born on the island of Santa Cruz in the West Indies, and not in Africa. As this falsehood smears his character, he feels obliged to defend against it. He has decided to release this newest book edition in order to horrify readers into helping "put a speedy end to a traffic both cruel and unjust." He is including the following testimonies in hope of defending his reputation.

The note to the reader is followed by a letter from Alexander Tollock, written to the lawyer John Montieth. It concerns the slander against Equiano (here referenced as Gustavus Vassa, the name Equiano was given while a slave). In the letter, Tollock confesses his fear that the article had been written by a slave trade supporter who was attempting to silence informed dissent.

The next letter is from the Reverend Dr. J. Baker of London, and is addressed to Vassa. Baker writes that he has demanded an apology from the printer of the Oracle.

The next letter is written by Vassa himself, and is addressed to the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons of the Parliament of Britain. He presents his Narrative to them as evidence of how deleterious the slave trade has been to England. He hopes it will excite their compassion and encourage them to pursue the ideals of their august Christian nation. He further apologizes for being "an unlettered African," but hopes the book will nevertheless serve its purpose.

Next is printed a short note from P. Peckard, in which he recommends Vassa's book to the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The note is followed by the signatures of several other men who recommend the work, and intend to bear "testimony to the good sense, intellectual improvements, and integrity of GUSTAVUS VASSA, lately of that injured and oppressed class of men, the injured Africans."

The next letter is from Thomas Digges, and is addressed to Mr. O'Brien. It expresses Digges's high opinion of Vassa, especially in regards to his character and manners. Digges hopes that Mr. O'Brien will read Vassa's book and then introduce the author to others.

The next letter, from William Eddis to Rowland Webster, Esq., also seeks to introduce Vassa and his Narrative, which expressly lays out the "iniquity of that unnatural and destructive commerce." Eddis asserts his belief that Vassa does not exaggerate or embellish anything within his tale. Another testimony, signed by several men, expresses faith in Vassa's intelligence and moral character.

Next is another introductory letter from William Langworthy to William Hughes, Esq. Langworthy describes Equiano as a virtuous, honest, and benevolent man whose book is worthy of recommendation. Langworthy wishes to support the author's attempts to promote the book, since he deems it of great value to enslaved Africans.

Equiano then includes an excerpt from the June 1789 edition of the Monthly Review. This piece expresses its author's belief that Vassa writes truthfully, but that he may have been aided by an English writer. The author attributes Vassa's honor to his Christianity.

Finally, an excerpt from the July 1789 edition of the General Magazine and Impartial Review describes the Narrative as "unvarnished," truthful, and simple." The authors of the piece express support for Vassa's cause.

Vassa ends his preface by writing that there would be no need to include these testimonies if the Oracle article had not been published.

Analysis

Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, faced a common dilemma in defending his work. Many slaves (or former slaves) who attempted to tell their stories were expected to support the legitimacy and truthfulness of their books. Of course, this legitimacy could only be voiced by men of repute. For example, nearly a century later, Frederick Douglas felt compelled to defend his autobiography by including a preface by William Lloyd Garrison and a letter by Wendell Phillips, Esq. Similarly, Equiano included multiple letters extolling the merits of his Narrative, and even included the long list of subscribers to the publications that supported him - a list which included many illustrious personages such as the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, Members of Parliament, barristers, esquires, and clergymen.

Specifically, Equiano was responding to the rumor that he was not born in Africa, but was instead born on one of the islands in the West Indies. As will be noted in the Summary, Equiano professed great pride in his heritage, and would have been perturbed with accusations of falsehood. Ironically, there are current issues in the realm of Equiano scholarship addressing whether or not he was actually born in South Carolina (see other analyses from this study guide for more information).

The actual text of the Oracle article states, "It is a fact that the Public may depend on, that Gustavus Vasa [sic], who has publicly asserted that he was kidnapped in Africa, never was upon that Continent, but was born and bred up in the Danish island of Santa Cruz in the West Indies." Equiano also references another slander, which was printed in the Star. Both articles were published while Equiano was promoting his Narrative in Scotland, and hence not in England to immediately defend himself.

Equiano sets out his work's primary purpose in the letter he writes to Parliament: "...the chief design of [the Narrative is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave Trade has entailed upon my unfortunate countrymen" (7). He then apologizes for being an "unlettered African" who merely desires to work as instrument for the relief of his anguished brethren (7). As famed Equiano scholar Vincent Carretta writes in his annotations to the Penguin edition of the Narrative, this description proffered by Equiano was quite typical of the autobiography writers. The term "unlettered" meant lacking a formal education, especially the languages of Greek and Latin. Hence, Equiano is hoping to frame his work in the context of his literary peers, while acknowledging that he might lack their skills.

Please note that Equiano sought only to abolish the slave trade, as slavery was not officially legal in England. While businessmen could buy and sell slaves for the colonies, there was no need to debate the actual merits of slavery itself to mainland English citizens, who did not live under such a system.

This letter to Parliament also reflects Equiano's split identity. In it, he address himself to two types of countrymen. The first are his political countrymen in Britain, whose culture and religion he has embraced and "to whom he appeals as a British subject with the right to petition the members of Parliament" (Carretta). Both in terms of natural rights and cultural overlap, he expects his appeal to be heard. The second countrymen to whom he addresses himself are those of Africa, his relations by birth and blood. The Narrative thus evinces Equiano's full embrace of English culture, religion, mores, and politics, while at the same time upholding his African identity. Implicitly, he makes a claim for his mother's belief, expressed in the work itself, that he would one day become a great and heroic warrior-man.

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