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The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis

by Olaudah Equiano

Chapter XII

Summary

The events hitherto narrated were before 1777, and in this last chapter, Equiano seeks to tell of the events of his life in the succeeding years. He became tired of seafaring life for a time, and stayed in London to work for Governor Macnamara. This man heard of Equiano's religiosity and asked him many questions. He conceived of a plan to send Equiano to Africa as a missionary; after some equivocating, Equiano agreed to go. A letter was sent to the Bishop of London to get Equiano ordained. It was supplemented by a letter from the Governor extolling Equiano's merits, as well as a letter by a Thomas Wallace, who had formerly served in Africa, approving of the plan. However, "from some certain scruples of delicacy, and saying Bishops were not of the opinion of sending a new missionary to Africa, he declined to ordain" Equiano.

Not long after, Equiano left the service of the Governor to work for a nobleman in the Dorsetshire militia. He then visited eight counties in Wales in 1783. In 1784, he felt the call of the sea once more, and signed up as a steward onboard the London, bound for New York. He found that city "large and well-built."

The ship then returned to London, and Equiano signed up for another voyage to Philadelphia in the spring of 1785. A remarkable occurrence on this voyage was the collision of Equiano's ship with another, but thankfully no one was killed.

In Philadelphia, Equiano was glad to see his Quaker friends. He was part of a group that presented an address of thanks to the Quakers in Whitehart-court for their benevolence and efforts towards "breaking the yoke of slavery." During this time, Equiano was also invited to a Quaker wedding, and he lauds its simplicity.

The ship returned to London, and Equiano decided to sign up with an American ship called The Harmony, bound for Philadelphia again. Once back in London from that voyage, he learned how the government planned to send several Africans back to their native country in Sierra Leone. A vessel was engaged for the purpose, and Equiano was prevailed upon to superintend part of the endeavor by supervising the black poor. He agreed, and was given a warrant and order to act as commissary for the government.

During his employment for the government, however, he was struck by the "flagrant abuses committed by the agent;" these included not having sufficient provisions even though they had been paid for, and the sufferings of the poor people who did not have decent accommodations or clothing. When Equiano complained to the Commissioners of the Navy, he was circumvented by a powerful city banker and even forced to take on more passengers than he had wanted.

The ship made it to Sierra Leone, but as it was at the end of the rainy season, the poor black people could not cultivate the land and thus had a miserable time of it, with several even perishing. Equiano's part in this plan was now over; he saw that their intentions were noble, but that there was "evidently sufficient mismanagement attending the conduct and execution of it to defeat its success."

Equiano writes that he would not have dwelled so much on this event were it not for the criticisms he received for his part in the endeavor. He included a letter of his to the Commissioners of the Treasury, which explains his conduct as well as his surprise at their altered opinion of him. He hoped for some redress, particularly monetary, as he had sunk much of his own money into the Sierra Leone plan. To his delight, the Commissioners sent him fifty pounds sterling, and he exulted, "Certainly the sum is more than a free negro would have had in the western colonies!!!!"

In 1788, he had the honor of presenting the Queen with a petition on behalf of his enslaved African brethren, exhorting her to heed the tyranny and oppression of slavery in the West Indies.

He hopes to have the satisfaction of seeing the "renovation of liberty and justice," and the British government's embrace of their better nature. He called for heaven to bless the senators who debated for the abolition of slavery.

Proceeding with his abolitionist views, he explains to the readers that if slavery were abolished, Britain would still be rich because of the trade that would arise between the regions. The African natives would no doubt adopt the fashions, manners, and customs of the British empire and would buy its goods in high amounts. Indeed, "a commercial intercourse with Africa opens an inexhaustible source of wealth to the manufacturing interests of Great Britain."

Equiano hopes the abolishment of the slave trade will soon be at hand. He spent some time in Ireland in 1793 and then returned to London to hear the debates on the slave trade in April of 1795. That month, he was also married to Miss Cullen, the daughter of James and Ann Cullen.

He concludes his narrative by humbly explaining that there may not be any merit in it, but that the inclusion of each event within was undertaken because they are so vividly impressed upon his mind. He sees how the hand of God is present in every event, and that each of these episodes has taught him to become better and wiser and to "walk humbly before God."

Analysis

In this final chapter, Equiano provides readers with an overview of his adult life, explaining how he became politically involved in abolitionist activities, and explaining his views on the economics of abolition. The many people he encounters as a leader of abolition - the Quakers, the Queen, the government - speaks to how well known he became.

Some historical background is helpful for this chapter. Equiano worked for Matthias Macnamara, the lieutenant governor of James Island (appointed in 1774) and governor of Senegambia (appointed in 1775). He lost two civil suits brought against him by a subordinate in 1777, and was removed from his post. Equiano also worked for a nobleman in the Dorsetshire militia, who was probably George Pitt, Baron Rivers. Mr. Pitt subscribed to the original edition of the Narrative.

The effort to send former and current slaves back to Sierra Leone began with the efforts of Henry Smeathson. This man spent time in Africa researching termites, and he married into the local African rulers' families. His humanitarian impulse to better the conditions of Africans, particularly those enslaved by the British, manifested itself in a desire to end the slave trade and make the British government aware that Africa could bring the Crown revenue without the indignity of slavery. Smeathson went before the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, which approved his plan to send blacks back to Africa. They raised money to start "Granville Town" on land purchased from local African rulers. Equiano was the only person of African descent to be involved with the project, and his full title was a testament to the power of his position.

The endeavor was a failure, as Equiano details in his Narrative. The people landed at the wrong time and could not cultivate crops. Many died of diseases, and in December of 1789, a local chieftain destroyed what was left of the town in retaliation for the abduction of some of his people by a U.S. slave ship. Equiano was dismayed that he received criticism for his role in the mission, particularly by "X" in The Public Advertiser. Equiano defends himself vigorously in this work, and demands that the government acknowledge his role and pay him for his efforts. It is this assertion of selfhood that impresses upon readers Equiano's transformation from object to subject and from slave to free man. He is not only an active participant in his society, but he is also an important one.

Besides relating the activities of his fruitful later years, this last chapter also presents readers with Equiano's fully-formed self. Literary critic Susan Marren labels this a "transgressive self," writing that he "wrote in response to two imperatives: on the one hand, an internal compulsion to establish himself as a speaking subject and, on the other, an external compulsion to serve the antislavery movement." In order to achieve this end, he had to challenge white readers' assumptions that a black man would lack the capacity to reason; he had to silence their impulses to categorize him only by race. His narrative self forces his readers to look at the social structure and the boundaries that separated the oppositional categories created and enforced by Western society: "black/white, male/female, master/servant, Christian/heathen, civilization/savagery, freedom/slavery." Equiano is a British cultural insider as a reformer and a powerful public voice, and by exploiting his established role in order to uphold the position of outsiders, he "manages to counter the ideological tactics that assign racial subjects essentialist identities." In other words, it is a transgressive use of his hard-earned respectability. It is his final and most profound point: he belongs on no one side of any of these divides, but is instead a true individual worthy of being heard.

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