The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis
Equiano was disconsolate at his situation – he had expected to be granted freedom, but was instead forced into further slavery. He wondered if he had displeased God somehow. After some contemplation, he began to accept that these trials were for his own good, and that he ought to learn from them. He did, however, constantly seek a means of escape as Doran's ship prepared to sail to the West Indies, but he could unfortunately not find one. Some of his shipmates brought him small gifts as consolation, and one lady, Pascal's former mistress, sent him tidings and an explanation. Pascal, it turns out, had been spurred to his action by his new mistress, who did not like Equiano and hence conspired against him, sowing seeds of paranoia in his master's mind.
On December 30th, the ship left, and Equiano wished he had never been born. As the ships continued on their course, Equiano remained miserable, wondering whether he should accept or challenge his fate. It was not long before they reached the island of Montserrat on February 13th, 1763, and Equiano chose to reject his fate: "My former slavery now rose in dreadful review to my mind, and displayed nothing but misery, stripes, and chains; and, in the first paroxysms of my grief, I called upon God's thunder, and his avenging power, to direct the stroke of death in me..."
As he was forced to load and unload his ship, Equiano learned how truly miserable slavery could be. Two sailors robbed him of his money, the work mangled and tore him, and the hot West Indian sun burned his body.
One day, his life took a fortuitous turn when Captain Doran chose to sell him to a Quaker merchant named Robert King. Though Pascal had instructed Doran to sell Equiano, he did add that Doran should seek the best possible master. King told Equiano that he lived in Philadelphia and would soon be returning there; this information comforted Equiano immensely, since it meant he could leave the West Indies.
Equiano found King to be an exemplary slave owner: he was kind, patient, and did not beat his slaves. He promised to teach Equiano how to gauge on a ship, and he allowed the slave to use his nautical skills in managing King's boats during sugar season. King even allowed his slaves to keep some of their wages. This was quite distinct from the situation of other slaves, who were robbed wages and then beaten if they complained.
Equiano pleased his master in every particular, and was even allowed to sometimes work as a clerk. He shaved and dressed King, took care of his horse, and worked on his many different vessels. He estimates that he saved King over one hundred pounds a year, and asserts that the belief that a slave never earns his monetary worth is a fallacy.
While working for King, Equiano observed many horrible atrocities perpetrated on his fellow slaves by other masters. White men violated the chastity of female slaves, some as young as ten years old. This was considered to be natural, but when a slave had consensual relations with a white prostitute, he was most cruelly punished. A Mr. Drummond claimed he had sold 41,000 Negros and once cut off a man's leg when he tried to escape. Another slave was half-hung and then burned for trying to poison a cruel overseer. The overseers were the absolute worst of men; they were "human butchers" who cut and mangled slaves, ignored the situation of pregnant women, and forced slaves to build their huts in areas where the climate was foul and thus caused diseases. Not all masters were horrible, Equiano concedes - he glimpsed many acts of benevolence and fairness.
Of course, despite these sparse examples of humanity, Barbados was a terrible place for an African. It is estimated that 1,000 new Negros were annually required in order to maintain the original stock of 80,000. These figures mean that the life expectancy for a Barbados slave was sixteen years, due partially to climate but mostly to cruelty. Slaves had to be branded with their master's initials. The iron muzzle and thumbscrews were commonly used as punishments. They were beaten for the slightest mistake, such as a pot boiling over. Husbands were forced to beat their own wives. After being beaten, some slaves were forced to get on their knees and thank God for their master. It was no surprise that many tried to take their own lives.
Further, no regard was shown for a slave's propery. Whites in the marketplace often took slaves' money without any trade. One time, a man purchased some fowls and pigs from Equiano, and a day later, stormed onboard the ship to demand his money back. When Equiano refused, the man threatened to shoot him if he ever saw him on land again.
A negro's life was held in so little regard on Barbados that the 329th Act of the Assembly of Barbados held that if a man shall "out of wantonness, or only of bloody-mindedness, or cruel intention, willfully kill a negro, or other slave, of his own, he shall pay into the public treasury fifteen pounds sterling." It is a horrifically low penalty for a hate crime. Equiano mused that these men should be called savages and brutes, not Christian men.
Equiano was also horrified by masters who begot children by their slave women. He wrote, "is not the slave trade entirely at war with the heart of man?" The parting of wife from husband, child from parent, and friend from friend was terrible to behold, and brought tears into Equiano's eyes.
All of these horrors were the same from island to island in the West Indies; Equiano visited over fifteen of them, and saw those same cruelties over and over. He notes how this avarice turned men born virtuous into the most savage brutes. It was also bad business - he notes that treating slaves badly produces less work than treating them like human beings would. He cannot understand the obliviousness of slave masters - they force slaves to live in a state of war, and then wonder why the enslaved are not honest or faithful. They refuse them learning but then condemn them for their ignorance. He ruminates that slavery "violated the first natural right of mankind, equality and independency, and gives one man a dominion over his fellows which God could never intend!" Slave owners should be mortified at their behavior and should fear an insurrection at any moment, which could be avoided by "changing [their] conduct, and treating [their] slaves as men, [and] every cause of fear would be banished."
In this chapter, Equiano presents a portrait of slavery that is terrible to behold. It is the most significantly damning portrait he has yet painted for his reader. He has been severed from his family and taken to Barbados, an island famed for its cruelty to Africans. There, the life expectancy of slaves plummeted as they were subject to the most savage behavior from their white overseers. Female slaves, including children, were raped. Slave bodies were mutilated and brutalized. Besides these bodily offenses, slaves endured a dearth of respect for their property and possessions; everything they had was subject to confiscation from whites, and any attempt made to procure payment was useless, as they had no legal rights. This treatment did not vary much from island to island; "the history of an island, might serve for the history of the whole" (111).
Perhaps just as interesting is the way Equiano explores the effect of slavery on the owners, the white men and women. Equiano writes that "such a tendency has the slave-trade to debauch men's minds, and harden them to every feeling of humanity!" (111). Believing that the superiority of whiteness over blackness is an artificial construct, Equiano argues that it leads men towards an unnatural baseness. He does not believe any man can be born with such avarice, rapacity, cruelty, and viciousness. Hence, if they had not participated in the chattel system, they would no doubt have embraced their better instincts. Most damning, Equiano points out, is the blindness it affects on owners. They put their slaves into debasement and are yet confused why the slaves are given to "fraud, rapine, and cruelty." All in all, Equiano removes the institution from God's order or intentions - it is a man-made institution, and its many depravities are born from it, and are hence not a part of the Lord's natural order.
This system of bondage was fossilized into law by the Assembly of Barbados. On page 125, Equiano includes a sample of this law – the 329th Act – to illustrate the institutionalized nature of the cruelty. The Act reads that if a slave was to kill his master or run away from him, he was subject to death, but if "any man out of wantonness, or only of bloody-mindedness, or cruel intention, willfully kill a negro, or other slave, of his own, he shall pay into the public treasury fifteen pounds sterling" (109). This act was passed on August 8th, 1688, and was frequently used by advocates of abolition as an illustration of the institution's depth of cruelty. For instance, Benezet refers to it in his Account of Guinea (1788). The Act also stipulated that if a white laborer was mistreated, he would be set free by his master or mistress, thus demonstrating the marked contrast between even white and black slaves. The Barbados Slave Code became a model for other colonies as they established slavery.
Equiano writes that this law was "unmerciful, unjust, and unwise," and would even shock "the morality and common sense of a Samaide or a Hottentot" (109). This reference may be unfamiliar to most modern readers; it seems clear that Equiano was endeavoring to seem unbiased by using examples of people from the geographical and racial extremes of the globe, people who would be considered neither white nor black. Oliver Goldsmith's An [sic] History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (1774) wrote of the Samaides, "the first distinct race is found round the polar regions...these nations not only resemble themselves in their deformity, their dwarfishness, the colour of their hair and eyes, but they have all, in a great measure, the same inclinations, and the same manners, being all equally rude, superstitious and stupid." As for the Hottentots, a 1745 book by Mr. John Maxwel explained that they were distinct from whites and blacks "for their hair is woolly, short, and frizzled; their noses flat, and lips thick; but their skin is naturally as white as ours..." By using these examples, Equiano attempts an objective stance on slavery - he does not hate it solely because it oppresses him personally, but because it is an objective evil.
Although Equiano is a witness to these examples of brutality and injustice, he does not suffer too harshly, thanks to the benevolent Robert King. It is from this example that Equiano shapes his business argument: people work harder when they are well-treated, as he did for King. He notes that he "had the good fortune to please my master in every department in which he employed me" (103). During the 18th, century the Quakers (known then as the Society of Friends) put pressure on its members to denounce slavery, even threatening them with expulsion from the religious ranks for possessing slaves. King, as is clear, ignored these threats, as did many Quakers engaged in commerce. What can be taken from this contradiction is the reminder that what lies behind the slave trade is not just racism, but greed. That greed is ill-served by cruelty, and would have been better served be kindness, is simply another complication to this cursed institution.
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