The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis
Equiano hoped to get enough money to purchase his freedom. In the beginning of 1766, King bought another sloop, the Nancy, which was to proceed to Philadelphia. When assigned to that voyage, Equiano took his own cargo along and make good money selling it to the Quakers in Philadelphia, who were respectful and did not take advantage of him.
One day in the city, he passed a meetinghouse and saw a woman speaking inside. Upon inquiry, he learned that this was a Quaker church. Later, he saw people crowding outside of the church, peering into the windows from ladders. He was surprised at the intense interest, and soon learned that the speaker was the famed preacher George Whitfield.
Equiano felt confident he had raised nearly enough money to purchase his freedom when he got back to Montserrat, but the ship was ordered to St. Eustatia and then Georgia instead. The ship took on slaves in the former place. In Georgia, Equiano visited Dr. Brady, who had saved his life on his last visit. Something else strange happened there: the captain and Equiano befriended a man who led them to believe that he would bequeath them a fortune upon his death, and so they helped care for him during his final days. However, they were bamboozled - he had absolutely nothing. They both appeared "ridiculous figures –pictures of chagrin and disappointment."
After Equiano sold off more of his goods, he realized that he had earned enough money to purchase his manumission (so long as King gave him the money he promised). When Equiano asked King for the loan, he was dismayed by his master's shocked and dismayed reaction. The captain assured King that Equiano had earned his money honorably, and reminded King of his promise. King assented, and told Equiano to get his papers drawn up at the nearby Register Office.
Equiano was so overcome with gladness and gratitude that he could not speak. As he walked to the Office, he recalled the 126th Psalm, which spoke of glorifying and trusting God. The Register drew up the papers for half-price, and Equiano hurried back to obtain his master's signature. King signed them that day, "so that, before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, now became my own master, and completely free." Equiano includes the text of the manumission in his Narrative.
Now that he was a freeman – a title which he marveled at – even the black women on the island were less coy with him. He did not depart for England right away as he had initially planned, for his former master and the captain begged him to work for them. He agreed because of their benevolence, and signed up as an able-bodied seaman for a pay of thirty-six shillings a month. The Nancy sailed to St. Eustatia, then Savannah, Georgia in August 1766.
One evening in Savannah, Equiano came afoul of a slave belonging to a Mr. Read. After the slave insulted him, Equiano fought the man, and Mr. Read subsequently demanded that Equiano be flogged about the town. However, Equiano refused to leave the ship. Mr. Read left, swearing he would bring back constables. This situation frightened Equiano, for he knew how poorly free blacks were treated – they did not have any rights or opportunities for redress. A feeling of rage swept over him as he contemplated what could happen, but the captain was able to calm him and convince him to hide below deck for about five days. The captain spoke with Mr. Read, who finally agreed to leave Equiano alone.
The ship was set to return to the West Indies, and Equiano begged leave to bring two bullocks (bulls) along so he could trade them. The captain initially agreed but then reneged on his promise, which caused some strife. Equiano convinced him to allow it, but the captain also wanted him to take several fowls. Equiano did not like the idea of the chickens, but found the captain's manner and persistence strange, and so agreed to do so.
The ship met with high winds and a rough sea. Both the captain and his mate were struck ill and so Equiano had to manage the whole vessel. Since he knew little navigation, he "was obliged to direct her by mere dint of reason." Unfortunately, the captain's health did not improve; Equiano sat at his bedside while he expired. He was very melancholy, for Captain Farmer had been a "friend and a father" and had helped secure his liberty.
Amazingly enough, the bullocks both died but the fowls survived and fetched an extremely high profit once the ship safely arrived at Montserrat. Equiano began to be called "captain," which was flattering to his vanity. He was even offered the command of a sloop that would sail between islands, but he declined the offer.
In this chapter, Equiano achieves the monumental feat of securing his manumission from King. Equiano thus accomplished something that almost all slaves found impossible to do. Indeed, securing his freedom would have been much more difficult during the first half of the nineteenth century, and few slaves had as benevolent of masters as the Quaker merchant Robert King. This release from slavery is of course one of the most significant events in the narrator's life: he moves from chattel to man, from object to subject. Only his religious conversion later in the Narrative is anywhere near as important for his identity. Considering how meticulously he has endeavored to craft an identity in the work, this moment suddenly allows the reader to understand that such a work could not exist if he were never able to consider himself free. It is an implicit argument for freedom.
Equiano continues his religious explorations in this chapter, marveling at the popularity of the Quaker church services. Although historians have noted that it was impossible for him to have seen George Whitefield on this occasion (Whitefield was in Great Britain at that time), Equiano could have seen him when he was in Savannah in February 1765. Regardless of how or when it happened, it sparks an intense curiosity for him, one that will manifest in his ultimate Calvinist faith.
The Quakers differed from Roman Catholics or members of the Church of England through their focus on individual and divine inspiration. This inspiration was an "inner light" than could be shared with church brethren at meetings, but was sometimes incomprehensible by others. In other words, it was highly individualized, even within the church. Quakers did not have clergy or church government, as they did not believe there was an authority separating a believer from his or her God. It is telling that Equiano wants us to understand his attraction to a church that eschews authority, but rather prizes the individual's relationship with divinity. This falls much in line with his political purpose of pursuing abolition. Vincent Carretta notes that a similar episode was chronicled by James Boswell in his 1763 Life of Johnson: "Next day, Sunday, July 31st, I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. JOHNSON. 'Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.'"
Religion and oratory are conspicuous components of the Narrative. In his article about the work, Equiano scholar Adam Potkay addresses the way the author uses them. Potkay does not wish to approach the work through the lenses of postcolonial and poststructural criticism. He first discusses the problems with many of Equiano's "factual" claims. Some of Equiano's reflections seem dated, while some of them are clearly from other sources, not his own life. Considering that he was likely not born in Africa, there are questions of whether or not one can read the work as a true autobiography. However, "for literary critics and historians of a certain stripe, the question of Equiano's origins and real identity will not matter at all. In some circles, 'the author' has been dead for some time now. According to this line of reasoning, the interesting thing about the Interesting Narrative is its role in the cultural archive, its fusion at a more or less critical juncture of several available, interrelated discourses or historical 'languages' – those of race, evangelicalism, abolitionism, travel, and political economy." In other words, some people would argue we can read the work as literature, made of symbols and connections that need have no equivalent in Equiano's actual experience.
Potkay sees it as impossible to fully transcend the world of authors and of the concrete events that make up autobiographies. The fabrication of Equiano's past needs a literary solution, and for Potkay that solution lies in his "rhetorical performance of considerable skill." The point of the work was to rouse an audience to action, the abolition of the slave trade. In his Narrative, Equiano utilizes apologia, allegory, sermon, exhortation, jeremiad, and argument to end the slave trade and "[usher] in a truly Christian and staunchly commercial millennium." He does not merely talk about religion; he speaks the way religious leaders speak. What attracts him to Whitefield, then, is perhaps not only the man's belief but also the man's ability to encourage others to share his beliefs.
Oratory was one of the most popular literary genres in the 18th century, especially because of the revival of classical republicanism and the popularity of Longinus. Many prominent intellectuals praised oratory, and sterling examples of it were included in the anthologies of the day. Potkay explains that oratory yielded to poetry, however, in 19th century classrooms, and good poems were disassociated from rhetoric and persuasion. Scholars began to focus on other things, such as travel writing. Potkay argues, however, that even travel writing could be seen as rhetorical, since it is a type of persuasive mode, and calls for a renewed look into oratorical norms. Equiano seemed to practice an "oratorical indignation" in his work, much like Cicero. Potkay concludes with the insight that "indeed, the danger in teaching Equiano's rhetoric is that it may feed into an indignation with the past that our own age all too often self-righteously demands." For a contemporary reader, in other words, it is easy to take Equiano's side in the argument. However, to do so is to perhaps miss the sophistication with which he endeavors to convince a population not as likely to listen. His hybrid of travel narrative, oratory, and religious sermon is carefully crafted to a particular end - and so if the details of his life fall open to reinvention, perhaps that was acceptable to him.
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- Summary and Analysis of Preface
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter I
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter II
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter III
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter IV
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter V
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter VI
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter VII
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter VIII
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter IX
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter X
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter XI
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter XII
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