The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis
Equiano was devastated by the death of his friend Captain Farmer and would not have remained in the West Indies for much longer if King had not pressed him to stay with the vessel. A new captain, William Phillips, was appointed, and after loading several slaves onboard, they set sail for Georgia.
On February 4th, Equiano had the first manifestation of a strange recurring dream, in which the ship was wrecked among the rocks and surf, and he had to save everyone onboard. One evening, he became frustrated while pumping water on deck, and he cursed the vessel: "Damn the vessel's bottom out." He immediately felt remorse for his execration, and went to bed that evening to dream the same dream.
He was awoken that night to learn that there was a grampus near the ship. However, Equiano quickly realized it was actually a rock, and he insisted the captain come to deck. The captain delayed until Equiano forced him. There was no wind to lead them from the rocks, and the tumultuous surf pulled them closer until the vessel finally crashed against them and started to sink. Equiano lamented that God was punishing the ship because of his curse.
The captain ordered that the slaves should be closed inside the hold, and Equiano fainted at the thought of such horror. Once he roused, he prevented the hatches from being nailed shut, and chastised the captain for his poor navigation. The crew remained on the dry part of the vessel and waited for daylight to come.
Most of the crew became drunk and useless. When Equiano saw a two-foot long piece of wood floating nearby, he improvised materials to repair the broken part. As the sun rose, they spotted a small island five to six miles off. With only three black men and a Dutch Creole sailor to help, he forced the ship off the reef, and they landed safely on the island. Not one of the thirty-two people was lost.
Equiano recalled his dreams and how everything within them had come to fruition. He writes, "I could not help looking on myself as the principal instrument in effecting our deliverance..." Those onboard regarded him as a sort of chieftain, as he had saved their lives. They soon discovered they were on one of the small islands in the Bahamas. There were flamingos there that, from a distance, looked like frightening cannibals coming towards them.
After finding sustenance, they constructed tents from sails brought from the ships. It was almost eleven days before they could repair the ship and make her seaworthy. The captain, Equiano, and five men headed toward New Providence. They arrived at an island named Abbico, the largest of the Bahama islands, two days later. Their time there was arduous; they could find no water day after day, and were afraid of being devoured by wild beasts. Their hearts began to give way under this despair. Even catching fish was impossible, and they could not eat their salty brine without water.
Thankfully, they espied what appeared to be a vessel out at sea. There seemed to be a lot of people onboard and they wondered if they might have to fight pirates: "I really believe that the captain, myself, and the Dutchman, would then have faced twenty men." When the ship neared and they were able to speak with those onboard, they learned that the majority of those people were in the same situation as themselves; they were from a whaling schooner which had wrecked about nine miles north of Equiano's ship. This little sloop hunted out wrecked vessels and was bringing these people to safety. Equiano and his group made the same arrangement, and were finally able to get water.
This was a fortuitous event, as they never would have been able to reach New Providence themselves. There were a few more problems with their vessel on the sea, but the ship finally reached New Providence. This island was a happy place for Equiano; he made friends with the amiable inhabitants, and had plenty to eat and drink. One merchant informed the group that he was going to Georgia and would allow the sailors to work for their passage if they joined him; Equiano considered it, until he learned that they were first stopping in Jamaica, one of the West Indies islands to which he never wanted to return. He considered staying in New Providence since he found it so much to his liking, but remembered his desire to return to England. He joined Captain Phillips on a vessel that was headed toward Georgia. They had to turn around once when their ship was damaged at sea, but they ultimately made it safely to Georgia in seven days' time.
While there, Equiano had supper at the home of his friend Mose. Around nine 'o clock, two watchmen stopped by the house. They took refreshments with Equiano and Mose, but then, to the surprise of the black men, claimed that it was illegal for Negros to keep lights on after nine, and so they had to be fined or flogged. Mose was a slave and could not be harmed, but Equiano was privy to this punishment. He protested and explained his situation, arguing with them and even calling on his friend Dr. Brady to vouch for him. Finally, he was let go; Savannah had once again proved dangerous for him.
Equiano stayed in Savannah for a bit, hoping he might be able to see Mr. King once more and say farewell to America. He signed up for a sloop called the Speedwell, led by a Captain John Bunton, which was bound for French island Martinico. Before he left, however, a black woman who wanted to baptize her dead child prevailed upon Equiano to undertake the task. He first refused but finally assented, and acted the parson for the very first time. He thus "assumed [his] new vocation," and performed the funeral service.
Many critics have discussed Equiano's construction of multiple identities, both in the cultural center and on the margins. One of the most insightful pieces of critical writings on the topic of Equiano's narrative self is by Samantha Manchester Earley. Earley looks at how Equiano's religious conversion plays a role in this construction, and how the convention of Christian spiritual autobiography is a context for his creation of a narrative self. Equiano wrote as a true Christian and a true Englishman, but he also wrote with a global, outsider perspective. The Christian narrative format allowed Equiano to fashion a narrative self and position that self in a moral center, but also demonstrate how he was able to move from the cultural margins to that "central" position of Englishness. In other words, he has a special vantage - he both belongs to the mainstream society, but is able to view that society from the outside. This latter ability derives both from his skin color and his highly individualized religious beliefs.
Equiano's goal in the Narrative was to paint a picture of the slave trade in all its brutality, and to thereby spur readers to encourage its abolition. Equiano comes across as intelligent, articulate, and rational in his writing. He was endeavoring to develop a voice of his own at a time when Africans were invisible and inaudible. Earley notes that he "exposes Anglo-European society's contradiction both by overt declaration and by hidden means." On the one hand, he praises England's liberality, humanity, glory, and concern with freedom. Some critics identify this as "hegemonic colonialism," wherein the slave accepts the enslaver's culture and its "entire system of values, attitudes, morality, institutions, and...mode of production" (Earley quoting Abdul JonMohamed). However, Earley believes that Equiano uses the Anglo-American racial discourse to actually "undermine and reformulate that culture's notion of 'slave' and 'African.'" He used religious, economic, and political discourses to put himself and his life story at the center of a crucial debate on the merits of the slave trade. He spoke for Africans but legitimate himself as an Englishman. Again, he plays both sides with an eye solely on his political purpose.
Earley continues in her article to claim that Equiano's unique identity was founded in his own personal experiences, but utilized those recognizable Anglo-American discourses to alter popular perception of Africans. By presenting himself as an African who could assimilate to the mainstream morality, he offers a potent criticism of the slave trade that keeps others from reaching such a place. He writes about slavery in Africa, which, in contrast to the slavery of Europeans, only used slaves who were prisoners of war or criminals. He reveals how the European slave trade destroyed families and the "basic identity structures" of slaves. This slavery created marginalized beings, unlike the African slavery system. The irony is that his success reveals how much English society wants individuals to join their mainstream, even while they support a system that prohibits it.
Later in the story, Equiano is hired as an overseer on Doctor Irving's Jamaica plantation. Considering this incident in the context of this discussion helps to understand how multi-faceted and unique Equiano's identity is. While many have been – rightfully - critical of this part of Equiano's life, he does take pains to distinguish himself from the power manipulation of the standard slavery. He begs forgiveness and by doing so "holds up a mirror to the guilt of all slave-holders, including white practitioners who showed less humanity, less liberal sentiment, and significantly, less Christianity." Earley sees him as moving to a position of a "multiculturalist," neither outright condemning white men nor regarding his culture as entirely dominant. He does not accept rigid hierarchy, but can acknowledge the similarities and differences between cultures.
In the end, his quest is one for individual freedom. When Equiano initially came into contact with white men, he conceived of them in spiritual ideas and themes. He even cites the same differences that white noticed in blacks - hair, complexion, language. By drawing these connections, he is able to look through multiple viewpoints and avoid ideological blindness in regards to race. He later began to notice differences among white men, discussing how some were moral and some were immoral. When he embarks upon his quest for true religion, he visits many places of worship and notes the differences between them. Earley writes that "this religious quest deepens Equiano's conviction that no one people, religion, or culture is uniquely representative of virtue and morality." He also distinguishes between the Christianity of white slave-owners and the Christianity of Christ. The slave-trading world perverted Christianity, and Equiano was clear in his condemnation. In the end, Equiano does not tout freedom as a path towards political hegemony, but as a path towards individual freedom, where each person can exploit his own individual potential to its fullest effect - just as he himself has.
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