The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis

Chapter I

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Summary

Equiano begins his Narrative by acknowledging how memoir writers often must defend themselves against claims of vanity. Further, people expect memoirs to have dramatic events and great personages if they are to be interesting. Equiano apologizes that he is "neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant;" he is merely lucky enough to have been favored by Heaven, which he believes has blessed him in all the events of his life. He hopes that his work, even if less than scintillating, will serve the purpose of helping his enslaved brethren.

He begins with a history of the district where he was born: Eboe, in the kingdom of Benin, which was part of Guinea. Equiano was born in 1745 in Essaka, a small province so far from the sea that he had never heard of it or of white people.

Eboe had an established system of law and marriage. Equiano's father was an elder – called an Embrenché in his society – who helped decide disputes and punish crimes. Adultery was heavily punished, although men were less penalized than women were. Marriage was important to the people, and a young couple was usually betrothed by their parents and then celebrated with a generous feast. The bride's family was responsible for giving gifts to the groom's family, but after the wedding, the bride was viewed as her husband's property.

The kingdom was comprised of many dancers, singers, musicians, and poets, and most celebrations featured performances. The dancing was organized into four divisions of different groups of people, and each represented "some interesting scene of real life, such as a great achievement, domestic employment, a pathetic story, or some rural sport; and as the subject is generally founded on some recent event, it's therefore ever new."

Manners were simple, and luxuries were few. Their dress was simple and plain, and similar for both men and women. Women helped men in tillage, spun and wove cotton, and manufactured earthen vessels (which included tobacco pipes). All in all, the people lived a plain and clean life. They cooked many variations of vegetables and flesh, and always washed their hands before consuming their meals. Strong alcohol was almost entirely unknown, although palm wine was ubiquitous. Their principal luxury consisted of perfumes.

As for houses, the buildings were convenient and practical, rather than ornamental. Each master had a portion of land surrounded by a moat or a fence, and houses for his family and slaves were kept within. The master resided in the principal building, where he and his sons slept in its two apartments. The wives had their own quarters, while slaves and their families were distributed about the complex. The day houses were open on the sides, but the bedrooms were covered to keep out insects. The whole community helped build each family's house without requiring any payment except for a feast.

Eboe did manufacture some items, such as calicoes, earthenware, ornaments, and instruments of war. Traders brought them guns, gunpowder, hats, beads, and dried fish in return. These traders also brought slaves with them, but only a certain number of slaves could be purchased at a time. As their own custom, the people of Eboe only traded slaves who were prisoners of war or convicted criminals.

Agriculture was the primary occupation of all men, women, and children. The land was abundant, and rich in fruits and vegetables. Equiano states that the white West Indies planters favored slaves taken from this country because of their "hardiness, intelligence, integrity, and zeal." He adds, however, that cheerfulness and friendliness were hallmarks of the Eboe people.

There were some inconveniences that had to be weathered. Locusts were not uncommon, and wars with other districts were always a threat. Sometimes, another district's chief would wage war in order to procure slaves; if he won, he would enslave the vanquished men, women and children to sell them, but if he lost, he was put to death.

In regards to religion, the people believed in one Creator who lived in the sun and governed major events such as life, death and war. They believed in the transmigration of spirits, but thought that their friends and relatives who did not transmigrate stayed with them after death to guard them from evil spirits and enemies. Like the Jews, the people practiced circumcision. Their children were generally named after an event or a virtue: Olaudah meant "vicissitudes" or "fortune," but also signified his loud voice and command of speech. This is the first time the author mentions his birth name (not counting the preface).

Cleanliness and decency, as mentioned, were hallmarks of the Eboe religion. They avoided touching both dead bodies and women during menstruation. Although they had no public places of worship, they did defer to priests and magicians (known as wise men), who were not only religious leaders but were also doctors. Their skills extended to divining jealousy, theft, and poisoning. Poison was of particular concern to the natives, and they took many precautions to discern that the things they purchased and consumed were safe. Snakes abounded in the area, and the poisonous ones were avoided. Olaudah was considered fortunate after a poisonous snake passed between his legs and did him no harm.

What strikes Olaudah as he recalls his people is their similarity to the Jews. He discusses several writers who explore this connection, calling special attention to Dr. Gill, who, in his commentary on Genesis, wrote that Africans could trace their pedigree from Afer and Afra, the descendents of Keturah, who was Abraham's wife and concubine. Like the Jews, the Africans practiced circumcision, sacrifices, burnt-offerings, and purifications. Olaudah speculates on the difference in skin color between Eboan Africans and modern Jews, and attributes it potentially to the differences in climate.

He closes his first chapter by exhorting his readers to remove any prejudice against Africans that is based solely on skin color. Just because the Africans were ignorant of European language, traditions, history, and customs does not mean they were inferior - they were simply untaught. The Europeans should remember that their own ancestors were once "uncivilized, and even barbarous." Understanding "is not confined to feature or colour."

Analysis

One of the most salient aspects towards understanding the Narrative is the fact that Equiano was probably not born in Africa, and thus much of his account was fictional and based on the writings of Europeans. This chapter, and its treatise on the Iboe people (a more common denotation for this tribe), is most assuredly indebted to 18th century travel writings that Equiano would have been very familiar with. It is unlikely that Equiano would have remembered much about his home even if he had been born there; he wrote the Narrative at the age of forty-five, and was kidnapped at age ten. His name does not seem to be from the Iboe language, and the two specifically mentioned places, Essaka and Timnah, seem to have vanished from the maps.

As S.E. Ogude points out in his influential article, there is good evidence that Equiano was familiar with travel literature, a genre that was extremely popular during his lifetime. The literature that he was reading was lopsided, of course, as it was of European origin and outlook. Ogude identifies Equiano's description of Guinea as closely resembling the work of William Snelgrave, author of A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade (1734). Much of Equiano's information is very factual, rather than subjective and emotional, thus resembling travel literature. It seems clear that, as Ogude writes, "Equiano's geography is directly derived from eighteenth century geography as it was then conceived by European writers." Almost everything that Equiano claims regarding his home "has behind it the authority of travel literature," rather than the spirit of adolescent perspective.

Equiano concentrates on many aspects of Iboe society that a child would not have heeded, remembered or understood: societal organization, taboos, women's roles, and economic production. Further, his discussion of adultery bears a striking resemblance to the European fascination with the putative libidinous character of the Africans. Almost all of his information regarding religion, cleanliness, and humane attributes could be found in his travel sources, particularly those of the writer Thomas Astley. Ogude compares Equiano and Astley on the topic of cleanliness and women, and finds many conspicuous similarities. Thus, "the evidence presented by Equiano almost always leads to a European source."

Despite the fact that Equiano was probably writing from imagination and research rather than from firsthand experience, his accomplishment with the Narrative is not to be doubted. Simply because he did not live in this African society does not mean that his work should not be read. Indeed, his narrative ability to impose his personality on a whole range of experience, and to dominate every bit of it with confidence and conviction, is evident throughout the work. His purpose is not impaired in the slightest; it remains an example of an African author claiming for himself the mantle of a hero, an achiever. During its own time, it awakened many illustrious men and women to the horrors of the slave trade, and made a case for the intellectual and moral capacities of Africans, whom most Europeans considered barbarous and inferior.

In fact, Equiano's use of an African past might have been developed specifically for this purpose. Considering that we can trace the tropes to contemporary travel writing and that his details mirror contemporary interests, it is possible he was crafting a work specifically for his audience. By catering somewhat to their tastes, preconceived notions, and preferred aesthetic, he could more ably convince them to view his subject in a new light. The other approach - presenting Africa as a world apart, a different civilization altogether - might have alienated his readers. While this could have made for exciting literature or sociology in its own right, it might have been less effective towards gaining support for his cause. In other words, by giving his readers what they wanted, he got them to listen to him as a peer.

Ogude further discusses Equiano's goal of turning himself into "the supreme black achiever." By the end of the Narrative, the reader is awed by Equiano's valor, courage, rationality, and skill. He avoids death numerous times, and often depicts himself as the only person intelligent enough to extract himself and his companions from dangerous situations. He "saw his achievement as a divine gift that he held in trust for his fellow men." Again, he places himself in a model that his European readers would have recognized.

However, what was new is that it was now a black man who held such virtues. Along with raising himself up to the position of hero, he was responsible for articulating a new image of Africans, and for "opposing black values to European ideas." This is a record of black achievement. In his work, the Africans in Iboe possess some of the noblest traits of humankind: diligence, order, physical fitness, intelligence, passion, and morality. This is, of course, a romanticized depiction of Africans, but it reflects Equiano's deliberate purpose: to combat racial stereotypes so that his readers see the Africans as humans and not chattel.