The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis of Chapter IV


Equiano stayed in England for between three and four years, and grew accustomed to his situation. He felt little terror from his daily challenges. He spoke English very well and desired to adjust his manners, spirit, and movement to those of the Europeans. He wanted to learn how to read and write; this pursuit was supported by the Miss Guerin sisters, with whom he was sent to stay for some time.

He told the women he wanted to be baptized, and although his master was not entirely pleased with this request, it was nevertheless granted in February 1759 at St. Margaret's Church in Westminster. By this time, he was able to see much of London, and particularly enjoyed playing with the boys down at the watermen's wherries.

His time in London was short-lived, however, for the Namur was soon prepared to set sail again. When Equiano arrived at Spithead to join its crew, he learned that the ship was intended for the Mediterranean. It landed at Gibraltar about eleven days after it set sail. While there, a man told Equiano that he could reunite Equiano and his sister, but the woman the man introduced was not her. Equiano was further dismayed to find out that his friend Dick was dead.

After Gibraltar, the ship sailed to the gulf of Lyons and then to Barcelona, Spain. Equiano enjoyed his time there, and remarks on the politeness of the Spanish officers and the enticing nature of the goods they bought. Cruising off of Toulon not long after, the Namur and the English fleet engaged two small French frigates. The fleet then returned to Gibraltar in August of 1759.

One evening, the English fleet received a warning about a nearby French fleet, and they scrambled to prepare themselves for battle. Using darkness as cover, they pursued the French, targeting the commander's ship The Ocean. The ships engaged each other furiously, but the French line was ultimately broken and the English claimed three major prizes. The Ocean exploded around midnight, and Equiano remembers it as "a most dreadful explosion...I never beheld a more awful scene." During the engagement, Equiano was on the middle deck, responsible for bringing powder to the aftermost gun. He was afraid at first, but soon sloughed off his caution to embrace his role. This engagement left many killed and wounded, and the Namur was almost destroyed.

The English admiral appointed Pascal captain of the Aetna, and he and Equiano soon boarded that ship. Equiano became the captain's steward, a post he liked immensely. He also continued to improve his reading and writing during this time. The Aetna was meant for Havannah, but its course was diverted for a time when the king died. It remained at Cowes, in the Isle of Wight, until the beginning of 1761.

Equiano began to notice the ways in which Providence guided the lives of men, and he gives a few examples of what he observed. The first instance involved a man named John Mondle, an immoral and dissolute man who resided on the ship. One evening, he burst from his cabin claiming that St. Peter had visited him in a nightmare to warn him he would soon die. Mondle informed the crew that he resolved to be a better man from that moment forward, and then he returned to bed. However, he was soon roused along with the rest of the crew by cries that the ship was being destroyed. Another English ship, the Lynne, had crashed into the Aetna and destroyed Mondle's cabin in particular. Equiano insists that Mondle would have died had it not been for God's warning.

Another such story involved several people, including Equiano, who accidentally fell the long distance from the upper deck into the hold, but suffered no injury or death. This miracle must also have been God's doing, Equiano reasons, for "without [His] permission a sparrow cannot fall." Equiano began to trust God, and to behold Him with fear and reverence.

There were many more engagements with the French, but what Equiano enjoyed most was visiting and wandering the island. However, his curiosity almost got him into trouble one day, when he was nearly hit by English artillery shells. An English sergeant saw the near-accident and reprimanded him harshly. When Equiano saw a French horse belonging to some islanders, he decided to ride it back to safety. Unfortunately, it was stubborn and refused to move until an English servant helped spur the horse onward. Equiano escaped unscathed.

The fleet remained in this area for a bit, then sailed to Basse-road, where it remained from June until the next February. Equiano "saw a great many scenes of war, and stratagems on both sides, to destroy each other's fleet." Many more commanders were named and many more battles were fought, and then the fleet sailed back to Guernsey in September. Equiano was happy to reunite with the widow (her husband had since died) and her daughter, but had to bid them goodbye again when the ships sailed to Portsmouth. The news soon came that the fleet would return to London by December.

This news cheered Equiano greatly, for he dreamed constantly of earning his freedom and working for himself. He now knew how to read and write, and also knew some basic arithmetic. A highly-educated man named Daniel Queen grew attached to Equiano and taught him how to shave, dress hair, and read the Bible. Equiano was "wonderfully surprised to see the laws and rules of my country written almost exactly here; a circumstance which I believe tended to impress our manners and customs more deeply on my memory." Queen became a father figure, and Equiano loved him as a son does.

Equiano had come to believe that his master Pascal would ultimately grant his freedom, for even though "he had no right to detain me, he always treated me with the greatest kindness." Equiano worked under the assumption that he could not be detained any longer than he wished. Further, he had saved some money.

One day, while sailing from Portsmouth to the Thames, the ship cast anchor and Pascal ordered the barge to be manned. Without any warning, he grabbed Equiano and forced him into the barge, telling him that he knew of the slave's plans to escape him. Equiano was shocked at the accusation, but once he gathered his senses, he insisted to Pascal that the law ensured him his freedom. Pascal ignored him and jumped off the barge, letting it carry Equiano downstream before he could escape. Even though the crew tried to comfort Equiano from the deck, it was to no avail; Equiano was dragged behind the ship until he was given to a new owner, Captain James Doran of the Charming Sally. Doran threatened to harm him if he complained, and Equiano, realizing that neither the law nor his saved money could help him, "threw [himself] on the deck, with a heart ready to burst with sorrow and anguish."


On first glance, it seems strange that this slave narrative is so devoted towards nuances of a sailing life. However, Equiano's focus serves a political, as well as literary, purpose.

Critics have paid a great deal of attention to Equiano's voice and his "narrative self," looking at the ways in which he fashioned a self-identity at a time when African slaves were not considered to have one at all. Equiano uses his powerful voice to tell his story and to indict the slave trade, hoping to convince his influential readers of the system's immorality and depravity. This was difficult, of course, because he needed to avoid alienating his audience, many of whom were complicit in the trade as businessmen. Equiano achieves this delicate balance by first stating that he does not aspire to any praise or literary fame, which helps him avoid knee-jerk accusations of exploitative writing. However, as scholar Wilfred A. Samuels writes, he also disarms his readers by "purposefully [designing] a narrative that is as much about travel in the Mediterranean as it is about slavery in the New World." He thereby can "assure his audience that his purpose throughout is not to offend or alienate."

From the outset of the Narrative Equiano keeps a tight rein on his story, which paints it more as exciting tale than incendiary political tract. His main tactic towards keeping this rein is a continued humility. He begins the work with a humble letter to the leaders of Parliament, featuring a surplus of flattering and laudatory words. He establishes an "affective relation" with his audience and does not offend them. This skillful maneuver allows Equiano to gain the upper hand; he is able to "race across the pages of his narrative like a powerful monarch in a 'game' that sees him overtly genuflecting and groveling but covertly, and primarily through language, slashing away at his oppressors" (Samuels). Equiano uses various disguises to conceal his true purpose: the introductory letter, a list of impressive subscribers, and a frontispiece engraved by Daniel Orme, who developed visages for many of the age's primary heroes. Through this mask of docility and humility, Equiano solidifies his control over his narrative and gets his audience to hear his political purpose without quite realizing it.

However, after reading the Narrative, it becomes clear that for Equiano, what is more important than what he did in his life is who he is or is not. His thoughts and feelings are extremely important to him. For example, when he refers to his childhood in Africa, he uses the present tense, explaining that he looked back on it with a pleasure mingled with sorrow. His "looking back" is the perpetual act of his adult life, and one that brings with it an understanding of how meaningful that pre-slavery life was. Further, it helps from the outset to establish an identity - he is not just a black man taken into slavery, but a particular individual with a particular nostalgia and set of experiences.

This narrative identity is particularly clear in this Chapter. When Equiano is at sea with Pascal, he fashions for himself an identity as a protagonist, one that would exemplify the traits of an African hero. As previously noted, it is important that he posit himself as a traditional hero, one an audience could relate to, but what is unique is the way that he explains those heroic qualities through his African identity. He suggests in the work that traditional African life is necessarily heroic, and that the virtues of his Eboe society are equivalent to those of a Western hero. Note how he compares the Biblical virtues to those of his own society, and how his industriousness at sea is an outgrowth of the person he introduced in Chapter 1.

Finally, in the heat of his action, Equiano makes certain to relate himself to his audience. When discussing the events of the Seven Years' War, he often uses the pronoun "we" to draw in his British readers. They would feel like they were part of the action, and concomitantly, the success and heroism. Further, they might instinctively consider him to be amongst their ranks. Meanwhile, in the midst of this action, he forces them to confront abolitionism as he frankly and unflinchingly presents the injustice of slavery. A man of his intellect, physical prowess, heroism, and Christian morality made for a good British soldier - and if he could get his audience to believe this, then they must by default question a system that unjustly forced that man into slavery.