The Life of Olaudah Equiano

Main themes

  • Slavery in West Africa and how the experience differed from slavery in the Americas
  • The African slave's voyage from Africa (Igboland) to the Americas and England[1]
  • The journey from slavery to freedom and parallel journey from heathenism to Christianity
  • Institutional slavery can raise the master as above man as the slave is forced beneath, both corrupting the master with power and crippling the slave with the lack thereof

Chapter 1 summary

Equiano's narrative is written in first person as a whole. Prior to beginning his narrative in the first chapter, Equiano includes several letters that identify him as a person. The opening letters explain him as a person and is used to exemplify his character. Before his readers indulge into his narrative, he makes it a priority to ensure that they are aware of his good character. This is a huge key for Equiano as it sets the stage for what is to come in chapter 1.

Equiano opens his Narrative by explaining the struggle that comes with writing a memoir. He is very passionate about the hardships that memoir writers go through. He explains that they often have to defend themselves from those who remain critical about the truth of their work. He apologizes to his readers in advance for not having the most exciting story, but hopes that it serves to be helpful to other slaves in his position. He states, “I am neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant.” He begins his story with a description of his homeland and the district in which he was born. He was born in the kingdom of Benin. Benin was a part of Guinea. The specific district that he represented was Eboe. Eboe is in the same area as what is now, Nigeria. Within the district, Equiano was born in Essake, a small province, in 1745. He goes into detail concerning his district and the isolation of his province.[2]

Eboe, Equiano’s district, was very established when it came to rules and laws of governing. Their system of marriage and law were strictly enforced. His father was an elder in the district, and he was in charge of punishing criminals and resolving issues of conflict within the society. Within the district, women were held to higher standards than men. Marriage was seen as extremely important. The bride’s family was responsible for providing gifts for the family of the husband, and the wife was seen as “owned by her husband”.[3]

Dancing was a huge part of the culture within the kingdom. All dancing as separated into four divisions of groups of people, and they all represented an important part of life and an important event in life. The kingdom was made up of many musicians, singers, poets, dancers, and artists. The people of the kingdom lived a simple life. Nothing was luxurious. Clothes and homes were very plain and clean. The only type of luxuries in their eyes were perfumes and on occasions alcohol. Women were in charge of creating clothing for the men and women to wear. But, as far as occupation goes, agriculture was the primary occupation. The kingdom sat on rich soil, thus allowing for health food and abundant growth. Slaves were also present in the kingdom, but in Eboe, only slaves who were prisoners of war or convicted criminals were traded.

Some hardships came with an unusual amount of locusts and nonstop, random wars with other districts. If another district’s chief waged war and won, then they would acquire all slaves, but in losses, the chief would be put to death. Religion was extremely important in the Equiano’s society. The people of Eboe believed in one “Creator”. They believed that the Creator lived in the sun and was in charge of major occurrences: life, death, and war. They believed that those who died transmigrated into spirits, but their friends and family who did not transmigrate protected them from evil spirits. They believed in circumcision. Equiano compared this practice of circumcision to that of the Jews.

Equiano goes on to explain the customs of his people. Children were named after events of virtues of some sort. Olaudah meant fortune, but it also served as a symbol of command of speech and his demanding voice. Two of the main themes of the Eboe religion were cleanliness and decency. Touching of women during their menstrual cycle and the touching of dead bodies were seen as unclean. As Equiano discusses his people, he explains the fear of poisons within the community. Snakes and plants contained poisons that were harmful to the Eboe people. He describes an instance where a snake once slivered through his legs without harming him. He considered himself extremely lucky.[4]

Equiano makes numerous references to the similarity between the Jews and his people. Like the Jews, not only did his people practise circumcision, but they also practised sacrificing, burnt offerings, and purification. He explains how Abraham’s wife was African, and that the skin colour of Eboan Africans and modern Jews differs due to the climate difference. At the end of the first chapter, Equiano asserts that Africans were not inferior people. The Europeans saw them as inferior because they were ignorant of the European language, history, and customs. He explains that it is important to remember that the ancestors of the Europeans were once uncivilized and barbarians at one point or another. He states, “Understanding is not confined to feature or colour.”

Chapter 2 summary

Equiano begins the chapter by explaining how he and his sister were kidnapped. The pair are forced to travel with their captors for a time, when one day the two children are separated. Equiano becomes the slave-companion to the children of a wealthy chieftain. He stays there for about a month, when he runs away after accidentally killing one of his master's chickens. Equiano hides in the shrubbery and woods surrounding his master's village, but after several days without food, steals away into his master's kitchen to eat. Exhausted, Equiano falls asleep in the kitchen and is discovered by another slave who takes Equiano to the master. The master is forgiving and insists that Equiano shall not be harmed.

Soon after, Equiano is sold to a group of travellers. One day, his sister appears with her master at the house and they share a joyous reunion. However, soon afterward she and her company departs, and Equiano never sees his sister again. Equiano is eventually sold to a wealthy widow and her young son. Equiano lives almost as an equal among them and is very happy until he is again taken away and forced to travel with "heathens" until they reach the seacoast.[5]

Equiano is forced onto a slave ship and spends the next several weeks on the ship under terrible conditions. He points out the "closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship" suffocates them; some slaves even preferred to drown, and one was saved but to be flogged later, as he had chosen to die rather that accept to be a slave. At last they reach the island of Barbados, where Equiano and all the other slaves are separated and sold. The author mentions the impact of their selling away, as "on the signal given, (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where they are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. [...] The noise and clamour [...] serve not a little to increase the apprehension of the Terrified Africans."

Throughout the whole passage, Equiano refers to white people as cruel, greedy and mean, and is very surprised by the way they relate to each other, as they are even cruel between them, not only to the slaves. However, as he meets more white people and learns about their culture he comes to the conclusion that the white men are not inherently evil but that institutional slavery has made them cruel and callous.

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