The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Study Guide

The first autobiography written by a former slave, Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is also one of the most widely-read and well-regarded of the slave narrative genre. It was published in 1789, at a time when its author was well-known in English abolitionist circles. The work is now represented in a multitude of literary and historical anthologies, and has garnered significant critical attention in the centuries since its publication. It was successful in mobilizing the abolitionist sentiment that would secure the end of the slave trade in England in 1807. (Slavery itself was not legal in England, but businessmen were still allowed to trade slaves.) The author makes clear that such abolition was his primary purpose in crafting the work, and so by this measure, it was a great success.

Equiano published his book through the subscription method, meaning he convinced buyers to purchase copies before it was actually published. Subsequent editions added more subscribers, and by the 9th edition in 1794, the list had grown from 311 names to 894 names. Equiano protected the copyright on his initially two-volume book by registering it with the Stationers' Company, and delivered the required nine copies of the book to Stationers' Hall on March 24th, 1789. He initially worked with booksellers to publicize it, but for later editions, he conducted book tours in England, Ireland, and Scotland. As the book became more popular, its cultural cache grew and many signed up as subscribers simply to be associated with it. As Vincent Carretta writes in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the work, "Equiano's credibility and stature were enhanced by the presence of the names of members of the royal family, the aristocracy, and other socially and politically prominent figures." The list of subscribers also functions as a de facto petition to the Queen to abolish the slave trade.

Equiano's book was one of several published works written by prominent Afro-Britons during this time period. His work was preceded by: James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw's A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life African Prince, as Related by Himself (1772); Phyllis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects (1773), and Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho (1782); and the London edition of John Marrant's A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785). None of these works explicitly confronted the slave trade as Equiano's did, but they all nonetheless made a case for the intellectual and moral capabilities of those of African descent.

The Interesting Narrative's style and structure are influenced by other 18th century literary genres, particularly works by Defoe (adventure novels), Rowlandson (Protestant captivity narratives), and Franklin (rags-to-riches stories). It also demonstrates the traditional structure of a conversion narrative, or a spiritual autobiography, through its author's journey from sin to salvation. One of its sophistications is how this narrative shape mirrors the author's physical move from slavery to freedom. The Narrative has also garnered attention as an important piece of travel literature, which was another popular genre in the 18th century.

The Narrative received generally favorable reviews upon publication, and later editions of the work were introduced with examples of that approbation. One negative review was published by Richard Gough in 1789 in the Gentleman's Magazine; Gough wrote that the memoirs were written in a very "uneven style," and that while the first part dealt compellingly with the manners of Africans and Equiano's journey towards freedom, "the second, from that period to the present, is uninteresting; and his conversion to Methodism upsets the whole." Mary Wollstonecraft reviewed the work relatively favorably, opening her review with the observation, "The life of an African, written by himself, is certainly a curiosity, as it has been a favorite philosophic whim to degrade the numerous nations, on whom the sun-beams more directly dart, below the common level of humanity, and hastily to conclude that nature, by making them inferior to the rest of the human race, designed to stamp them with a mark of slavery."