The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Quotes and Analysis

This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Equiano, 58

Equiano's writing on the Middle Passage is the section of the work most likely to end up in anthologies for history and literature classes. It is a profoundly evocative and devastating account of one of the most terrible events in human history: the forcible removal of millions of Africans from their home, and their subsequent transportation across the Atlantic in slave ships, under the most abominable and hellish conditions imaginable. Slaves were chained to the hold and had to perform their bodily functions while chained. Excrement and refuse were everywhere, and the air was heavy with noxious, harmful smells. There was no privacy, even for women and girls. Slaves could not move about, and barely escaped without their limbs atrophying. They rarely had enough to eat or drink, and would grow sick in droves. The cries of pain, terror, and grief filled the air at all times. Many had no idea why they were there, and were frightened of the white faces on the ship. Individuals were severed from their families and thrust together with strangers whose languages they could not speak. Many were beaten mercilessly. It was so terrible that many slaves wished for death, but even this was rarely possible by one's own volition. Equiano's account is a valuable source for examining the realities of the slave system, for its evocative writing and historical perspective.

...I thought I could plainly trace the hand of God, without whose permission a sparrow cannot fall. I began to raise my fear from man to him alone, and to call daily on his holy name with fear and reverence: and I trust he heard my supplications, and graciously condescended to answer me according to his holy word, and to implant the seeds of piety in me, even one of the meanest of his creatures.

Equiano, 88

In this quote, Equiano reveals the depth of his spirituality, and the extent to which he attributes the circumstances of life to a deity. Equiano claimed that he was born in Africa and practiced the religion of the Eboe land in which he was raised. That religion was not too different in its tenets and practices than that of the Jews, but Equiano soon learned about Christianity. Even before he converted, Equiano grew sensible of a God that existed and was aware of him. He often prayed and tried to order his behavior along Christian teachings, even believing himself to have offended God when Pascal sold him to Captain Doran. He began to notice how white men did not behave according to the precepts of their religion, and noted the events of his life that seemed to suggest a God was looking out for him. The fact that Equiano was owned largely by benevolent men assures him of God's presence. Equiano is even baptized in 1759, although his conversion later in his life was a more profoundly impactful event in his spiritual growth. Religion thus permeates the text and is an important component in Equiano's attainment of selfhood and identity.

These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, by not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes.

Equiano, 105

This quote introduces the worst of the worst offenders towards Africans - the cruel overseers of the cruel West Indies. The West Indies featured some of the most brutal episodes of slavery, and was famed for the strictness and harshness of its Barbados slave code. The sugar plantations required many slaves to work the land, and Equiano estimated that the difficulty of the work, coupled with the ill treatment by the overseers, led to an average lifespan of only sixteen years on the islands. He detailed some of the ways in which slaves were violated and abused, and here focuses on the monstrous behavior of the overseers. These white men felt the need to exercise the most arbitrary and absolute power over their slaves, devising harsh punishments and denying them every opportunity for redress or resolution. Equiano marvels that these men deigned to call themselves Christians, as their behavior was clearly contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. Thankfully, Equiano did not have to spend all of his years as a slave in these hot, deadly climes. However, after becoming a free man, he does accept a position as an overseer of Dr. Irving's Jamaica plantation. He does not exercise the same sort of cruelty as the white men did, but many readers of the work are critical of Equiano's choice. Only by considering the work within its historical context do Equiano's actions seem less reprehensible.

But is not the slave trade entirely a war with the heart of man? And surely that which is begun by breaking down the barriers of virtue involves in its continuance destruction to every principle, and buries all sentiments in ruin!

Equiano, 110

The purpose of Equiano's Narrative was to provide a thorough indictment of the slave trade and to thereby compel the British government to abolish it. It is not a mere autobiography, but also a polemic, a political document, a call to action. Although Equiano mostly makes his point indirectly through relating the events of his life, he nonetheless succeeds in pricking consciences and questioning England's commitment to democracy, liberty, and equality. Here, he offers a striking rhetorical assault against slavery, concluding that it is incompatible with virtue, morality, and biblical teachings. The elevation of white man over black was something God never intended, and the relationship is harmful to both parties. The slave trade corrupted morality and virtue. Equiano goes further by claiming that the white man was responsible for inculcating deleterious values and behavior in their slaves, and that they had no right to be surprised when their slaves acted badly. Equiano laments the fact that, if only slaves were treated like human beings, their owners would have no cause to fear them.

Hitherto I had thought only slavery dreadful; but the state of a free negro appeared to me now equally so at least, and in some respects even worse, for they live in constant alarm for their liberty; and even this is but nominal, for they are universally insulted and plundered without the possibility of redress; for such is the equity of the West Indian laws, that no free negro's evidence will be admitted in their courts of justice. In this situation is it surprising that slaves, when mildly treated, should prefer even the misery of slavery to such a mockery of freedom?

Equiano, 122

Multiple times in the Narrative, Equiano laments the status of free blacks, who, even more so than slaves, were taken advantage of by whites. In this quote, he introduces the rationale for such a statement. Slaves could be beaten and were denied all legal rights, but white men respected them as another man's property and hence avoided unnecessary entanglements with them. Free blacks, however, did not have their masters to protect them and hence suffered from ill treatment in different ways. They had no legal rights and no opportunities for redress; when Equiano tried to demand payment for goods sold to white men, he found himself stymied by the fact that no one was on his side. Even his white friends could do little for him in these situations. Another free black, Joseph Clipson, was actually accosted by white men and forced into a second slavery - they simply ignored his legal documents. As a free black man, Equiano occupied a strange and confusing role in English society; he was free but could barely expect to have that freedom respected in any real way.

Accordingly he signed the manumission that day; so that, before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was became [sic] my own master, and completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced...

Equiano, 136-37

Along with his religious conversion, this is one of the central moments in Equiano's life, and one that is absolutely essential in his path towards identity and self-awareness. Equiano was able to accomplish something that almost every slave undoubtedly dreamed of; he was no longer the property of another. He was his own master. He was able to order his life as he saw fit, and to conceive of himself as a man, not as a piece of property. Although he still faced discrimination and persecution as a free black man, he took control of his life, making decisions about where to travel, whom to marry, where to live, and what occupation to engage in. As a free man, he also experienced his religious conversion. As a free man, he was able to commit himself to the abolitionist cause and publish his Narrative.

My dream now returned upon my mind with all its force; it was fulfilled in every part; for our danger was the same I had dreamt of: and I could not help looking on myself as the principal instrument in effecting our deliverance...

Equiano, 151

In his introduction to the Narrative, Equiano writes that he does not intend to offer himself up as a saint or hero, but the actual content of his work suggests otherwise, as this quote reveals. He explains that his mother dressed him up in the manner of a great African warrior, and readers of the work must conclude that the author has done that himself in order to introduce himself as a heroic protagonist. He takes great pains to combat the racial stereotypes that plagued Africans by lifting himself up as a virtual hero. He escapes situations in fantastic fashions, and is often the only capable person in times of great trial. He is adored by his masters and oftentimes revered by the crews of the ships on which he serves. This phrase reveals the way in which he continually presents himself in the mold of hero.

And thus ended our Arctic voyage, to the no small joy of all on board, after having been absent four months; in which time, at the imminent hazard of our lives, we explored nearly as far towards the Pole as 81 degrees north, and 20 degrees east longitude; being much farther, by all accounts, than any navigator had ever ventured before; in which we fully proved the impracticability of finding a passage that way to India.

Equiano, 177

Equiano's trip to the North Pole is one of the most fascinating and fantastical elements of his truly "interesting" life. The goal of the endeavor, led by the Honourable Constantine John Phipps, late Lord Mulgrave, was to find a passage through to India. The trip, while starting off well and being characterized by gorgeous vistas of treacherous land and remarkable creatures, devolves into a struggle for survival when the ships are mired in thick slabs of ice. Equiano is sensible for the first time of the possibility of death, and he spends a great deal of time contemplating eternity. The travelers are thankfully spared from imminent death when the weather changes and the ice breaks up, but the voyage was important because it caused Equiano to seek God in a new way and eventually led to his conversion. It is also one of the many historical references he makes in the work, to events that his readers likely would have been familiar with.

I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when in truth I knew it not: still the Lord pursued me although I slighted and disregarded it; this mercy melted me down. When I considered my poor wretched state I wept, seeing what a great debtor I was to sovereign free grace. Now the Ethiopian was willing to be saved by Jesus Christ, the sinner's only surety, and also to rely on none other person or thing for salvation.

Equiano, 191

Here, Equiano reveals the nature of his faith; it is one of humility and acceptance of his sinfulness. He had finally converted to "true" Christianity (in his case, Methodism). After returning from his Arctic voyage, he is compelled to seek out religion in a deeper and more meaningful manner. Like many men searching for truth, he visits the churches of several different religions and finds most of them wanting. He turns to the Scriptures and finds sustenance there, preferring his quiet times to church services. He eventually comes into contact with an old man with whom he discussed a new conception of Christianity. This conception, centered around faith rather than around simply good works (actions), was inspirational to him. As he continued to study, however, he realized that even this faith was not enough. His conversion took place while he was reading the Book of Acts and reflecting on his life. He felt that the "invisible hand of God" was present in everything he had done, and wept at the thought of his sinfulness and debt for God's forgivness. This conversion experience marked a new phase in his definition of his identity (190).

I hope to have the satisfaction of seeing the renovation of liberty and justice resting on the British government, to vindicate the honour of our common nature.

Equiano, 232

This quote is found in the last chapter of the Narrative, in which Equiano's abolitionist activities come to the fore. It is a clear statement of his purpose in writing the book. In the last phase of his life, he became an active political participant, even delivering a petition for abolition to the Queen. The publication of Equiano's narrative also played a role in this new phase of his life. Equiano called for the British government to live up to the ideals they had always promulgated concerning liberty, justice, and light. He hoped they would consider what the Bible had to say about their actions. Additionally, he makes argument that abolishing the slave trade would be economically wise. His book is many things and touches on many styles, but its most central purpose is to encourage his English readers to listen to their better selves.