The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis of Chapter III


Equiano and other slaves remained on Barbados for a few days, but were then shipped off in a sloop to North America. On this journey, they were treated better and had more to eat. They landed in Virginia country, which they accessed by sailing up a river. There, they worked on a plantation for a rich old gentleman. Equiano watched as all of his friends were sold off to traders until he was the only one left on the plantation, miserable in his loneliness. He wished for death, and was terrified of his owner, who had placed an iron muzzle on one of the old female slaves. He also resented that he was given new names; he was called Jacob here, and had previously been called Michael - both names of which he disapproved.

One day, the "kind and unknown hand of the Creator" revealed itself to Equiano in the form of a merchant ship captain named Michael Henry Pascal. While visiting the Virginia gentleman, Pascal took a liking to Equiano and purchased him as a gift for some friends in England. They boarded a ship for England, and here Equiano was given a new name – Gustavus Vassa. He initially protested this change, but acquiesced after being beaten.

On this ship, he met Richard Baker, a young white man about four or five years older than him. Baker was an educated native of America and had "a mind superior to prejudice; and who was not ashamed to notice, to associate with, and to be the friend and instructor of one who was ignorant, a stranger, of a different complexion, and a slave!" Equiano adds that he and Baker remained friends until Baker's death in 1759, which occurred onboard a ship called The Preston.

Equiano was still quite afraid both of the white men and of the roaring, convulsing sea. However, he was intrigued by grampuses, which he had never seen before. His alarms subsided when the ship reached Falmouth after being at sea for thirteen weeks. It was 1757 when Equiano reached England; he was twelve years old.

When it snowed there one day, Equiano was fascinated with the phenomenon and asked his master where it came from. He was told that it came from God, "a great man in the heavens," and so he decided to begin attending church to learn more of this figure. Richard Webster (who went by Dick) helped him to understand the language. Although Equiano began to admire the white people for their wisdom, he was "amazed at their not sacrificing, or making any offerings, and eating with unwashed hands, and touching the dead." During this time, he also gained a desire for literacy as he watched Dick read and believed his friend was talking to the books.

In Falmouth, he and Pascal lodged at a gentleman's house. When the little girl who lived there took a great fancy to him, Equiano worried he would be betrothed to her, but his master ultimately brought him back to sea when he departed. The ship sailed to Guernsey, where Equiano and Richard Webster were left with the family of one of Pascal's mates - the wife of the house was very kind to him, and he enjoyed meeting her young daughter. Pascal was soon appointed first lieutenant of the king's ship The Roebuck, and sent for Equiano and Dick to join him. The sloop made its way from Guernsey to the Roebuck, along the way encountering a press-gang that boarded their sloop to force man to serve in the navy. They mocked and terrified him, but he was not taken. The ship continued on its way, and he was successfully reunited with his master and slowly became accustomed to life at sea.

Things which had before terrified him no longer did, and he even "began to long for an engagement" (a battle) at sea as his grief and fears melted away. He felt easy and even happy in his situation, and enjoyed playing with the other boys onboard. Unfortunately, the white men forced them to fight one another for sport, something which wearied and saddened Equiano, even as he found himself desperately desiring to win the fights.

The ship sailed to Leith, in Scotland, and then to the Orkneys, never actually engaging another ship despite passing near the coast of France, chasing many vessels, and capturing many prizes. Back at Portsmouth, Pascal received a promotion, and so Equiano and Dick were assigned to the Savage sloop of war, which was sent on a mission to rescue the St. George, another sloop of war that had run ashore on the coast.

Pascal sent for Equiano and Richard Webster to join him to London; Equiano was exceedingly excited to see that city. They arrived at the house of Mr. Guerin, a relative of Pascal's. Equiano was unable to see London because he contracted the chilblains and nearly had his legs amputated; this disease was then followed by smallpox.

Once he had recovered, he accompanied his master to Holland. Not long after, Pascal was promoted to lieutenant on board the Royal George. While Equiano was melancholy at leaving Dick behind on the Preston, he marveled at the sheer size of his new ship. The Royal George was so filled with men, women, and children that it resembled a small town. Pascal was promoted again, and the crew of the Royal George was turned over to the Namur, which was about to embark on an expedition against the city of Louisbourgh. The fleet headed to America, making berth in the harbor at St. George, Halifax. They then moved to Cape Breton in the summer of 1758 and made ready to attack Louisbourgh.

In this battle, many were killed on both sides as the British land forces laid siege to the city. It was finally captured, and the English ships entered the harbor, allowing Equiano to go on shore many times.

That winter, Equiano was sent back to England on a different ship. One night while at sea, they were approached by seven French men of war ships, which the fleet had mistakenly thought were British ships. They were caught by surprise with the French fired a broadside at them, and so they prepared quickly and then chased the outnumbered French vessels. This engagement, Equiano's first, was extremely exciting for him. The French ships unfortunately got away, and the English fleet resumed its course to St. Helen's, which they reached at the close of 1758. After a short time at Spithead and Portsmouth, Equiano returned with his master back to London along with a press-gang, "as we wanted some hands to complete our complement."


Many impactful events shape Equiano's life in this chapter. All of them bear repeating, as they develop his character in ways that will continue to payoff throughout the narrative. He travels to America and is purchased by a British Navy lieutenant, Michael Henry Pascal. He spends time in England and is brought with Pascal onboard his various vessels while fighting in the Seven Years' War. While in Pascal's service, Equiano witnesses many dramatic sea battles, as well as the activities of the British press-gangs, significant forces during the hostilities. He receives a new name – Gustavus Vassa –by which he will be known for the rest of his life. He develops an interest in reading, and nearly has his legs amputated from sickness. But most importantly, he grows accustomed to his enslavement, so much so that he begins to long for the violence and excitement of an engagement; this was not an uncommon occurrence for slaves.

A bit of background on the Seven Years' War is useful here. This global conflict, ranging from 1756-1763, was primarily fought between Britain and France but included the American colonies, Spain, Prussia, Portugal, Saxony, and more. Theaters of war included the American colonies, the West Indies, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The war was a result of the tension and hostility between Britain and the Bourbons in France and Spain, regarding overlapping trade and colonization issues. Territorial and hegemonic conflicts within the Holy Roman Empire exacerbated the problem. The war included fighting on land and on the seas. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, involved a complicated swap of land and territories. Estimates of the dead range from 900,000-1,400,000. While Equiano certainly would not have known the nuances of the conflict, this detail adds a historical weight to his narrative and explains how his specificity has kept his Narrative a historically relevant document.

Some scholars speculate that Pascal gave Equiano the name "Gustavus Vassa" in order to disguise him. Naval opinion - particularly that of the Admiralty - regarded a man-of-war as a piece of British territory, and hence slavery was not appropriate upon it. "Gustavus Vassa" was the name of a Danish ruler who led his people to freedom in 1521-23 and subsequently became the king of Sweden. There was also a popular British play entitled Gustavus Vasa, the Deliverer of his Country that was anti-Walpole in its message (the Licensing Act of 1737 blocked performances of this production and it was not actually performed in London until 1805). Its frequent productions kept it in the public discourse as a comment on both politics and slavery. It was common for slaves to receive the names of important and powerful historical figures, and Equiano no doubt expected his contemporary readers to draw parallels between himself and his famous namesake. Thus, the name has metaphoric relevance both for those who would have meet Equiano then, and for his readers. In both times, it spoke to the promise of freedom.

Equiano's literacy was a transformative event, much like it was for Frederick Douglass, and in this chapter he expresses the depth of his curiosity for knowledge: "I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did...for that purpose I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes that it would answer me..." (68).

Several scholars have noted the motif of the talking book in the writings of black authors. In this case, Equiano may be paraphrasing the work of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, who wrote A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, As Related by Himself (1772). That text read, " when I first saw [my master] read, I was never so surprised in my life, as when I saw the book talk to my master, for I thought it did, as I observed him to look upon it..." In another work, Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant (1785), Marrant encounters the daughter of an Indian who is fascinated by his book: "His daughter took the book out of my hand a second time; she opened it, and kissed it again; her father bid her give it to me, which she did; but said, with much sorrow, the book would not speak to her."

Equiano's use of this trope could signify many things. At the very least, it shows his indebtedness to literary models, something continues to use. In some ways, this could be an attempt to place his work within recognizable traditions, to ensure its legitimacy. However, the repeated trope could also signify the fundamental importance of literacy and education. Ignorance being the most effective tool towards maintaining oppression, education becomes one of the most powerful weapons against it. This narrative makes the argument - both implicitly and explicitly - that Equiano can fight for others because of his learning and intelligence. Like the other writers mentioned, Equiano gives books a magical quality that emphasizes their importance. For uneducated slaves, the path to education seems an impossible, other-worldly one. However, through perseverance, that bridge can be crossed, and change can be achieved.