The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis of Chapter VI


Equiano does not wish to enumerate all of the atrocities he witnessed, as they were too numerous and too grisly to fully recount, and they would delight neither the writer nor the reader. He decides instead to focus on the events he personally experienced, noting that he saw many curious scenes on the different islands that he visited. For example, on Brimstone-Hill in Montserrat, he observed many little steaming and boiling ponds that he used to heat potatoes. On another occasion, when an earthquake shook a house where he was staying, he attributed it to evil spirits until he was told the real cause.

By the end of 1763, Equiano believed Providence was looking upon him more favorably than before. One of his master's vessels was commanded by a Captain Thomas Farmer, who made Richard King a lot of money through his steady abilities. Farmer took Equiano with him on many voyages and was so pleased with his hard work that he begged King to let him keep Equiano as his own. After much pleading, Farm succeeded in convincing King. Equiano was also pleased, as he thought working at sea would allow him to make more money and to escape if circumstances grew worse.

Farmer was an amiable and kind man, and Equiano worked hard to earn his favor, receiving excellent treatment in return. After some time with Farmer, Equiano decided to try his hand at commerce. He had only a tiny bit of capital to begin with, but was delighted when he purchased a glass tumbler and then sold it for a profit on a different island. Throughout the next four years, he continued to buy and sell goods between islands, accumulating a some savings in the process.

In his travels, he continued to observe how whites crushed the spirits of slaves through cruelty. One time, he and another man had three bags of fruit intended for sale, but two white men stole the bags. No matter how much they pleaded with the men or begged the authorities for assistance, their grievances were not redressed. Finally, after suitably annoying the white men, they were returned two of the bags. As they were able to fetch more money for the fruit than they expected, Equiano believes Providence was on their side. It was occasions like this that convinced him to fully trust in the Lord.

All of the obnoxious scenes Equiano observed made him dwell progressively more on escape. He knew, however, that it would need to be done through "honest and honourable means;" that is, only if he were being ill-treated. As a believer in predestination, he considered his fate immutable - hence, if he was to be free, nothing would prevent it, and if he was to remain enslaved, his efforts towards freedom would come to naught. Though he kept up his prayers and tried with every honest means to attain freedom, he was prepared to follow God's will no matter what.

Equiano continued to work diligently for Captain Farmer, who desired to keep him on his ship at all costs. Their sailing was a dangerous endeavor, Equiano notes, because the winds and waves in the West Indies are fiercely violent.

He tells of one particularly terrible episode he beheld during his time with Captain Farmer, concerning a free young mulatto named Joseph Clipson who had a family on shore and worked on their sloop. Everyone knew Clipson was free, but one day a white Bermuda captain came onboard and claimed that Clipson was in fact still a slave. No matter how much Clipson protested or showed them his birth certificate, they did not listen. He had no hearing and was taken away immediately, never seeing his family again. This episode confirmed for Equiano that free blacks actually had a worse time than slaves, for they had no rights and no opportunity for redress. They had to live a life of paranoia, since their fortunes could shift without warning. Equiano was now "completely disgusted with the West Indies, and thought [he] never should be entirely free till [he] had left them."

He was determined to escape and return to England, and hoped that by learning navigation he would be better equipped to accomplish the goal (even though he protests again he did not plan to attempt escape until he was treated poorly). The constancy of his normal work made it difficult to learn navigation right away, but he kept up his study.

Once, on the island of Guadalupe, a fleet of under-staffed merchant ships was offering fifteen to twenty pounds for sailors to join an expedition to France. Most of the sailors from Farmer's vessel – including the mate – took advantage of the opportunity. His peers asked Equiano to join them, but he chose to stay because of his commitment to the maxim that honesty was the best policy. This decision would later prove advantageous for him.

Near the end of 1764, King bought a new ship, The Prudence. Equiano was left almost entirely to Farmer's control, though King remained fond of Equino and liked having him around. After a few trips back and forth between Georgia and Charles Town from Montserrat, King readied his vessels for Philadelphia in 1765. Equiano hoped to attend on this journey, so that he could get enough money there to buy his freedom.

One Sunday, Equiano was summoned to King's house, and was surprised to find him there with the captain. He was even more surprised when he was accused of planning to escape once in Philadelphia. King was saddened by this report, and explained that he might have to sell Equiano to the brother-in-law of Captain Doran, who was a severe master. Equiano, aghast at this lie, tried to defend himself; he explained that he had no intention to escape because he had been treated well, and that he trusted in God to determine his path. He offered as evidence his refusal to join the expedition to France at Montserrat. Farmer confirmed the truth of this story, and the two white men were relieved to be disabused of their fears. King even offered to lend Equiano money when it came time for him to buy his freedom. This turn of events was mind-boggling to Equiano, and he could barely speak from jubilance. He was allowed to join the journey to Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, Equiano had a strange dream of a Mrs. Davis, a wise woman whom he had never met but had heard numerous tales of. He went to visit her and was shocked at how much she knew about him. She told him that he would not be a slave for much longer.

Back in Montserrat, Equiano continued to trade between islands and save money. However, as he was working doubly hard to make the voyages speedy, he caught a fever and ague, and almost died. An eminent doctor helped him heal, and he finally returned for trips to Georgia and Charlestown. During one visit to the colonies, he observed the ebullience at the repeal of the Stamp Act.

In Georgia, "worse fate than ever attended [him]," for when Equiano visited some of his black friends in Savannah, he caught the attention of their cruel master, Dr. Drummond, who allowed no "strange negroes" in his yard. Equiano was beaten so severely that he almost died. None of the doctors in Georgia would treat him, even though his master begged them to do so. Finally, one doctor - Dr. Brady - agreed to help and Equiano began to mend. He was "so sore and bad, with the wounds I had all over me, that I could not rest in any posture, yet I was in more pain on account of the captain's uneasiness about me than I otherwise should have been." Not long after Equiano healed, the ship set sail for Montserrat and remained there until the end of 1765.


Although there is an entire chapter of the Narrative devoted to Equiano's conversion to Christianity, religion is a constant focus throughout. In this Chapter, he describes his beliefs more vividly than he yet has, and the provide a lens by which to understand both him and his time. Though he has been aware of God in the previous chapters and thanked Him for deliverance from certain situations, he has not given the reader an in-depth picture of his faith.

One big event in this Chapter is his acquisition of a Bible. While traveling with King, he first purchases a Bible, which he had been unable to do in Montserrat. The dearth of bibles in the West Indies was probably to keep slaves from reading that text and finding encouragement there. There was a conspicuous debate during the period regarding whether or not Bible reading would spur a revolutionary and rebellious impulse, or whether it might give them the comfort of an anticipated afterlife to compensate for the sufferings they experienced in the day-to-day. It should be marked as an important turning point in his faith.

In this Chapter, Equiano also declares himself a predestinarian, writing that "I thought that whatever fate had declared must ever come to pass; and therefore, if ever it were my lot to be freed, nothing could prevent me, although I should at present see no means or hope to obtain my freedom; on the other hand, if it were my fate not to be freed, I never should be so..." (119). Predestinarians believed that external forces, as opposed to one's choices and free will, determined the events of one's life. This was a strain of thinking that could be found in African religions, as well as in the teachings of George Whitfield, who also espoused a Calvinistic faith in predestination/election in terms of eternal salvation. Equiano's conversion to Methodism will be discussed in later analyses. Equiano's beliefs proved not only comforting but also practical - through them, he was able to bear his situation, and hence survives to tell of his struggles. Had he been more fiery and prone to action, he likely would have died much earlier, and he seems quite content with having allowed circumstances to guide his life.

Scholar Roxann Wheeler's article "Domesticating Equiano's Interesting Narrative" discusses the work within the context of 18th century literature. In the 18th century, religious literature was more popular than travel literature, poetry, novels, or autobiographies, with the Bible being the best-selling book and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress being the most popular work of fiction. Wheeler writes that "arguably, it is the tension between religious belief and secular pursuits that is the most fascinating characteristic of the British Enlightenment." Understanding the work in the context of a Britain that actively spread Christianity through its colonies helps to illuminate the autobiography in many compelling ways.

In particular, one should consider the tension between Equiano's conversion and the Church of England's stance on slavery and the slave trade. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was concerned with keeping Britons in line with the Church, but it was less successful in converting Caribbean or native peoples to Christianity. The Catholic Church had been much more successful, and since the Church of England had such a lackluster, lukewarm mission outside the British Isles, it "helped create a political, economic, and religious vacuum filled to an extent by Moravians, Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists." To some extent, we can see how Equiano was attracted to these new Protestant sects precisely because they were new and not ingrained in the old ways of thinking that had facilitated his enslavement.

Wheeler also suggests that readers can enhance their understanding of the Narrative by looking at similar religious texts of the time, such as the work not only of orators and Methodists but also those of sailors, servants, autobiographers, political activists, literary celebrities, and other "new" Britons. This comparison brings much illumination to studies of Equiano and his Narrative. Arguing against another Equiano scholar, Adam Potkay, who believes that postcolonial and poststructural critiques of the work are essentially stagnant and useless, Wheeler advocates a pluralistic approach to the work, concluding that "new readings of Equiano are best served not by jettisoning lessons learned from postcolonial theory, but by refining and redefining the nexus of history, theory, politics, and literary interpretation." In other words, the world at the time was one of religious uncertainty, and these conflicts informed the world of colonialism and slavery. So it is useful to consider that Equiano's religion has a political context, even if it does not have a straightforward meaning.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the way Equiano's life as a sailor serves as something of an equalizer for his struggles with slavery, since his work with Captain Farmer is his most accomplished and acknowledged yet in the Narrative. Because of his abilities, he is able to flourish under less supervision, and in fact begins to make the money that would later enable his freedom. It is perhaps one of the elements of the sea that so entrances Equiano - a man is defined by his abilities and usefulness, not by his skin color. The book does not stress this moral (since many atrocities happen at sea as well), but the equalizing capability of sea life surfaces throughout, and is particularly noticeable in this chapter.