The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis of Chapter X


The dangers of the voyage to the North Pole impressed upon Equiano how much he owed to God and how precarious his mortal life was. He left Doctor Irving and lodged in Coventry-Street, determining all the while to be a "first-rate Christian." He frequented neighboring churches but was disappointed in them, preferring to stay at home and read his Bible. He tried Quaker, Catholic, and Jewish houses of worship and found them all wanting. He became dismayed that few in his circle kept all of the Commandments.

While in London, he also learned the French horn and kept up hairdressing. In spring 1774, he shipped as a steward onboard a ship to Turkey. He had recommended a smart and capable black man as a cook, but this man was unfortunately kidnapped by his former master before the ship set sail. Equiano tried many schemes to free him, but to no avail. This was a very disheartening affair for him.

Equiano returned to London and then tried to set out for Turkey once more, but was precluded from doing so due to problems with his former captain. He was very frustrated with his situation, feeling quite depressed, and he "began to blaspheme, and often wished to be any thing but a human being." He finally called upon God to help him repent his iniquities, and he woke up one morning feeling incredibly weak of body; he believed this to be "the first spiritual mercy I ever was sensible of" and passionately begged God to forgive him.

Walking about the city one day, he happened upon the house of an old seafaring man who was filled with God's love. Equiano asked him many questions and met a friend of his, a Dissenting minister. After more conversation, Equiano was invited to his church's "love feast." When he arrived, he observed much singing and prayer, but no actual food. He marveled at how confident the churchgoers were in the belief that they had been called, or elected. Equiano was entirely overcome with this new type of Christian fellowship; he felt that "these last twenty-four hours produced me things, spiritual and temporal, sleeping and waking, judgment and mercy, that I could not but admire the goodness of God, in directing the blind, blasphemous sinner in the path that he knew not of..."

Equiano went home and rid himself of behavior like playing cards and vain-jesting. He saw that life was short and eternity near. He visited the old man and his wife again, receiving from them a book entitled The Conversion of an Indian. He continued to attend their church and to read the scriptures.

One sermon surprised him very much; the preacher spoke of a man needing to experience the new birth and be pardoned of his sins. Simply doing good works or following the Commandments was insufficient; one must receive God's gift of grace. This information was staggering to Equiano, who was now torn between his understanding of "salvation by works, or by faith only in Christ."

While he was trying to reconcile this new approach to Christianity, he signed up as a steward on the Hope, headed by Captain Richard Strange. It was bound for Cadiz, in Spain. While onboard, Equiano was disturbed by all the blasphemy he heard, and he worried he would catch this "horrible infection." He began to think himself the most miserable man alive and considered throwing himself into the sea, but he decided it would be better to return to land and no longer sail with sinners. The captain would not discharge him, however, and his friends encouraged him to stay in his position and follow God's will.

The ship, with Equiano on it, thus sailed for Spain. Cadiz was a strong, rich, and impressive place. One evening while he was there, he was reading and reflecting upon the Book of Acts when he began to think about his past. He realized he had always led some degree of a moral life and had "an interest in the divine favour." He continued to read passages from the Bible and saw how the invisible hand of God had protected and succored him. He was truly a "great sovereign free grace." Now that the terrors of Hell and the fears of death had been melted away, he was filled to the brim with a profound joy and contentedness.

He burst from his cabin and told people of his epiphany, but he longed to be in London, around people who would truly understand what had happened to him. Reading the Bible became a more revelatory and meaningful endeavor, and he was filled with the Spirit.

In December, the ship returned to London and Equiano immediately went to hear the Reverend Mr. Romaine preach. This man explained the difference between "human works and free election," something Equiano now understood. He was pleased to see his friends, and they in turn were exultant at his conversion. He was finally received into the church fellowship and "rejoiced in spirit, making melody in my heart to the God of all my mercies."


Chapter Ten is the conversion chapter - i.e., the chapter in which Equiano joins the Methodist faith. He is spurred to his deeper faith by his dangerous adventures in the North Pole, which impressed upon him how short his life truly was. Back in London, he became dismayed with many of the churches he visited, and his acquaintances whom he believed reveled in iniquity. According to Vincent Carretta, the book he claims to have read - The Conversion of an Indian - might actually be a conflation of Thomas Wilson's An Essay towards an Instruction for the Indians, which Equiano was given when he was baptized, and Laurence Harlow's The Conversion of an Indian, in a letter to a Friend (1774). Equiano also experiences a "love feast," which was a gathering that commemorated Christ's Last Supper.

Critics have had much to say regarding the Narrative and religion, especially in terms of this chapter. One of the most profound recent articles is Eileen Razzari Elrod's "Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative", published in 2001. In this piece, Elrod looks at this defining aspect of Equiano's life and selfhood – his Christianity – and considers it as an outgrowth of the conflict he felt between a "growing sense of the liberatory power of the biblical text for oppressed people" and a "Christian piety" that was tied in with "his admiration for the Christian colonizing work of the West" which "places limits on that critical stance." It is yet again a manifestation of his split identity - he admires the very society that enslaved him, and so it makes sense he would find solace in a religion that embraces individualism and not a community fraught with contradiction.

As Equiano has witnessed multiples examples of Christian hypocrisy, his Narrative needs to find a way to condemn those actions within a Christian framework while not alienating his readers. He does this by affirming his belief in an idealized Christianity, of a Christ based in justice and compassion. He is keenly aware of the need to establish his Christian 'credentials,' which he does by using biblical text and metaphor, by comparing his Eboe brethren to the Jews, by establishing himself as a Bible reader, and by presenting the book through a frontispiece that featured him holding an open text of Bible verses.

He is, of course, still an outsider, and, as Elrod points out, "by presenting himself in line with a biblical tradition of outsiders, Equiano requires the reader to take on that outsider perspective as well." Readers confronted the examples Equiano used of biblical outsiders, and were forced to sympathize with those marginalized by mainstream European society and culture.

Equiano is a converted Christian and a Europeanized gentleman, but he is still able to honor his African heritage and culture. He offers strong examples of how the Eboe people were similar to the Jews. By doing this, "he challenges readers' assumptions about 'primitive' behavior, asking them, in effect, to recast their favorite Bible stories in a contemporary, specific, African setting." Equiano uses the Bible, the text that white Europeans were so familiar with, as a bridge to his African culture. Again, it is a reflection of his unique vantage, one who can appreciate both perspectives because he has lived both.

He also uses multiple biblical passages that discuss oppression and liberation. Liberation was the literal and spiritual focus of his life, and so it is understandably the lens through which he reads the Bible. During his conversion, he lists more than fifteen biblical passages, most of which deal with captivity. The imprisonment of Peter and John after they healed a lame beggar is included; their words and message "[depicts] first-century Christianity as a radical force counter to and outside of the mainstream, one that invites, heals, and restores those who have been disenfranchised by their communities..." Readers will definitely be reminded of their religion's identification with the disenfranchised. And for his contemporary readers, these connections would hopefully require some considerations.

When he earlier relates the story of his manumission, Equiano revealed his identification with Biblical narrators who were captives. He compares himself to Peter – a captive, the central Apostle, the figure of early Christianity. When he describes his feelings on being liberated from slavery, he muses that the only comparable experience was Elijah ascending into Heaven. Here, he is conflating spiritual liberation and actual liberation. Elrod's article thus provides valuable insight into the way Equiano utilizes Scripture to make a case for himself, and profoundly demonstrates how central Christianity was to his view on his life and his selfhood. Of course, we should also remember that he is speaking to a particular audience who would take the value of Christian piety as a given, and so his effective conflation of these elements continues to suit his political purpose throughout.