The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Summary and Analysis of Chapter XI


At the captain's urging, Equiano once again embarked for Cadiz in March of 1775. Along the way, the ship struck against a rock, but Equiano felt no fear of death. Thankfully, the ship was delivered from its situation through the aid of nearby Spanish flukers, and the crew was able to complete their business in Cadiz and then safely sail on to Gibraltar and Malaga. Equiano thought Malaga a lovely and rich city, but was perturbed by the bull-baiting and other such activities on Sunday evenings. He befriended a Catholic priest who encouraged him to adopt that faith, but Equiano desisted.

The ship sailed back to England in June of 1775, but unpredictable winds pushed them slightly off course. The captain was angry and blasphemed profusely, leading Equiano and another young man to rebuke him for his behavior. The captain realized his error when their ship came across eleven miserable and dying men on a wrecked vessel; he knew that God had intended that wayward course for a reason.

Equiano was back in London by November, but was persuaded to leave once more when his old friend, Doctor Irving, decided to found a plantation in Jamaica. Doctor Irving was persistent in asking Equiano to join him, and Equiano finally accepted, mostly because he knew that isle could reap a harvest of souls for God. Four Musquito Indians accompanied them on this voyage. One of those Indians was the Musquito king's son. None of them practiced true Christianity, which mortified Equiano and made him endeavor to instruct them in the true doctrines of the faith.

The prince initially embraced Equiano's teaching, but soon renounced it when others began to tease him. Equiano tried to answer his questions and lift his depressed spirits, but the mocking and jesting won out.

After short stops at Antigua and Montserrat, the sloop landed on Jamaica's shores. A smaller vessel was made ready to sail to the Musquito shores, and the Doctor and Equiano procured several slaves to take with them. Equiano chose many of his own countrymen from Lybia. The ship arrived at the Musquito shore, where the Indians helped the Doctor survey the land to choose where he would build the plantation. The land was wild, and there were beasts that roared throughout the night. While there, Equiano served as overseer - a position he had once hated more than anything - but did what he could to show kindness and patience towards the slaves.

The natives, however, were very friendly. They appreciated the Doctor's usefulness, never having had someone like him around before. They exchanged their goods for those of the Europeans. Equiano records what he observed of the Indians, noting how the women usually cultivated the ground while the men fished and made canoes, how they had simple manners, how they did not have any oaths or curses, how they had no discernible worship but were not impious, how they were "well made and warlike," how they drank strong liquors when they could, and how they highly valued honesty.

There was a governor among them who was treated with a high amount of respect. He arbitrated conflicts, and was wise and sagacious. However, he drank a great deal of liquor and became unruly at times. His behavior was very obnoxious to Equiano, and only when he loudly insisted that God would smite them did they cease in their revelry and clamor.

The Doctor and Equiano were invited to a feast not long after. Bringing some rum with them, they arrived to see men, women, and children singing, dancing and preparing food. Equiano was surprised that they killed and ate alligators. Thankfully, "this merry-making at last ended without the least discord in any person in the company, although it was made up of different nations and complexions."

Equiano grew tired of his life with the Musquitos, as it was difficult and "heathenish." The Doctor reluctantly let him leave, with a letter commending his service. Equiano needed to find a ship heading toward Jamaica, and signed up with a sloop run by a man named Hughes. When Equiano told Hughes that he wanted to go to Jamaica – as Hughes was trying to force him to man a ship heading elsewhere – Hughes grew passionately and irrationally angry, swearing and refusing to let him go. He promised that he would sell Equiano to the Spaniards in Cartagena, where the ship was truly sailing. He cruelly strung Equiano up and let him hang by his feet for hours. He was only let down because the ship needed to release the sails. Finally, after a carpenter named Mr. Cox revealed to Hughes Equiano's connection to Doctor Irving, Equiano was given a canoe to leave.

Hughes did not like this plan, however, and tried to shoot at Equiano as he paddled away. He would have succeeded in caching him if the ship had not been carried in the opposite direction by the wind. Equiano landed back on the Musquito shore, where he received sustenance and care from the Musquito admiral. The Indians were far kinder to him than the Europeans, he observes wryly.

Unfortunately, a similar situation soon occurred again: Captain Jenning promised that his ship was going to Jamaica, but it instead headed southward down the Musquito shore. It happened yet again with a Captain John Baker, an Englishman who promised Equiano they would go to Jamaica, but who instead headed towards Cartagena. Baker was a "very cruel and bloody-minded man, and was a very horrid blasphemer." Equiano tried to be patient, but found this situation terrible. Sometimes the captain would beat him, and once, in a feverish and insane rage, nearly blew up the ship that he and Equiano were on while the others were ashore gathering provisions.

Baker's ship, The Indian Queen, encountered an English sloop which fortuitously carried Doctor Irving upon it. Equiano begged to rejoin his friend, but the captain refused. A letter to Irving did not help either, as he was a passenger on the ship and hence had no power. He learned the Doctor was leaving Jamaica because the overseer he appointed after Equiano was a violent and cruel man, and his actions forced all of the slaves to try and escape. Unfortunately, they drowned in the process and the Doctor's plantation was left uncultivated. He thus needed to procure new slaves.

Finally, on October 14th, the Indian Queen arrived in Jamaica. Baker refused to pay Equiano even one farthing, and Equiano could do nothing to combat the injustice. He found a ship bound for England, politely rejecting Irving's offer to return to Jamaica. He learned not long after he arrived in England that Irving had died from eating poisonous fish. The ship arrived in Plymouth in 1777 and Equiano stayed there and in Exeter for a short while before he returned to London.


This Chapter has a bit of the adventure that defined Chapter 9, though it has a more mature edge now that Equiano is converted. He seems to have the same inkling for adventure, though he now frames it as an opportunity to convert new people to his faith.

The land where he and Doctor Irving settled to form their plantation was actually located on the Musquito shores, where Equiano came into regular contact with the natives. Equiano records his observations of the behavior, mores, norms, and culture of the natives, doing his best to stay ambivalent. "Musquito" bears some clarification, as it was a corruption of "Miskito," a name for people living on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Their king was under the authority of the governor of Jamaica, and they were in effect allies of Britain against Spain. An account by Thomas Jefferys from 1794 explained that they were divided into four main tribes and were under the protection of the English. Notable was "the implacable hatred they bear to the Spaniards, by whom their ancestors were driven from the fertile plains they enjoyed near Lake Nicaragua;" such hatred "goes almost as far back as the discovery of America, and their friendship with the English is as old as the expeditions of the Buccaniers against their common enemy."

This chapter has posed many problems for critics because Equiano, now a free man, has willingly agreed to be an overseer and purchaser of slaves. This seems to go against his abolitionist sentiment, and his own awareness of the horrors of slavery. In fact, some readers find Equiano's general support of a capitalist mentality - the mentality that enabled and facilitated slaver - just as objectionable.

Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds deals with this intersection of trade and religion by considering the man's multi-facted personality. She begins by noting how uncomfortable many critics have been with Equiano's complicity in slavery, and with the tension between his spiritual and merchant lives. She believes that Equiano has formed a four-fold self, which includes a slave, a merchant, a juridical subject, and a convert to Christianity. His identity was "forged by marketplace, religious, and legal discursive practices, the last opening a space for his own creation of a 'juridical self.'" Yet again, his sense of freedom seems to be best defined as a freedom to be a true individual, and not one beholden to any strict creed.

In regard to Equiano's life as merchant, it is obvious that he embraced the financial freedom of the marketplace, since it was through trade that he purchased his freedom. However, this work placed him "squarely within the dehumanizing ideology of capitalism's driving slave market" (Hinds). Equiano was assuredly part of the capitalists' marketplace psychology. There is a paradox in his embrace of capitalism's "spectral 'man within,' gearing his values toward 'public virtues' (e.g., the exchange of human objects)" and the repression of the community – other blacks – that he often claims to speak for. For some time, then, the cost of freedom came at the cost of his spiritual identity.

Hinds continues with the topic of Equiano's religion, considering how it operates within this capitalist framework and how, if possible, the two can be reconciled. Most critics split the two, seeing his economic activity and spiritual longing as diametrically opposed. However, Hinds believes that Equiano does not endeavor to rationalize the contradictions among the different theologies that he inhabit. He declares himself a predestinarian, but eventually embraces Methodism's appealing doctrine of new birth and free salvation. However, even after his conversion and his official welcome into the church, he still sees God as a "providential overseer," at least in daily practice. Equiano's conversion to Methodism did not fully preclude the "pall of election." Ultimately, Hinds writes that "Equiano's conversion experience does not override his previous, mercantile activities, but instead to some degree reinforces the commercial paradox he inhabited while still a slave." It is a split subjectivity, and Equiano's participation in the marketplace both represented freedom of action and willful acceptance of a control by the "spectral predestinarian hand of the market."

Finally, Hinds calls attention to Equiano as a juridical subject - i.e., his role in regard to the law. As a free black, he could never seek redress or equity according to the documented and codified law. However, by using legal documents and by asserting legal and judicial judgments within the text, Equiano made a case for himself as a juridical subject. He points out several times that free blacks were denied protection and were thus in a void, but he attempts to address this in the work. He also alludes several times to the natural law philosophy of the 18th century. He includes written documents such as his manumission paper, letters of transmission, and a letter to the government after he failed to achieve juridical standing. At the close of the Narrative, Equiano has managed to fashion himself a juridical subject, by creating his own legal framework, honored at least within the pages of his autobiography.