Sunday, November 27, 2011

453. The Interesting Narrative – Olaudah Equiano

History: Written in 1789, by Gustavus Vassa, a prominent African involved in the British movement towards the abolition of the slave trade. His autobiography depicted the horrors of slavery and helped influence British lawmakers to abolish the slave trade through the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Despite his enslavement as a young man, he purchased his freedom and worked as an author, merchant and explorer in South America, the Caribbean, the Arctic, the American colonies, and the United Kingdom.
Plot: Volume I opens with a description of Equiano's native African culture, including customs associated with clothing, food, and religious practices. He likens the inhabitants of Eboe to the early Jews, and offers a theory that dark African skin is a result of exposure to the hot, tropical climates. In so doing, Equiano hints that Africans may be the indirect relatives of Christian Europeans through their Jewish ancestry and argues against slavery as an affront to all humans: "Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous. Did Nature make them inferior to their sons? and should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, No".
Equiano's journey begins when he is kidnapped from his village with his sister, from whom he is eventually separated. He describes a long voyage through various African regions. Equiano is sold to the owner of a slave ship bound for the West Indies, and he goes on to describe the "Middle Passage"—"the journey across the Atlantic Ocean that brought enslaved Africans to North America. His descriptions of extreme hardships and desperate conditions are punctuated by his astonishment at new sights and experiences. The narration occasionally reflects the childish wonder of the young Equiano at the time of his journey, but it also highlights his culture shock at his introduction to European culture and European treatment of slaves.
Though he witnesses the sale of slaves in the West Indies, Equiano himself is not purchased, and he stays with the Dutch ship, traveling from the West Indies to North America. There he is purchased and put to work on a Virginia plantation, doing light field work and household chores. He is not in Virginia long before Michael Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the British royal navy and captain of a merchant ship, purchases him as "a present to some of his friends in England". During their spring 1757 voyage to England, Pascal renames the eleven-year-old Equiano Gustavus Vassa, and Equiano forges a friendship with a white American boy named Robert Baker, which lasts until Baker's death two years later.
After the ship's arrival in England, Equiano is exposed to Christianity. When he asks questions about his first encounter with snow, he is told it is made by "a great man in the heavens, called God." He attends church, and receives instruction from his new friend, Robert . Equiano describes the various battles and ship transfers that take place after his return to sea with Pascal.
As his time with Pascal progresses, Equiano professes a growing attachment to his master and a desire to "imbibe" and "imitate" the English culture in which he is immersed. He can "now speak English tolerably well" and "embrace[s] every occasion of improvement . . . [having] long wished to be able to read and write". During stopovers in England, Captain Pascal sends Equiano to wait upon two sisters known as the Miss Guerins. They become, in a sense, patrons to Equiano, not only treating him kindly but also supporting his education and his interest in Christianity by sending him to school. The Guerins are also instrumental in persuading Pascal to allow Equiano to be baptized into the church.
Equiano continues his studies and his religious development independently whenever possible, but his visits to England are always temporary, as he returns to sea with his captain whenever Pascal and the ship are ready for a new voyage. The journeys are always fraught with danger, and he describes numerous skirmishes and sieges throughout the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and West Indian Oceans. Equiano faithfully serves Pascal for several years and, believing that Pascal's kindness implies a promise to free him, he is shocked at an abrupt betrayal during a layover in England, when Pascal has him roughly seized and forced into a barge. Pascal sells Equiano to Captain James Doran, the captain of a ship bound for the West Indies. Dazed by his sudden change in fortunes, Equiano argues with Captain Doran that Pascal "could not sell me to him, nor to any one else . . . I have served him . . . many years, and he has taken all my wages and prize-money . . . I have been baptized; and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me". After Doran tells Equiano he talks "too much English" and threatens to subdue him, Equiano begins service under a new master, for he is "too well convinced of his power over me to doubt what he said".
Dejected at the situation in which he now finds himself, Equiano begins to believe his new situation is a result of God's punishment for his sins and soon resigns himself to his new life. Doran takes him back to the West Indies, and Equiano is horrified at the sight of Montserrat, because he is fearful of being sold into this "land of bondage . . . misery, stripes, and chains". Instead, he is purchased by Mr. Robert King, a "charitable and humane" Quaker merchant who employs him in a variety of positions, from loading boats to clerking and serving as a personal groom, in addition to occasionally hiring out Equiano"s services to other merchants. One of King's boat captains, an Englishman named Thomas Farmer, relies heavily on Equiano and frequently hires him for voyages from the West Indies to North America.
At this time, Equiano begins buying and selling goods and fruit and starts his own side trading enterprise during each voyage. Although he faces setbacks and insults from white buyers who refuse to pay for goods, use "bad coin," or demand fraudulent refunds, Equiano acquires a small amount of savings and is "determined to . . . obtain my freedom, and to return to Old England". King encourages him in his entrepreneurial pursuits, proposing that when Equiano has saved enough money "to purchase my freedom . . . he would let me have it for forty pounds sterling money, which was only the same price he gave for me".
After briefly recounting a violent assault while trading in Savannah, Georgia, and his subsequent recovery and return to Montserrat, Equiano closes the first volume of the Interesting Narrative somewhat abruptly, noting that "This ended my adventures in 1764; for I did not leave Montserrat again till the beginning of the following year".
Review: Of all the firsthand accounts known to us as "slave narratives," Vassa's description is unique in many ways. To begin with, he takes his readers all the way back to his African roots, shedding historically-confirmed light on almost lost ancient traditions. His discussion of the harrowing and epically sad capture and separation of he and his sister are among the most moving in this genre.
 He then describes the despicable, inhumane conditions in the holds of the slave ships with a "you-are-there" writing style. Again, confirmed by other sources, these are some of the most often quoted accounts in historical texts. In this same chronological phase, Vassa also depicts the shared empathy among the enslave Africans, helping us to see how they collaborated to survive.
 His ongoing narrative offers one of the more balanced looks at slavery. Vassa clearly tells the horrors of this evil system and the people responsible for it. At the same time, he often shares accounts of Europeans and White Americans who befriended him. In fact, his positive statements about non-Africans lend further credence to his critique of the many evils of slavery.
 His narrative also contains unique elements in his descriptions of his path toward freedom and his life as a freeman. We learn that in his era, for a man of his race, it was barely more tolerable to be free, given the hatred that he still endured.
 Though some reviewers tend to minimize or criticize it, his conversion narrative is classic. In fact, it may well have been the standard from which later testimonies were crafted about how "God struck me dead." Perhaps the evangelical nature of his conversion turns off some. However, if we are to engage Vassa in his other accounts, we must engage him here. Further, coming as it did later in his life, it is easy to see how his account of his entire life is entirely shaped by his conversion experience. Clearly, Vassa sees even the evils that he has suffered as part of a larger plan. In doing so he never suggests that God condones the evils of slavery. Rather, he indicates that God created beauty from ashes.
Opening Line: “I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity; no is this the only disadvantage under which they labour; it is also their misfortune, that whatever is uncommon is rarely, if ever, believed; and what is obvious we are apt to turn from with disgust, and to charge the writer with impertinence. “
Closing Line: “to those who are possessed of this spirit, there is scarcely any book or incident so trifling that does not afford some profit, while to others the experience of ages seems of no use; and even to pour out to them the treasures of wisdom is throwing the jewels of instruction away.”
Quotes: "The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. 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."
Rating: Excellent

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