Friday, October 9, 2020

The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings by Olaudah Equiano

 

The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings
Olaudah Equiano
Published 1789
Memoirs

This is the true story of Olaudah Equiano. He was born in 1745, in a part of Nigeria, kidnapped, and sold into the West Indie slave trade. 

Slavery was commonplace in Equiano's homeland and during his upbringing, especially as punishment for crime. Equiano described how "red men" brought them firearms and gunpowder and often brought slaves through the land. Sometimes Equiano's people sold slaves (either POWs or criminals) to the red men. 

When Equiano was eleven, he and his sister were taken from their family and sold and resold until they reached the coast and were put on a slave ship, in which he "fainted away." He was terrified that white men would eat him. Other blacks tried to reassure him to no avail. The whites were brutal, not only to the blacks, but even to each other. He described the whole scene below deck as horrid, and it was.

He ended his first chapter with a message to Christians, similar to what Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, declared to the Christian Church:
O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God? who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you? 
Equiano was brought to Barbados and then Virginia, where he was purchased by a planter and later by an officer of the British Navy who took him to London. Equiano, now 12-years old, made friends wherever he went. His first companion told him about God. In London, he lived with a kind family that had servants who waited on him. His master, who always treated him well, often gave him the option to work with him or stay in London; Equiano preferred to go with his Master, never parting from him.

It wasn't long before Equiano felt at ease about his situation because he began to understand more; his fear subsided. After four years at sea and in England, he felt very comfortable around the English and understood the language. He considered the English superior even to his people and desired to resemble them in spirit and manners. 

A lady friend of his master's sent him to school and told him he needed to be baptized in order to go to heaven (which is absolutely false). He was baptized in 1759, but will understand later why this did nothing for him.

With his master, they sailed on the Mediterranean and even fought the French in a sea skirmish. It was rough. They sank a French frigate, but some of the English were killed. When his master was promoted to captain, he was promoted to captain's steward. But he really struggled with being good. He recognized God's hand in his protection and he thought he came to fear God alone. 
I thought I could very plainly trace the hand of God, without whose permission a sparrow cannot fall. I began to raise my fear from man to Him alone, and to call daily on His holy name with fear and reverence; and I trust he heard my supplications, and graciously condescended to answer me according to His holy word, and to implant the seeds of piety in me, even one of the meanest of His creatures. 
When he returned to London, he started to think of freedom, education, and working for himself. He learned to read the Bible and to write. People he met gave him hope that he could achieve these things. Olaudah knew his master had no right to him. Then his master unexpectedly tried to sell him, which caused him devastation and sorrow. He believed he had angered the Lord; therefore, he repented of past sin and asked for God's mercy. He later learned it was his master's new girlfriend who instigated his release to a new master. 



It was 1763, and Equiano was sold to good man, Mr. King, who was kind to his slaves. But his new environment exposed him to the cruelty of the slave trade, where he witnessed new shipments of slaves, the mistreatment of female slaves, the neglect and inhumane treatment and conditions, and the breakup of families. 
But is not the slave trade entirely at war with the heart of man?  

The slave trade had hardened man's heart. Harriet Beecher Stowe also said this in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Mr. King permitted Equiano to sell goods and turn a profit for himself, and he learned to be a shrewd businessman. Yet he still desired his freedom and hoped one day to purchase it with the money he saved from his business. He said "...life had lost its relish when liberty was gone." 

He witnessed free black men stolen away into slavery in Bermuda and Jamaica, and realized that a black man does not have recourse even if he is legally free. This was a fear that stayed with him. The West Indian laws were harsh and made a mockery of liberty, which is where he spent much of his time with Mr. King. Ultimately his desire was to return to England where he would never need to worry about being stolen back into slavery once he was free.

In 1766, Equiano had sailed to Philadelphia, and while there, sold his goods to the Quakers, whom he liked very much. Out of curiosity, he visited their crowded meetinghouse on day when the Rev. George Whitfield was preaching. 

Finally, after saving $47, he convinced Mr. King to give him his freedom, which was granted at half the price. He did hope to go immediately to England, but agreed to do a few more voyages for Mr. King. One trip turned out to be a nightmare when his ship almost sank and Equiano needed to save the slaves below deck, which he did alone. After the ship was repaired, they sailed on to Georgia. 

A few other unbelievable incidents happened to him, which threatened his freedom, but good fortune always saved him; even Mr. King tried to keep him from returning to England by tempting him with land and his own slaves; but Equiano did not want those things. 

In 1768, after returning to England, Equiano went to sea frequently, and visited Italy and Turkey. He said he witnessed the Turks mistreat the Greeks just as the whites did the blacks in the Indies. He stopped in Portugal, in 1769, and learned that a Bible was an illegal item and would cost you ten years in slavery. He returned to the Mediterranean and saw galley ships with slaves in poor condition. He witnessed Mt. Vesuvius erupt and was in Smyrna during a great plague. 


Then, I cannot believe he did this, but he returned to Jamaica and Barbados, in 1771, and he said he saw blacks flogging and torturing other black slaves. And the craziest thing of all: he went on a voyage to explore the North East passage to India. The farthest they sailed was Greenland, where they almost died after becoming immoveable in ice. 

After all these dangers, Equiano reflected on God's mercy and tried to work out his own salvation. He wanted to be a first rate Christian, and he sought a relationship with Christ. All of these other religions - Quakers, Catholics, and Jews - he observed, were keeping the Ten Commandments. I suppose he recognized that he really couldn't do it. He was becoming very concerned about his soul. 

He prayed that God would show him better friends because the ones he was keeping company were wicked. He then met an old friend who invited him to church, and it was there that he finally heard the true gospel of new birth, Christ's blood, and faith alone. He struggled to understand how the Ten Commandments did not save us and how to know we were saved and forgiven. 
I thought I kept eight commandments out of ten; then my worthy interpreter told me I did not do it, nor could I; and he added that no man ever did or could keep the commandments, without offending in one point. 

The following page is my favorite. It reminds me of the reckoning Crusoe had in Robinson Crusoe when he came to understand grace and faith. 


 For example, Equiano said,

Now every leading providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then, in my view, as if it had but just then occurred. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me, when in truth I knew not: still the Lord pursued me although I slighted and disregarded it; this mercy melted me down. 

I notice that no matter what I read or when it was written, that testimony of a person who comes to individual faith through grace has always been and always will be the same truth. It never changes. All of the stories are the same. 

Equiano continued his sea voyages and travels, as he liked to see the world, and on his way to Spain, his ship was involved in an accident. He thought he'd die, but he was quite ready to stand before God. All were amazed at his calm, and it was an opportunity for him to share the peace he had with God. 

In 1775, on a return voyage to Jamaica, he hoped to be used as God's instrument, but instead he found the people did not fear God, and the experience irked him. In 1784, he sailed to New York and Philadelphia, where he visited the Quakers again, whom he said were constantly working to free the slaves. 

The last quest written in Equiano's Narrative was his voyage to Sierra Leone and his communication with the Queen about the state of Africans and Britain's part in ending the slave trade. 

Equiano died 1797, ten years before Britain abolished the African slave trade, and thirty more years before slavery was finally abolished in all of the British colonies. Not that he was aggressively pursuing an end to the slave trade or slavery, in general, as slavery was commonplace, as I have already said; it was that he was aware that it was very wrong, and perhaps it was his desire to persuade others to see what he saw  when he so eloquently wrote The Interesting Narrative.

Words that are useful even today: 
If, when [anyone] look[s] round the world, they feel exultation, let it be tempered with benevolence to others, and gratitude to God, "who hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth; and whose wisdom is not our wisdom, neither are our ways his ways."
Cocoa Plantation in the West Indies
Cocoa Plantation in the West Indies

4 comments:

  1. This sounds really fascinating, Ruth. I love especially that it's set before the 19th century, which isn't a period you often read about in the story of American slavery. It's also super interesting he can tell the whole tale -- from Africa to the slave ship to slavery, as a real man who actually saw it. Like the first story in Roots, only in a first person perspective. I like that it's set in England rather than America for a while -- merely to see a different perspective.

    It's surprising he ended up considering the culture in England superior to his own. Again, that's not a perspective you generally hear in slave history. Also interesting that he was encouraged to learn to read. In America, I believe the law against blacks in the South reading came along after Nat Turner's rebellion. Before that it wasn't unheard of for a slave to be openly reading. (I'm not positive this is true, but I recall reading it & am pulling it from that faint memory.)

    * He said he witnessed the Turks mistreat the Greeks just as the whites did the blacks in the Indies.* Oh, that is interesting! I just read that Lord Byron died fighting for Greek equality against the Ottoman Empire, which I believe was in part present-day Turkey.

    I love the idea that God's mercy "melted him down."

    He sounds like he had a super adventurous life!

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    1. Yes, I agree! I liked how it was a completely new viewpoint, in time and place. It reminded me a lot of the story from Roots, too. Makes me also think about another voice, albeit from Revolutionary America, Phillis Wheatley. It is helpful to have a variety of views about slavery to understand the why and what.

      Equiano described his African culture as joyful, but when he met the English, he found them to be very proper in speech and dress, and he was impressed that they did not sell each other, whereas the Africans did not have a problem selling each other into slavery. At the same time, as far as the sailors were concerned, he described them as harsh and cruel, even to one another. And the culture of the West Indies was horrid, the worst of the worst. It even brought out the worst in the African slaves toward one another. Slavery does that to people.

      Overall, Equiano reminded me a lot of Joseph, the Hebrew slave turned Egyptian governor. Everywhere Equiano went, he was met with blessings. People befriended him and were drawn to aid him in his endeavors. They encouraged him in his business, education, and quest for liberty. Maybe in England it was not as threatening for slaves or servants to educate themselves. I do believe the English were morally ahead of the Americans, obviously, in the corruption of slavery.

      And, yes, Equiano had an amazingly adventurous life!

      (I hope I make sense. So you know...most of the time I am answering comments or commenting on other blogs, there is much background noise and multiple interruptions from children, towards me or one another, and my brain can never be sure of what it is composing.) Ugh.

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    2. Haha -- no worries on the kids. I understand completely! However, so you know it isn't obvious: you always sound perfectly calm & sensible in your remarks. :-)

      I like what you say about slavery bringing out the worst in people. As in, anywhere. The idea that Equiano was impressed that the English "did not sell each other" is so sad. What a world!

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