Category Archives: Equiano, Olaudah

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano : Different but the Same

what advantages do not a refined people possess over those who are rude and uncultivated?” (45)

The first image we get of Olaudah Equiano is of his actual portrait on the cover and title page. Here he looks perfectly refined in the western sense with his lace scarf, expensive red jacket and the Bible open to the Book of Acts. He embodies, literally, the idea that just because he is black he is nevertheless no less of a dignified human than a white man, “Surely the minds of the Spaniards did not change with their complexions!” (45). Our first impression of him is of an assimilated black man into western civilization, and so we must put our ear to his book “in hopes it would answer [us],” (68) so that we might learn who this black man wearing the clothes of a white man is.

In the first chapter of his narrative we learn exactly just how civilized, arguably more civilized, this black man is to that of the white men who enslave him. When compared to Defoe’s plague infested Londoners, Equiano’s people seem more advanced as well. “Sometimes we are visited by locusts,” (38) and when a famine follows his people respond as a social collective (38) unlike the wealthy of London who run off into hiding at the first sign of inconvenience from the Plague. In fact by the nature of his people’s cleanliness, “Those that touched the dead at any time were obliged to wash and purify themselves,” (42) and their architecture which was designed to “keep off the different insects,” (36), they are better protected from disease than the “more advanced” people who enslave them. Practical experience does more for a “simple” people living in the African interior than all the libraries of knowledge in England.

Equiano goes into great detail as to the advanced level of civilization his native people possess. They engage in trade with the Oye-Eboe who bring them “arms, gun-powder, hats, beads, and dried fish” (37). They are familiar with science, “We compute the year from the day which the sun crosses the line,” (40-41). His people comport themselves respectfully, “we were totally unaccustomed with swearing,” (41). They are knowledgeable of medicine in that they “practiced bleeding by cupping, and were very successful in healing wounds and expelling poisons,” (42). In other words they are self sufficient and capable of managing plague, famine, and war, quite unlike Defoe’s terrified and helpless Londoners.

A key to their success is in their community and the norm of helping their neighbors, “The whole neighborhood afford their unanimous assistance in building [houses], and, in return, receive and expect no other recompense than a feast,” (36). This is a far cry from the white men who, as we learn later in the narrative take advantage of Equiano and outright steal from him for their own gain, or like in Defoe who just lock up their neighbors to save themselves when the plague breaks out.

Equiano is so cultured and civilized that upon first meeting these white men he asks “if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair?” (55). There is great irony in a slave questioning the very humanity of a race of people who sees him as merely a piece of ignorant property.

From this point on he must, in effect, build a bridge between his own civilization and identity to that of his captors. He must prove his worth by becoming more like his captors in appearance so that they might pause long enough to hear his story. Of course he has the ability to tell his story because he possesses the financial means to do so. Like Defoe’s wealthy Londoners who are able to save themselves and pass on their genes, Equiano is also able to protect his identity and pass it on to later generations, quite unlike the millions of less fortunate Africans whose stories were never told. And perhaps in this one aspect Western civilization has the advantage over “those who are rude and uncultivated,” (45) in its ability to pass down not just the practical technical knowledge of staying alive, but because they have the ability “to keep their great men when they died,” (63).