The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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The Interesting Narrative, published in 1789 to considerable acclaim, has been compared to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and reviewed by Mary Wollstonecraft. Equiano's life and work took shape in an era of revolution—against slavery, against injustice, against tyranny. Moreover, Equiano's Narrative was deeply informed by the forces that have given the modern nation-state its present recognizable characteristics. Equiano effectively challenges concepts of Englishness as an absolute ethnic category. His narrative ...
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The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

The Interesting Narrative, published in 1789 to considerable acclaim, has been compared to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and reviewed by Mary Wollstonecraft. Equiano's life and work took shape in an era of revolution—against slavery, against injustice, against tyranny. Moreover, Equiano's Narrative was deeply informed by the forces that have given the modern nation-state its present recognizable characteristics. Equiano effectively challenges concepts of Englishness as an absolute ethnic category. His narrative stands as one of the earliest written works of literature by an African of the diaspora, and is certainly one of the earliest works in Western history to combine the genres of spiritual autobiography, social protest, abolitionist tract, and travelogue in such a way as to mark him a significant commentator upon and a vocal critic of the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was born in what is today known as Essaka, Nigeria, to a well-respected Igbo family. Much of our knowledge of him emerges from his own pen. He tells of being captured from his home at about age ten. He was sold numerous times before an English naval officer serving as captain of a West Indian merchant vessel purchased him.Captain Michael Pascal renamed him Gustavus Vassa, after a sixteenth-century Swedish monarch. With Pascal, Equiano served as gunmate and powder boy in the Royal Navy, fighting in several key battles during the Seven Years War. His free time was spent immersed in books, most often the Bible.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780760773505
  • Publisher: Sterling
  • Publication date: 12/22/2005
  • Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Introduction


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself was published in 1789 to considerable acclaim. Abbé Grégoire compared it to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and Mary Wollstonecraft reviewed it in the May 1789 issue of The Analytic Review. Like Wollstonecraft, Equiano's life and work took shape in an era of revolution-against slavery, against injustice, against tyranny. Moreover, Equiano's Narrative was deeply informed by the forces that have given the modern nation-state its present recognizable characteristics. He contended with the notions of race and ethnicity that still serve, in large measure, to define one's sense of national belonging. Indeed, the idea of Englishness, of belonging to and gaining acceptance within the English nation, not to speak of the British empire, emerges as a crucial point in Equiano's Narrative: In submitting his text to the canon of English literature, Equiano effectively challenges concepts of Englishness as an absolute ethnic category. His narrative stands as one of the earliest written works of literature by an African of the diaspora, and is certainly one of the earliest works in Western history to combine the genres of spiritual autobiography, social protest, abolitionist tract, and travelogue in such a way as to mark him a significant commentator upon and a vocal critic of the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was born in what is today known as Essaka, Nigeria, to a well-respected Igbo family. His given name is said to have been Olaude Ekwealuo. The name he gave himself was Olaudah Equiano. Much of our knowledge of him emerges from his own pen. He tells of being captured from his home at about age ten along with his sister. The two were quickly separated by slavers. Equiano was sold numerous times before an English naval officer serving as captain of a West Indian merchant vessel purchased him. Officer Michael Pascal renamed him Gustavus Vassa, after a sixteenth-century Swedish monarch. With Pascal, Equiano served as gunmate and powder boy in the Royal Navy, fighting in several key battles during the Seven Years War. His free time was spent immersed in books, most often the Bible. He was baptized at St. Margaret's Church in London in 1759 at about age fourteen.

Freedom, however, would not attend his conversion, and he was once again sold to Captain James Doran in 1762. Doran carried Equiano to the West Indies, and in 1766, Equiano finally purchased his freedom through the profits he made as a small goods trader. He had fallen under the ownership of an American Quaker named Robert King, who treated him amiably and in whose employ Equiano for a time remained. As a free man, he settled briefly in London, working first as a hairdresser to the surgeon Dr. Charles Irving, said to be the inventor of water desalination, and later as personal servant to a number of ship captains. In 1775, he accompanied Irving to the Mosquito Coast of Central America, where he managed a plantation until the following year, acting both as overseer and buyer of black slaves. He returned to London in 1777, when he took a deeper interest in humanitarian efforts. He soon made application to the Bishop of London to serve as a missionary to Africa. His request was denied. However, he later made the acquaintance of Granville Sharp, the prominent abolitionist, and in 1783 convinced Sharp to petition the courts on behalf of the murdered slaves of the ship Zong, who had been thrown overboard so that the slave owner could collect the insurance money.

Equiano continued to be involved in matters benefiting poor blacks and the enslaved, and was, in 1786, appointed Commissary of Provisions and Stores for the "black poor" (as the many newly freed slaves were called) who were to be relocated to a new "colony" in Sierra Leone. There were many problems hidden in this endeavor, which turned out to be a scheme to rid London of its unemployed freedmen and to turn the colony of Sierra Leone into a vast field of peonage and neo-slavery. Sensing malfeasance, Equiano complained of mismanagement to the Commissioners of the Navy before his expedition even got under way. He was soon relieved of his post. Olaudah Equiano's two-volume autobiography (published in single volumes after the third edition) underwent nine editions and numerous printings during his lifetime. Several posthumous editions appeared, including translations into Russian, Dutch, and German. The story of his life continues to be told and retold after his death in 1797.

Through his Narrative, Equiano addressed himself to the European reading public as a Christian arguing for the abolition of slavery and the humanity of people of African descent in direct conflict with prevailing Enlightenment-era thought across Europe regarding the utter commonness of the Negro. Although a sense of moral outrage pertaining to slavery permeated the political treatises of eighteenth-century philosophers such as the German thinkers Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottfried von Herder, and most agreed that slavery was a detestable institution, tensions remained palpable in their opinions on the subject. The European philosophes were generally discomfited by slavery and the popular misconception that black people were born with lesser faculties than whites (and thus that they were destined to be enslaved). However, the liberal Englishman John Locke and a number of his intellectual contemporaries held a silent interest in such ventures as the establishment of the slave-holding Carolina colonies in North America and invested heavily in slave-trading monopolies such as the Royal African Company. To these thinkers, Equiano would have represented a conundrum, for he had achieved the status of the uncommon: a well-read traveler, a navigator of the seas, and an observer of a broad range of cultures. He was a man who had endured trials that tested his mettle, not the least of which was his own enslavement and the travail he undertook to secure his freedom. In addition to positioning himself as a proselytizer of the Christian faith, Equiano proved a successful petty venture merchant, having amassed sufficient wealth to bequeath 950 pounds sterling to his daughter upon his death (a small fortune in Equiano's time). In his Narrative, he repeatedly refers to himself as the "uncommon slave," one who, we might say, defies the principles of Enlightenment-era racial and nationalistic philosophy by actively undertaking a critique of "Englishness." By deliberately manipulating and subverting discrete ideas of "Englishness" and "Africanness" into ambiguous terms of self-identification, Equiano styles himself as the prefigurative postmodern man.

The Narrative thus emerges from history as timeless and relevant due in large measure to the various border crossings Equiano himself undertakes. These are physical as well as ideological: His travels take him from the Old World to the New; from Africa to Europe; from bondage to freedom; from property to property holder. His career as a sailor, which he began while yet a slave, takes him on a journey from the west coast of Africa, to the Caribbean, to North America, and back across the ocean to Great Britain, with stops in Central America and the Mediterranean. One might say that his seafaring career facilitates his rise from chattel to master-it is aboard ship that Equiano learns to read and practices the early art of the memoir. Furthermore, the capital he amasses over the course of his journeys enables him, ironically for one who argues vigorously and with conviction the virtues of abolition, to purchase his own freedom, to own the rights to his person as his own human property.

This fact has enormous implications, given the prominence of the discourse on capitalism (exemplified in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations) that closely attended ideas of freedom and theories of race in the eighteenth century. By his own admission, our narrator had ample opportunity, while still enslaved by Robert King, to escape by signing on to other vessels where he was very much in demand as an able seaman, thereby escaping his state of bondage and thumbing his nose, so to speak, at his captors and at slavery as a Western economic and social system. Instead, Equiano deems the project of escaping not too capricious, as one might expect, but immoral. It would have worked against his Christian ethics to run away: It would have been tantamount to stealing himself. Instead, after amassing 40 pounds sterling through his small business ventures, Equiano remits his purchase price to Mr. King and becomes, in Equiano's own words, his "own master." He becomes his own property, his own man.

Equiano effectively enters the realm of proprietorship through the purchase of his freedom. And hence, he more closely approximates Western concepts of selfhood and, by extension, secures a firm standing as a subject of the British Empire. This process had already begun with his profession of faith and his conversion to Christianity. Although the baptism of Africans, a growing expatriate community in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, was not an irregularity, such a sacrament still aroused considerable disapproval among those who supported slavery. It was widely argued that Christianity and slavery should be held mutually exclusive. For a time, Equiano and other Africans who had been baptized felt that under English law, they were freed from bondage by virtue of this religious ritual. Pro-slavery forces, however, actively worked against any such claims, and English courts, unwilling to endanger the stability of the West Indian plantation society upon which the colonial system was founded, were careful not to allow challenges to slavery on English soil to go unchecked. They understood that to condemn slavery in the metropole would clearly spell imminent doom for slavery in the colonies. The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 had already pried open a loophole in aspects of English law that tacitly sanctioned England's "peculiar institution," as slavery was often called. Unbeknownst to many slaves, the Habeas Corpus Act was one measure that could be set in motion to save them should they, like the famous slave James Somerset, be placed on a vessel bound from England for the West Indies against their wishes.

James Somerset was a slave who had been brought to England from the United States. He promptly escaped soon after his arrival, but was recaptured and, in 1771, put on another ship bound for harsher enslavement in the West Indies. The West Indian plantations, as Equiano points out a number of times in his writing, were known for their severe methods of enslaving Africans, and slave owners often remanded their recalcitrant or rebellious captives to the isles as a form of punishment. Equiano's friend, the abolitionist and scholar Granville Sharp, eventually took on Somerset's case. Sharp managed to secure, under the Habeas Corpus Act, a writ that ensured that Somerset was not removed from England, and in 1772 presented Somerset's case before Lord Mansfield, a jurist who was notorious for his somewhat mumbled and ambivalent statements on slavery. The Somerset case was of signal importance, as it indicated a threat to slavery not simply in England, where the case was heard, but also in America, where news of Sharp's victory in trying the case echoed throughout the abolitionist community. Mansfield's judgment has been variously reported, but in ruling that slaves could not be removed from England against their will, he effectively outlawed slavery on English soil. The idea that English soil was too pure to brook the stain of slavery, and that Africans were considered free once they set foot on hallowed English ground, was of acute significance in considering whether or not Africans could ever "belong" to England, whether or not they could lay claim to an English identity.

The question of Equiano's "belonging" to England had as much to do with Christianity and literacy as with slavery and theories of racial inferiority. In addition to professing the Christian faith, which must be viewed as a measure of what it meant to be a Westerner and an Englishman, Equiano also styled himself as a man of letters whose Narrative appeared at a time when the autobiography, as a genre, was gaining in currency. Moreover, thanks to advances in print technology, a whole new class of people gained access to written works. This reading of the written word, described as an exercise in the founding of the nation-state by Benedict Anderson, served to draw people together as members of a national community. Robert J. C. Young rightly notes that English as a field of study "was a self-consciously political activity from the start, deliberately conceived, in the face of the declining influence of the national church, to produce harmony among classes, and a shared sense of national identity." This is to say that at the end of the eighteenth century, when Equiano began amassing notes for his Narrative, the power of the church as a major unifying social tool was in decline. The outbreak of revolution in colonial America and France powered the rise of the nation-state, the founding philosophy of which insisted upon common culture, common heritage, and common history as foundation stones for the national community, even if such commonality demanded, as the French philosopher Ernest Renan later pointed out in 1882, the forgetting of particular and discrete pasts.

As the critic F. R. Leavis notes, it was the great tradition of English literature that served as an intellectual clearinghouse of English common identity in the late eighteenth century. Equiano works steadfastly to place himself squarely within this movement. In the face of international debates over the inferiority of Africans and regarding the fate of slavery, he fashions himself an Englishman. Equiano wrote in English, published in England, and pictured himself on the frontispiece of his Narrative in English attire and holding a Bible opened to the book of Acts (a sign of Equiano's Christianity and an apt indicator of the picaresque adventure he would embark upon with his reader, similar to the widely varied Acts of the Apostles after the death of Christ). Equiano thus gives evidence of his aspiration to Englishness. And somewhat more obliquely, he underscores the capricious nature of national identity. Although an African by birth, that is, in spite of the fact that his skin was of a darker hue than that of the people he wished to call his new countrymen, Equiano certainly did not have many obstacles to claiming at least a British identity.

There is a point here that needs to be made carefully. The sociologist and cultural critic Paul Gilroy has argued that Englishness and Britishness are two separate categories of identity. Britishness is "a category of administrative convenience," he tells us. It is largely dependent upon the history of Great Britain as an imperial power, and evokes reminders of English dominion over Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, not to mention the Americas, India, South Africa, and other parts of the African continent. While English is "often mistakenly substituted for" British, Gilroy writes, the two terms operate differently. "English" is a term of ethnic identity, and the "idea of an authentic cultural content of our national life is therefore constructed through an appeal to Englishness rather than Britishness." In other words, Equiano might well have laid some sort of claim, albeit tenuous, to a British identity, but an English identity would have constituted a great and audacious reach.

In spite of this, the eighteenth century saw a good deal of instability in the collective identity of the English. Having formed a union with Scotland in 1707, wherein forty-five Scottish members of Parliament joined the new House of Commons of Great Britain, England's broader British identity remained ambiguous. Therefore, it is quite problematic to regard either "Britishness" (as a national identity) or "Englishness" (as an ethnic identity) as stable categories in the eighteenth century. Equiano was certainly not precluded from espousing an identity of Englishness simply because of strict lines of ethnicity that he did not fall within. Properly speaking, England (literally, the "land of the Angles") came into being through the invasions of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and the subsequent unification of the various kingdoms of the region in the eleventh century under William the Conqueror. The second Union Act of 1800, enacted three years after Equiano's death, created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which lasted until 1922. Such making and unmaking of national unions indicates to what degree national identity was in flux during the late eighteenth-century era of revolution and Enlightenment. Enlightenment-era statesmen and philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic sought to fix this identity within recognizable boundaries, specifically as regarded African slaves. Thomas Jefferson and David Hume both worked diligently to exclude Africans from the realm of citizenship in their states. Nonetheless, as national identities were largely fluid and not prescribed in any concrete way, it would have been relatively easy for an individual to make a choice as to what identity he or she felt best represented him or her as a citizen and as a subject of a newly coalescing nation-state. As Vincent Carretta argues, a "choice of identities was possible because both British and American identities were recent political constructions invented in the eighteenth century, rather than the traditional ethnic or religious categories which they subsumed. Thus one could be (after the Union of 1707) a Scot-Briton, a Welsh-Briton, and (in the nineteenth century) an Irish-Briton, as well as an English-Briton. Or an Afro-Briton."

Olaudah Equiano produced an archetypal narrative, one that serves as a model for nineteenth-century autobiographers such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. A freedman, a sailor, a social observer, and an homme engagé, he is also thought of as a willful integrationist and an imitator of European culture. His memoir comes to us almost as a cliché in the formation of black Atlantic literature, a force in our thinking about the origins of African diasporic writing. Examinations of his work have formed our reactions to early writings that reflect black culture. It speaks to us from the context of a number of literary and cultural traditions: spiritualism; abolitionism; eighteenth-century black autobiography; and the Enlightenment discourse on race, nation, and identity that was so prevalent in England during these times. Thus, we continue to seek him out, in the ports of the Caribbean, in the plantations of the American South, in the salons of England, because something in the equivocalness of his history, his reality, reveals to us ourselves standing bare in the starkest light, because his pronouncements on the past reverberate into our future.
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