Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Narrative

February 12, 2014

9780142437162When I think about racism, I find myself mostly wondering about its origins: somewhere it seems to be rooted in a deep-seated fear of what is different, and the potential threat that might present; understandable, perhaps, in a less secure past, but less so nowadays. And yet who cannot, at some time, have felt anxious, uncertain, when faced with something, someone different, who we cannot immediately understand, and fit into the ways we make sense of the world?

Olaudah Equiano was an African, free man, captured and sold into slavery in the late eighteenth century, and he tells his story in this book. His account of his childhood and younger days in an African village, of their customs and habits, is fascinating, and full of a sense of innocence, naivete even: their lives are simple and in tune with nature; they do not want for anything.

After his enslavement, his is an adventurous life at sea. His condition is not as straightened and cruel as we are used to read about in accounts of slavery, but he is nevertheless clearly owned, and controlled by a master, and subject to his every whim; masters change as he is bought and sold, and their consideration and cruelty vary. Equiano paints a clear picture of the actual experience of slavery, the conditions, the treatment, the circumscribed relations with other people, and their attitudes to people of another race who they believe to be less than human. Slaves enjoy a limbo status and are fair game for exploitation, cheating and general underhand behaviour.

Equiano succeeds, through his skills as a seaman and the trust he inspires in his owners, in eventually saving the money to purchase his freedom, though this is not the end of his travails: as a free black man, he is still unequal in the eyes of the law and fair game for cheating whites who know what they can get away with. His story unfolds against the growing agitation in Britain for an end to the slave trade, and when he acquires his freedom, he devotes his energies to this cause, although he dies before it is achieved.

The least satisfactory aspect to his making his way in the world of the white man is his acquisition of religion: his discovery of the doctrines of predestination and the fears this caused him, saddened me. And overall, throughout the book, is his sense of inferiority, and his need to be grateful to white men for whatever he has managed to achieve; truly here is a picture of the most evil aspects of racism.

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