Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Term Paper

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¶ … Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

(a) What would this book have told a late 18th century in London or Philadelphia about the institution of slavery and the slave trade?

More than anything else, the book would have forced those far removed from the procurement of their slaves on a distant continent to face the ugly realities that paid for their source of labor. In the most developed and so-called civilized nations of the Western part of the world, treatment of slaves, while still atrocious by any moral standard, would likely have been much better, on the whole, than on the African continent.

In retrospect, it is nothing less than astonishing that post-Enlightenment/post-

Industrial Revolution men of education and societal distinction would ever have tolerated, much less partaken in the enslavement and life-long exploitation of fellow human beings. The justification most often suggested is that it is difficult, if not entirely unfair altogether, to judge social conventions of earlier times by modern ethical and humanitarian standards.

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While not a justification for embracing the institution of slavery, the fact that many slave owners in 18th century Europe and the Americas probably treated their slaves more humanely than the horrible images of what captive Africans experienced in their initial enslavement and transport by sea presented by Equiano. Combined with the fact that Western slave owners likely allayed any guilt on their conscience about the principle of human slavery, their ignorance (or naivety) as to the brutality inflicted on slaves in earlier parts of their ordeal probably helped many otherwise morally decent people from acknowledging the horrors of all human slavery as an institution.

My master often gave the owners of these slaves two and a half of these pieces per day, and found the poor fellows in victuals himself, because he thought their owners did not feed them well enough according to the work they did. The slaves used to like this very well; and, as they knew my master to be man of feeling, they were always glad to work for him in preference to any other gentleman..."

TOPIC: Term Paper on Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Assignment

Vol.1 p.198)

We know, both intuitively as well as from Equiano's descriptions, those in the Western part of the world without moral conscience shamelessly matched the brutality of anything experienced by slaves earlier in their enslavement. However, the most brutal and uncaring in society would not have been the useful audience for imagery of brutality designed to evoke sympathy or a change in societal attitude.

However, those of kinder sentiments, in general, (as described above), might very well have championed the cause against slavery had they been confronted by the realities from which they were insulated by virtue of their distance from the African continent..

A b)

Which aspects of his account did you find most surprising and why?

Through other contemporary accounts of slavery, I already understood the institution of American slavery to be a horrible atrocity perpetrated on Africans.

However, Equiano's multiple descriptions of multiple instances of completely gratuitous brutality was depressing; the fact that it was perpetrated in such normal course of routine was surprising:

Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites. One day they had taken a number of fishes; and when they had killed and satisfied themselves with as many as they thought fit, to our astonishment who were on the deck, rather than give any of them to us to eat as we expected, they tossed the remaining fish into the sea again, although we begged and prayed for some as well as we could, but in vain; and some of my countrymen, being pressed by hunger, took an opportunity, when they thought no one saw them, of trying to get a little privately; but they were discovered, and the attempt procured them some very severe floggings." (Vol. 1 p. 81)

In this particular instance, not only was the cruelty unrelated to any possible benefit to the ship's crew, but it was actually against their own interests: healthy, well-nourished slave commanded a higher price at market. As reprehensible as it would have been had it been inflicted out of mere laziness or "ordinary" lack of concern, once they had already expended the effort of catching more fish than they could eat, depriving them of their oversupply undermined their own bottom dollar by weakening a commodity whose primary criteria for yielding a profit was physical health and strength.

A also found it surprising that Equiano - who witnessed first-hand the purposeful gratuitous cruelty perpetrated by people whose religion preached its antithesis - would develop a warm heart for Christianity. Several different times,

Equiano makes reference to the hypocrisy himself:

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?" (Vol.1 p.81)

When we have had some of these slaves on board my master's vessels to carry them to other islands, or to America, I have known our mates to commit these acts most shamefully, to the disgrace, not of Christians only, but of men." (Vol.1 p.206)

This Christian master immediately pinned the wretch down to the ground at each wrist and ancle, and then took some sticks of sealing wax, and lighted them, and droped it all over his back." (Vol.1 p.212)

Likewise, I was surprised that the same writer who interpreted a narrow escape from two near accidents as a sign of God's protection would fail to recognize the contradiction between isolated expressions of His concern and the widespread horrors inflicted upon and experienced by the African people every moment of every day.

A woman, with a child at her breast, fell from the upper-deck down into the hold, near the keel.... To our great surprise, neither of them was hurt. I myself one day fell headlong from the upper-deck of the Etna... But I received not the least injury. (Vol.1 p.160) thought I could 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" (Vol.1 p.160) was surprised that Equiano failed to consider that falling sparrows and his own enslavement alike would have been sanctioned by the same God. Finally, in this regard, instead of focusing on the obvious questions about permitting atrocities to continue for so long, Equiano thanks God for his compassion:

the sense of God's mercies was so great on my mind when I awoke, that my strength entirely failed me for many minutes... The Lord, who is long suffering and full of compassion to such poor rebels as we are, condescended to hear and answer." (Vol 2 p.127)


How effective do you think that Equiano's narrative was as a from of propaganda meant to develop opposition to slavery?

On one hand, Equiano's narrative was likely an effective appeal to anybody in society already inclined toward moral concern in general. Many such people accepted slavery unquestioningly in principle, simply as a "normative reality" of the society in which they happened to live. Exposure to the horrors of the totality of the experience of being enslaved instead of just to the everyday realities of more humane slavery practices known to common Londoners and Philadelphians may very well have inspired greater empathy and resolve to see it eliminated in this part of the world.

Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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