Essay on The Life of Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano (also known as Gustavus Vassa) suffered the horrors of slavery as an African slave. Olaudah in the author's native language means "fortunate" or "one favored, and having a loud voice and well spoken" (Equiano 18). The life of Olaudah Equiano offers an interesting and in-depth account of slave trade and how it operated. The author offers his personal account during his days in slavery which are instances of oppression, cruelty, and extortion that he saw practiced upon the slaves in West-Indies during his captivity.
Equiano describes slavery in his native village. The chiefs have their slaves that are prisoners of war or offenders that have committed crimes. He also speaks of European traders that lure the chiefs with wares to obtain slaves (Equiano 15-16). "When a trader wants slave, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary if on this occasion he yields to the temptation with as little firmness, and accepts the price of fellow-creature's liberty with as little reluctance as the enlightened merchant (Equiano 16). So the chief initiates a battle against his neighbor to procure slaves and sell the at a profit but if he loses the battle, the price is his death. However, the native slavery that Equiano speaks of is benevolent compared to those of Europeans. Slaves were treated well and at the most tied only when they attempted to escape (27). The slavery that was prevalent in the west, according to Equiano was horrendous, as he says, "Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with the meanest slave in my own country" (31), and further, "I now wished my last friend, death to relieve me..." (32).
This autobiographical work offers us a great insight into African slavery, slave trade, oppressions and cruelties that slaves were subjected to while being shipped across to the west and at the hands of their masters through his personal accounts. The life of Olaudah Equiano was however unique and extraordinary in that he experienced both cruelties and oppressions as a slave as well as great personal success as a freeman. He was able to achieve his personal freedom after he came in contact with Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia. During the seven years war he was a personal servant to Admiral Pascal. This association was a turning point in his life even as it did not bring about his freedom as promised but he learned to read and write under Ms Guerin, Pascal's sister. He converted to Christianity. He was involved in abolitionist movement and became well known as a powerful speaker against slavery. Eventually, he came into contact with influential people that supported him financially.
It is through his description that we learn early slave trade primarily operated for profit. The slaves were put to varied tasks under oppressive conditions and sold from one master to the other. But his campaign against slavery was largely instrumental in creating a favorable climate for the abolition of slave trade under the Slave Trade Act of 1807. In May 1787, the London Abolition Committee was formed to agitate against the slave trade. They denounced the trade as 'impolitick and unjust'. The aimed to end the Atlantic slave trade, not to emancipate slaves in the West Indies, however, many members wanted to privately see full slave emancipation. Granville Sharp chaired the committee. "In their first correspondence, the largest group of potential sympathizers across the country was Quakers (Walvin 155).
The Atlantic slave trade was a highly profitable enterprise for the Europeans. The enslaved Negroes of West and Central Africa were taken to work unpaid in plantations, mines as well as to perform various other kinds of labor. The Europeans profited from the supply of slaves that captured or kidnapped.
Equiano opposed slave trade primarily on religious grounds. He believed in the freedom of trade, conscience, and wage contracts. According to him slave trade was contrary both to the word of God and to individual human dignity. Man has God given right in his opinion to dispose of his labor to his best advantage. The abolitionists received much support in their efforts from Baptists and Quakers. Equiano further argues that slave trade does not make an economic sense. He urged in favor of a commercial enterprise with Africa that would be highly beneficial to the manufacturing interests of Great Britain. The abolition of slavery could give rapid extension of manufactures. Africa, according to him was a virgin territory full of natural wealth and manpower that Britain could profitably exploit. "In a word, it lays open an endless field of commerce to the British manufacturers and merchant adventurers. The manufacturing interest and the general interest are synonymous. The abolition of slavery would be in reality an universal good" (Equiano 2003).
Conclusion: Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped along with his sister when he was barely a child of eleven. For the initial few months, he remained a slave to several native African masters but later he was shipped off to distant lands as a slave to European masters. The nature of slavery among the Africans and Europeans is a contrast in horror and brutality. The African slaves aboard European vessels were treated mercilessly and many of them died of horror, brutality and disease. Equiano's was lucky to have finally won his freedom and made a fortune. He voiced his opinion against slavery and was quite active in the contemporary abolitionist movement in England.
Equiano, Olaudah.The life of Olaudah Equiano, New York : Cosimo Classics, 2007.
Equiano, Olaudah. Chapter 12 "The Case Against the Slave Trade" Interesting Narrative. 27 Jan. 2003. Accessed 5 October 2009 from http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/extract5.htm
Walvin, James. An African's life : the life and times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745 - 1797 New York : Continuum, 2000.