I would like to start by saying that The book titled “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vasaa, the African” written by Olaudah Equiano is a narrative of his 10 years of life. One learns that the author was born in 1745 in Eboe area in Guinea. The primary spoken language was Ibo as it is at present. Equiano was a son of a chief of his tribe and as one reads in the book he and his sister were kidnapped while playing and sold to the slave owners and put on a slave ship destined to North America. Equiano would be sold to Michael Pascal the royal navy officer who named the boy Gustavus Vassa (Equiano, 20). The name was rather funny, since the slave boy was named after Gustavus Vassa, the XVI century Swedish nobleman and a leader who would organize people around him and lead a revolt against the Danes to make Sweden independent from Denmark and to become the first Swedish king.
The Swedish people would be removed from slavery by Gustavus Vassa. The owner of Equiano, would call his slave or property as he wanted, so to show his full control over his property. In the following essay I will speak about the life of Equiano, the great changes he experienced in his economic conditions and social status. I will comment on some of the causes and circumstances that allowed him even as a slave to start rising in the world, accumulate money and obtain freedom. I will comment on where he was lucky and to what extent he earned his good fortune.
As a slave on the navy ship, Equiano certainly was given unprecedented opportunities to grow and develop in a way that plantation slaves could not even think of. Together with his master he would travel to England as well as many other parts of Europe and the world (Equiano, 40). He was fortunate enough to learn how to read and write since he was sent to school in London by his master. He attended school in the late 1750s during the time Britain fought war with France for the territories in North America. The war ended with Great Britain’s victory over France and control over vast territories in Canada and the Caribbean. Since his master was a navy captain, Equiano would oftentimes have his school interrupted by the voyages around British territories. So instead of being a slave, Equiano was a personal assistant of Pascal. During various naval battles, Equiano would serve as a gunpowder carrier, or the powder monkey. His primary duty would be to bring powder from the powder chambers to the cannon decks. The job was rather tiresome yet Equiano had not much choice.
During his trips to Canada and the Mediterranean, Equiano would witness the scenes of war as fought by different nations and races. Equiano was baptized and basically worked for the British, so at some point of time he felt that he deserves not only freedom but also some monetary compensation for his activities. When he started to demand that from Pascal he would be cheated and sold to another sea-captain who would take Equiano to the isle of Monserrat in the Caribbean for a resale to a Quaker named Robert King (Equiano, 121). Initially Equiano was afraid that he would be sent to the sugarcane plantations, yet since he was a well-educated man, he was too valuable for his master to send him to the plantations. King would train Equiano as a gauger (similar to quality control manager nowadays), a person to keep track of weights and measures, something that required skill and responsibility. During the time spent with Robert King, Equiano witnessed murder and tortures of other black slaves and that experienced made him understand well his need of freedom and independence. Equiano would then engage in somewhat unethical behavior in his work stealing and saving money to buy his freedom (Equiano, 147). After 3 years he would accumulate enough funds to buy his freedom and move back to England.
Upon his return to England, Equiano would be paid some cash by the navy for which he served while being a slave of Pascal. Equiano would work as a hairdresser and ultimately ended up going to ships as a hairdresser to receive higher salaries. He would visit the Mediterranean and the Caribbean as a free person rather than as a slave. In 1773 Equiano joined the naval exploration team and went on numerous cruises to discover new lands for the Great Britain. His most note-worthy trip was under the leadership of John Phipps and the main idea of the trip was to discover a short passage to India across the north pole. The new passage would save British colonists time necessary to reach India. A shorter passage would allow Great Britain to have a tighter control over its overseas territories. Equiano sailed on the ship called Racehorse. Another ship was called Carcas (Equiano, 180). One should note that on his ship there served Horatio Nelson, who would later become one of the greatest British heroes in the battles of the Nile and the battle of Trafalgar. Nelson was almost killed by a polar bear yet actually he would survive and pursue his point further. As for the mission, it was found successful due to the fact that it proved that there cannot be a passage to India through the north pole.
Upon his return to England, Equiano would get involved in political and legal fight with the authorities to outlaw slavery. Equiano would become friends with Granville Sharp, one of the most prominent British abolitionists. Ever since he would do everything possible to legally prohibit it in Great Britain. The important thing that took place in Equiano’s life was his desire to learn more about Christianity in which he was converted as a child. He would extensively study the scriptures and at some point of time he claimed to have seen the light which made him born again.
In 1775, Equiano would went on another trip to modern day Nicaragua to set up a new British colony. He was sent there on a Christian mission to spread the holy word and educate the local tribes. Equiano together with his friends would purchase slaves to have some necessary work done, yet as he claimed he would do everything possible to make their lives comfortable. This was due to the fact that at that time there we not anti-slavery movements and hardly anyone believed that slavery should be abolished immediately (Equiano, 194). Still many people came to a realization that even though some people are slaves they still should be treated humanely and with respect. These people would not use punishment on slaves and allow them good access to water and food let alone some basic education.
Equiano would leave the colony after he had been cheated again and barely escaped re-enslavement. When we fled the territory he decided to go back to London and continue his work there until ultimately decided to join the new Sierra Leone settlement project. This projects took place at the time when the early abolitionist movement started in England. This abolitionist movement started in 1786 with the idea of British biologist Henry Smeathman, who after noticing some black beggars on the streets, introduced his theory. Some of the blacks who were brought to England as slaves against their will and were given freedom were unable to adjust to the modern British society and thus went on the streets to beg for money and possibly engage in criminal activity. The most fair thing the British government should do is to return these people back to Africa. One would not ask the opinion of these blacks yet at that time such act would be considered more than fair since the British government would set up a special colony for the blacks based on equality and fairness let alone the absence of slavery. Equiano also found the project to be rather fair and signed up to work as a commissioner of provisions and stores. His job would be to purchase enough food and water for the ships and the colonies, something that made him the first civil servant in Great Britain. As it is typical for the government officials at that time, much of the government money would be stolen by the government officials and when Equiano pointed that fact out, he was removed from his position. Ultimately only 20% of the new black colonists survived the first 4 years in the colony.
In conclusion I would like to note that reading the book “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vasaa, the African” was a rather instructive and pleasant experience for me. I learnt about the difficult life of Equiano and his way from slaves to public servants or rags to riches. As one can see his life was determined by both luck and personal determination. He was lucky to get to live with Pascal rather than to work on plantations. Also once he was resold he was also lucky not to get to work on plantations yet rather become a gauger. The rest of his successes was determined by his personal ability to pursue his rights and cheat on the job to accumulate enough money to buy back his freedom. Once he was free, it took Equiano more determination to work on different jobs, pursue different goals and attempt to help other blacks to become free and liberated. His ability to meet the right people at the right time is somewhat determined by luck, yet one can certainly say that since he strived to fight for equal rights it was his personal initiative and choice to meet the first abolitionists, team up with them and make the lives of blacks better.
Equiano, Olaudah “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vasaa, the African”, Prentice Hall, 2004 (reprint).
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