The Life of Olaudah Equiano

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Certificate of Good Behavior Symbol Analysis

Certificate of Good Behavior Symbol Icon

Although Equiano’s narrative is mostly written from his own perspective, he also reproduces citations from other people to justify and cement his own authority. One way Equiano calls on the authority of others is through the transcription of the certificates of good behavior he received from Mr. King and from Dr. Irving. These certificates are highly important in Equiano’s own life, because they are letters of recommendation that allow him to attain good employment elsewhere. As a black man, even eventually a free one, Equiano has seen how little others trust him and how fragile his freedom is. Through testimony from others, he knows he can hope to combat the stereotypes of black people as being deceitful, lazy, or inferior to whites. By transcribing these certificates verbatim in his own narrative, Equiano hopes to convince his readers of his trustworthiness, not just as a sailor, but as a human being recounting the story of his life.

In a world in which the testimony of whites is worth far more than that of blacks, Equiano is strategic in bolstering his own narrative with the words of others whom he knows have a better chance of being taken seriously. These certificates thus represent a confirmation of Equiano’s status as a successful commercial subject, and they also lend him credibility in his argument about the evils of slavery, an argument for which he hopes to marshal all evidence possible in order to drive his case home. At the same time, the fact that Equiano feels the need to include the certificates to bolster his own case signifies just how much society is stacked against black people: despite his accomplishments in overcoming an escaping his enslavement by whites, he still needs the good word of whites to make the world take him seriously.

Certificate of Good Behavior Quotes in The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The The Life of Olaudah Equiano quotes below all refer to the symbol of Certificate of Good Behavior. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of The Life of Olaudah Equiano published in 2000.
Chapter 9 Quotes

Montserrat, 26th of the Seventh Month, 1767.
The bearer hereof, GUSTAVUS VASSA, was my slave for upwards of three years, during which he has always behaved himself well, and discharged his duty with honest and assiduity.
To all whom this may concern.

Related Characters: Mr. Robert King (speaker), Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa)
Related Symbols: Certificate of Good Behavior
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano has been a so-called freeman for some time now, and yet he has agreed to continue working for his former master, Robert King, as a wage laborer instead of as a slave. Finally Equiano manages to secure King’s consent to allow Equiano to return to England. King writes a certificate of good behavior, a kind of letter of recommendation, that Equiano will be able to use in seeking employment abroad. In a time in which international commerce meant that many people did travel and work all around the world (but without the modern technology that would make international communication just as simple) it was essential to have written documents vouching for a person’s character and allowing him or her to draw on past experiences and expertise for new positions in new places.

It’s also particularly telling that Equiano does not just describe the certificate, but rather he transcribes it word for word in his narrative. He is well-aware of the stereotypes that many white people have about the untrustworthiness and bad character of slaves and of black people in general. Much of his narrative is devoted to refuting such harmful prejudices, but, in addition, Equiano wants to make certain that his own readers trust what he is saying and consider him reliable and honest. The certificate that King writes is thus meant to vouch for Equiano to future employers, but also to Equiano’s readers.


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Certificate of Good Behavior Symbol Timeline in The Life of Olaudah Equiano

The timeline below shows where the symbol Certificate of Good Behavior appears in The Life of Olaudah Equiano. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 9
Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Selfhood Theme Icon
...have land and slaves himself. Equiano thanked King but declined, and asked him for a certificate of his behavior in his service, which King was happy to give. After expressing his sincere gratitude, Equiano... (full context)
Chapter 11
Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” Theme Icon
Commerce and Trade Theme Icon
...found the courage to ask leave of Irving, who finally consented and gave him a certificate of good behavior , which Equiano transcribes in his narrative. The slaves from his country were sorry to... (full context)