The Life of Olaudah Equiano

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Conversion, Providence, and God’s Will Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Conversion, Providence, and God’s Will Theme Icon
Commerce and Trade Theme Icon
Selfhood Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Life of Olaudah Equiano, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Conversion, Providence, and God’s Will Theme Icon

When Equiano first begins to learn about Christianity from the Miss Guerins in England, he is intrigued but also ambivalent. After all, he has described a thriving belief system with which he grew up in his home village. Equiano does come to be baptized himself not long afterwards, but it is only over time that he comes to grapple with spiritual questions on a more profound level and to fully embrace an identity as a Christian. Following his first trips to England after being baptized, Equiano begins to relate some of the Christian teachings he’s learned to the events of his own life—for example, when Pascal betrays him and sells him to the cruel Captain James Doran, Equiano begins to wonder if God is punishing him for his sins. Throughout the narrative, Equiano’s desire to make his own choices and control his own life comes into tension with his growing belief that Providence is in charge of human activity and that he therefore must accept what happens to him as God’s will. While his belief in Providence can at times aid Equiano in his struggles against hardship and cruelty, it also can be seen as making him more passive in his own attempts to create change. For example, Equiano reflects at one point that, whether he ends up being freed or remaining in captivity, his entire life is a question of God’s will—either way, it’s nothing that his own desire can change. Equiano never explicitly settles on a conclusion to this question, although the novel does imply that it’s possible both to believe in God’s ultimate power over human affairs and to work towards what one believes is God’s will on earth.

It is only after a near death experience on a sea journey near the North Pole that Equiano fully commits to embarking on a spiritual journey, reading the Bible, studying Christian doctrines, and struggling to come to terms with his faith. Then, while working on a ship traveling to Spain, he experiences a moment of epiphany in which he no longer feels anxious or uncertain about his position within God’s plan. Equiano’s conversion firmly places his narrative within a genre of spiritual autobiographies that was quite popular at the time, in which identity is achieved in part through a miraculous, sudden revelation of faith. From the moment of his rebirth on, he’s fully established as a converted Christian, eager to work to fulfill God’s plan on earth even as he acknowledges that there’s much about the universe and about eternal truths that he will never know: he’s content to simply trust in his faith.

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Conversion, Providence, and God’s Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Conversion, Providence, and God’s Will appears in each Chapter of The Life of Olaudah Equiano. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Conversion, Providence, and God’s Will Quotes in The Life of Olaudah Equiano

Below you will find the important quotes in The Life of Olaudah Equiano related to the theme of Conversion, Providence, and God’s Will.
Chapter 2 Quotes

To that Heaven, which protects the weak from the strong, I commit the care of your innocence and virtues, if they have not already received their full reward, and if your youth and delicacy have not long since fallen victims to the violence of the African trader, the pestilential stench of a Guinea ship, the seasoning in the European colonies, or the lash and lust of a brutal and unrelenting overseer.

Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Equiano has been torn away from his sister for the final time. In this direct address to his absent sister (a literary trope known as “apostrophe”), he imagines the horrors that may have befallen her, his imaginings aided by the suffering that he himself has undergone at the hands of slave traders and overseers. His rhetorical flourishes are meant to touch his readers by appealing to eighteenth-century ideas about sentimentality and the importance of feeling—ideas that were often gendered, as women were thought to be especially sensitive to appeals to the heart, as well as particularly delicate and vulnerable to harsh treatment. Equiano will go on to expose the brutal treatment of slaves in general, and to argue for the way in which the institution dehumanizes all people, but here he makes a personal appeal based on his love for his sister. While he seems to hope that she has not been the victim of violence, rape, foul conditions, etc., he also seems to know that she likely has experienced all of these things.

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Chapter 4 Quotes

He taught me to shave, and dress hair a little, and also to read in the Bible, explaining many passages to me, which I did not comprehend. I was wonderfully surprised to see the laws and rules of my own country written almost exactly here; a circumstance which, I believe, tended to impress our manners and customs more deeply on my memory.

Related Symbols: The Bible
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano has befriended Daniel Queen on board another ship. Like Dick Baker, or the Miss Guerins, Queen seems relatively less prejudiced than many other white people in Equiano’s life. Learning to dress hair will be useful to Equiano later on in the book when he chooses hairdressing as his official trade, but more significant to him is the opportunity he has to learn to read, and particularly to read the Bible. At other points in the book Equiano emphasizes the difference between England and his home village, stressing his own desire to change and to learn European customs. Here, though, what is striking to him is that the values in the Bible are not foreign to him, but are espoused by his own people as well. This similarity will undoubtedly encourage Equiano to continue to learn more about Christianity, and to grow confident that Christianity does speak the truth, because to him there’s such a universal element to Christian teachings. It will also become tragically ironic to Equiano that, despite such resemblances in moral and ethical teachings, so many so-called Christians fail to live up to their professed values.

Chapter 6 Quotes

However, as I was from early years a predestinarian, I thought whatever fate had determined must ever come to pass; and therefore, if ever it were my lot to be freed, nothing could prevent me, although I should at present see no means or hope to obtain my freedom; on the other hand, if it were my fate not to be freed, I never should be so; and all my endeavours for that purpose would be fruitless.

Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano is troubled by the notion that he may never be freed, even as he is getting a taste of what that would mean, since he has relatively more freedom of movement as he travels around the world by ship. He explains how he attempts to comply with fate by describing his “predestinarian” beliefs; that is, Equiano believes that everyone’s fate is already laid out before birth, and that humans don’t have the ability to change their destiny. This is a particular belief of Anglican Christianity, to which Equiano converts, and is related to the idea that God has chosen the elect and the damned in advance (that is, those who will go to Heaven and whose who will not). By noting that he believed this from “early years,” though, Equiano emphasizes once again the resemblance he found (thanks in part to reading the Bible with Daniel Queen) between many Christian beliefs and those of his home country.

In some ways, the idea of predestination might seem to lead to desperation and hopelessness for Equiano, since, if he’s destined to remain in captivity all his life, there’s nothing he can do about it. But Equiano seems to draw hope rather than despair from such beliefs, as they help him to remain calm and steadfast, knowing that some things may be out of his control. Nonetheless, here and elsewhere in the narrative, there is something of a tension between this insistence on predestination and Equiano’s drive to improve and change his own circumstances.

Chapter 10 Quotes

In this deep consternation the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with his bright beams of heavenly light; and in an instant, as it were, removing the veil, and letting light into a dark place.

Related Characters: Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) (speaker)
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano has described, throughout this chapter, how his years-long process of becoming a Christian led to one particularly intense period of soul-searching and spiritual confusion. Questions concerning the immortality of the soul and the possibility of going to heaven after one’s death have preoccupied Equiano, especially because he’s had trouble imagining how he ever will find answers to such monumental questions. At this moment, though, he experiences a total epiphany—what is often called a “rebirth” (hence the term “born-again Christians, for instance)—in which it seems to him that he has brief but powerful access to God and his very self is transformed. Over the centuries, many people have described such conversion experiences, and in the eighteenth century in particular spiritual autobiographies became popular. These generally had a structure describing the person’s life of sin, search for salvation, and sudden “rebirth.” Equiano’s narrative is in many ways indebted to this genre: indeed, part of his purpose in recounting his own self-development is to relate how he became what he thinks of as a true Christian, not just a free man and commercial merchant. For Equiano, none of these strands of his identity is more or less important than another—they all fit together and serve his purpose in exposing his character and underlining his humanity.

Chapter 11 Quotes

At last he asked me, --“How comes it that all the white men on board, who can read and write, observe the sun and know all things, yet swear, lie, and get drunk, only excepting yourself?”

Related Characters: The Musquito Prince George (speaker), Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa)
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

On Dr. Irving’s ship to Jamaica and the Musquito Shore, Equiano has been attempting to convert the native men on board, and particularly this man, the prince, who has shown himself to be more open to learning about Christianity than the others. But—like Equiano himself—this man is a careful observer of the people around him, and he immediately notices the disconnect between the teachings in the Bible and the behavior of those on the ship around him. Such hypocrisy had, at an earlier time, devastated Equiano and almost led to his loss of faith. Since his conversion experience, however, Equiano has come to accept such a contrast as part of living in a sinful world.

What the Prince’s declaration also underlines, of course, is the fact that Equiano—a convert, and a black man—is far holier and espouses the virtues of Christianity far better than the white men. This fact is meant as a harsh critique of those who would think of Africans, slaves, and indigenous people in general as “savages,” instead suggesting that the true ethical hierarchy might be the other way around. And if Equiano has embraced Christian teachings enough to reflect them in his own actions better than the English themselves, this is only a further argument in favor of other black people being given the opportunity to learn and “improve” themselves, as well.