The Life of Olaudah Equiano

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Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” 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.
Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” Theme Icon

In telling the story of his life from his childhood to the present day, Olaudah Equiano seeks to acquaint his British readers with the richness of life in his African home by detailing the dances, rites, and other social customs of his village. Equiano thus makes a case for the vibrant cultural life of African peoples, which Europeans at the time tended to belittle. At a number of points, Equiano describes his home village by comparing his native customs to Jewish customs. By doing so, Equiano attempts to provide a familiar context within which a European reader could understand African customs: the Jews were then a group within England that maintained its own customs, but was still relatively assimilated to the majority culture.

Nonetheless, even while Equiano argues that Africans, like Europeans, have complex culture, he also seems to agree with European stereotypes about African “backwardness.” Equiano argues that Africans are no less intelligent than Europeans—they simply haven’t been educated in the same way. Equiano thus does not critique the basis of the European distinction between their own “civilized” society and “barbaric” African culture. Instead, he argues that Africans may be “uncivilized” but they can become “civilized,” if only they’re given the opportunity. Equiano’s own life illustrates his point. At some points, indeed, the narrative seems to portray Equiano’s earlier self as humorously untutored: he thinks that ships run thanks to magic forces, or that compasses have a life of their own. But the autobiography also captures his growth into a supremely skilled seaman.

Throughout the book Equiano shows a deep desire to gain access to European culture and customs. He seeks to “imbibe” and “imitate” the Europeans through a long process of education that is meant to make him into one of the “civilized” subjects, despite the fact that these “civilized” subjects have enslaved and subjugated him. By writing his autobiography, Equiano emphasizes that he has completed the civilizing process, and can now be fully accepted as a rational, enlightened European subject himself. He’s no longer even just a reader, but also a writer, able to trace his own path of education. He does this in part in order to prove to his prejudiced readers that an African man can complete this path. A modern reader may find Equiano’s path here self-defeating or upsetting, as he embraces the terms of the very society that enslaved him. But from Equiano’s point of view it is an individual story of triumph, which might allow other people like him to follow in his path.

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Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” 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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Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” 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 Culture, Education, and “Civilizing”.
Chapter 1 Quotes

In regard to complexion, ideas of beauty are wholly relative. I remember while in Africa to have seen three negro children, who were tawny, and another quite white, who were universally regarded as deformed by myself and the natives in general, as far as related to their complexions.

Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano is in the midst of relating some of the characteristics and customs of the village in modern-day Nigeria where he was born. He is hoping to acquaint his largely European readers with the richness of his home culture, but he’s also eager to insist on the relativity of certain cultural judgments that his readers might take for granted. Prevailing stereotypes in England at the time held that darker-skinned people were both intellectually and morally inferior to white people, but also that they were less physically attractive (all these racist ideas helped to perpetuate the institution of slavery). Here, then, Equiano challenges such stereotypes by inverting them, showing how in the culture of his home, it was lighter-skinned people who were considered less beautiful and even “deformed.” In some ways, such a reversal doesn’t do much to expose the basic problems with assigning beauty to one race over another. Equiano, though, is working within a certain set of assumptions and norms, and he finds it most helpful not to challenge such hierarchies entirely but rather to show how they are culturally contingent and relative.

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When they come among Europeans, they are ignorant of their language, religion, manners, and customs. Are any pains made to teach them these? Are they treated as men? Does not slavery itself depress the mind, and extinguish all its fire, and every noble sentiment? But above all, what advantages do not a refined people possess over those who are rude and uncultivated! Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once like the Africans, uncivilized and even barbarous. Did Nature make them inferior to their sons? and should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, “No.”

Page Number: 21-22
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Equiano continues to interrogate the assumptions on which the entire international slave trade rests, assumptions that do not just argue for slavery based on economic or commercial benefits, but also based on judgments about the very nature of those enslaved. Nonetheless, Equiano does accept one major assumption himself: that on a spectrum from “barbarity” to “civilization,” Europeans are more civilized than those of African descent. Without challenging that prejudice, Equiano does insist that his reader ask why this is the case.

Many people at the time would have believed that the unequal conditions of black and white people were the result of the innate inferiority of Africans. But Equiano shows that the cultural differences between Europe and Africa stem from social conditions, not from innate inequality. For one, slaves came to Europe, the Caribbean, or the Americas with a different language and set of customs than their masters, and in their entirely new society they would never be told what the new traditions and norms are; obviously the adjustment would be difficult. Furthermore, the very institution of slavery is dehumanizing, dividing people into masters and slaves and then punishing the slaves for not “succeeding” according to the standards of civilized English society. Equiano’s argument is based on the idea that there is a linear trajectory towards culture and civilization, and that Africans simply need to be given the time and space to “catch up.” While this argument presupposes the superiority of European culture, it also allows Equiano to make a powerful case for the common humanity between Africans and Europeans and for ending any institution that breaks down those common bonds rather than building them up.

Chapter 3 Quotes

I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning. For that purpose I have often taken up a book, and talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent

Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

During the journey from Virginia to England, Equiano is for the first time treated less brutally and inhumanely than he had been before (even though he’s still, of course, unfree). In part because of this, and in part because of his budding friendship with Dick, Equiano begins to warm to the white people and to their culture and customs that had initially so frightened him. Here Equiano describes watching Pascal and Dick reading together, but he describes it using the technique of defamiliarization, in which objects and situations that seem normal or obvious to a reader are described in a new or different way in order to make them seem strange and unfamiliar.

Unable to read or write himself, Equiano uses his skills of logic and rational thinking in order to hypothesize about what “reading” entails. In part, his description of his conclusion is meant to underline just how much Equiano has learned and how far he’s come since his days as a slave. This is meant to imply that all black people are capable of education and improvement, something he emphasizes throughout his narrative. And yet while his conclusion about the talking books might seem odd to us, and would have seemed so to the readers of his narrative, there is also a way in which his conclusion is precisely correct: we do talk to each other across time and space via the written word, even if we don’t always think of it literally. Equiano thus brings a new insight to an activity so often taken for granted.

Chapter 4 Quotes

I not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them, to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners. I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement; and every new thing that I observed I treasured up in my memory.

Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano has spent a good deal of time, by this point, among Europeans, and thus he has been able to lose the terror that he initially (and for good reason) had felt around Europeans, He has also learned that some white people are far crueler, and some kinder, than others. One possible response that Equiano might have to his continued status as a slave among Englishmen is to rebel against everything they represent. But Equiano chooses another path: seeking to learn and imitate as much as he can about English culture.

By claiming that Europeans are in many ways “superior” to Africans, Equiano is helping to reinforce a stereotype about racial superiority that worked to justify slavery and the slave trade. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that Equiano, who has shown himself to be clever and quick-witted, also knows how to act strategically. By saying that he agrees with European “superiority”—and by showing through his own narrative that it is indeed possible for an “inferior” African to learn all the customs, manners, and culture of Europe—he can refute another major justification for slavery, the idea that slaves cannot change or “improve.” Equiano prioritizes challenging this justification particularly because, torn from his own culture and home at such a young age, his best chance of surviving and thriving is to work within the logic of his new life.

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 8 Quotes

I could not help thinking, that, if any of these people had been lost, God would charge me with their lives; which, perhaps, was one cause of my labouring so hard for their preservation; and indeed every one of them afterwards seemed so sensible of the service I had rendered them, that while we were on the key I was a kind of chieftain amongst them.

Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano is on a ship bound for North America that is carrying slaves below deck (just as he himself was brought from the western African Coast to Barbados and then Virginia below deck) when a storm threatens all their lives. Now, Equiano is a free man, employed for wages aboard this ship. For much of the narrative, Equiano does not go into detail about the tragic paradox of the fact that, having escaped from slavery himself, he is now playing a direct role in the continuation of the slave trade (though while he never explicitly exposes this paradox, neither does he justify or seek to excuse his actions). Here, though, Equiano’s implicit acknowledgement of his own role in the slave trade is joined to his growing sense of religious conviction. He feels that his responsibility for the slaves below deck is beyond a simple responsibility for their commercial value: he’s also responsible for their souls. In such a way, Equiano only obliquely addresses the question of how commerce (something he’s embraced in order to make it on his own) and the slave trade are indelibly linked; instead he focuses on the responsibility of all humans to each other. Both commercial and spiritual arguments, interestingly, would be employed among abolitionists in the years during and after the publication of this narrative.

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.
ROBERT KING.
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.

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.

I now learned that after I had left the estate which I managed for this gentleman on the Musquito shore, during which the slaves were well fed and comfortable, a white overseer had supplied my place: this man, through inhumanity and ill-judged avarice, beat and cut the poor slaves most unmercifully; and the consequence was, that every one got into a large Puriogua canoe, and endeavored to escape; but, not knowing where to go, or how to manage the canoe, they were all drowned; in consequence of white the Doctor’s plantation was left uncultivated, and he was now returning to Jamaica to purchase more slaves and stock it again.

Related Characters: Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) (speaker), Dr. Charles Irving
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano has been attempting to get back to England, having left Dr. Irving’s plantation confident that he set a good example by being a more benevolent overseer than the cruel ones he remembers from the time of his own captivity. Now, though, he learns that his example was for nothing, since he was replaced by an overseer who treated the slaves cruelly and inhumanely. Throughout the narrative, there has been a tension between Equiano’s ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and the fact that, in order to become successful (and, indeed, to become the kind of person who can publish a best-selling anti-slavery memoir), he has been involved in the slave trade himself. Here, he seems to have justified his behavior by being kinder to the slaves, even though elsewhere he’s argued that there is no way to get around the fundamental injustice of captivity.

This anecdote is also another of Equiano’s explanations for the behavior of slaves who revolt. They are not ungrateful, dangerous, or naturally violent; they are simply responding to an unbearable situation, and their actions should thus be taken as signs that the system itself is broken. Dr. Irving has obviously not learned this lesson—he’s returning to buy more slaves, simply replenishing his property instead of restructuring his operation. In such a landscape, it’s implied, the best (and perhaps only) possibility of effecting real change is on a society-wide legal basis, starting in Parliament, rather than relying on individuals to change their actions.

Chapter 12 Quotes

I hope to have the satisfaction of seeing the renovation of liberty and justice, resting on the British government, to vindicate the honour of our common nature. These are concerns which do not, perhaps, belong to any particular office: but to speak more seriously, to every man of sentiment actions like these are the just and sure foundation of future fame; a reversion, though remote, is coveted by some noble minds as a substantial good. It is upon these grounds that I hope and expect the attention of gentlemen in power.

Related Characters: Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) (speaker)
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

As Equiano concludes his narrative, he turns back to the way he began: less in the mode of memoir and spiritual autobiography than in the mode of rhetoric and argument. He has hoped that the story of his life—as well as the very fact that he has ben able to recount it in a powerful way—will convince his readers of the evils of slavery. Here he insists again that his nature and that of white British people are not separate but are “common.” This nature is shared because, as he argues, liberty and justice are not limited to only one race of people, but are the foundational rights of all humans.

On one hand, Equiano has made a number of arguments that are legal in nature against the slave trade: one of his particular tasks is to convince Parliament to actually change the law. But he also hopes to change people’s hearts and minds in general, and so he emphasizes the extent to which the question of slavery isn’t solely a legal question but also a moral one, one that’s relevant to everyone. Anyone, then, who reads his work (not just the “gentlemen in power” to whom he directly addresses his narrative) should be able to read the work with interest and be affected by it, perhaps even inspired to work against slavery as well.

Population, the bowels, and surface of Africa, abound in valuable and useful returns; the hidden treasures of centuries will be brought to light and into circulation. Industry, enterprise, and mining, will have their full scope, proportionably as they civilize. In a word, it lays open an endless field of commerce to the British manufacturers and merchant adventurers. The manufacturing interest and the general interests are synonymous. The Abolition of slavery would be in reality an universal good.

Related Characters: Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) (speaker)
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano’s arguments against slavery balance the legal and moral questions at stake. Here, though, he also brings in something that has been considered a more or less unchallenged positive force throughout the narrative: wealth, commerce, and international trade. Equiano has made it to his current position in large part because he learned the rules and strategies of a growing international system of commerce so well. Indeed, even while he was a slave he reenacted a much longer history of trade, beginning with one small coin and eventually enriching himself through a thriving system. In some ways, Equiano’s participation in this system has seemed paradoxical, both because he’s actually helped to carry slaves on ships himself, and because his identity as a Christian might seem at odds with his insistence on wealth as a force for good.

Equiano never explicitly discusses such questions, but this avoidance may itself be part of his broader strategy in studying, adopting, and mastering the customs of his masters in order to outplay them at their own game. In addition, he knows his audience, for whom the attractiveness of international commerce is taken for granted. By claiming that abolishing slavery is not just morally or legally beneficial, but commercially attractive as well, Equiano thus makes a powerful argument against the slave trade. Nonetheless, he depicts a possible future in which Europe has not at all withdrawn from Africa, but rather continues to meddle in its affairs, though this time through a system based on wage labor and consumption rather than on slavery.