The Life of Olaudah Equiano

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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.
Selfhood Theme Icon

As Equiano relates the story of his life and his travels between Africa, England, and the British Empire, he tells a story of the development of his self—the forging of his individual identity—which proves vital to the broader political purpose of his story. Equiano, who seeks to convince readers of the inhumanity of the slave trade, must first convince readers that he, a former slave, is fully human. The very act of relating his development over time—his joys, sorrows, and the lessons he learns—allows Equiano to make the case that he has an interior self, just like his mostly white readers, and that he too is a human being who can reason and feel as deeply as anyone else. By emphasizing the development of his sense of self over time, and insisting on the humanity of all black people, Equiano hopes to persuade his readers that slavery is an inhumane practice that deals not with inanimate pieces of property, but with people not altogether different from white Englishmen.

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Selfhood ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Selfhood 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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Selfhood 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 Selfhood.
Chapter 2 Quotes

I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced any thing of this kind before, and although, not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not; and besides the crew used to watch us very closely, who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water. I have seen some of these African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating.

Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano has arrived at the African coast, where he has witnessed for the first time the slave ships that will carry him across the Atlantic. After being forced under the deck with its noxious smells, cramped living quarters, and conditions of sickness and disease, Equiano begins to actually hope for death, going so far as to plan how he would kill himself. Equiano has, of course, been enslaved before by other Africans, but the conditions here are shocking, far worse than anything he’s seen or experienced before, precisely because European slavery is based on assumptions of innate racial inferiority that provide a justification for inhumane treatment. And even the one act that would seem humane—trying to get Equiano to eat in order to keep him alive—is shown here to be part and parcel with barbarity. Because the traders do not consider the slaves as fully human but rather as goods or property, it’s in the traders’ interest to keep the slaves alive so that they can make a profit once they sell the slaves in the West Indies. Forcing Equiano to eat, then, is part of the same dehumanizing behavior that leads traders to chain him, whip him, and subject him to conditions so barbaric that Equiano prefers death.


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Chapter 5 Quotes

For I will not suppose that the dealers in slaves are born worse than other man. No; it is the fatality of this mistaken avarice, that it corrupts the milk of human kindness and turns it to gall. And, had the pursuits of those men been different, they might have been as generous, as tender-hearted, and just, as they are unfeeling, rapacious, and cruel. Surely this traffic cannot be good, which spreads like a pestilence, and taints what it touches! Which violates that first natural right of mankind, equality; and independency; and gives one man a dominion over his fellows which God could never intend! For it raises the owner to a state as far above man as it depresses the slave below it; and, with the presumption of human pride, sets distinction between them, immeasurable in extent, and endless in duration!

Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

After detailing so many of the abuses suffered by slaves at the hands of their owners and dealers, Equiano makes a move here that seems surprising: he insists that slave traders and masters are not naturally evil, but are made so by their involvement in the slave trade. In fact, this argument is part of Equiano’s broader world view and philosophy, one that states that people are not born a certain way and destined to remain so their entire life, but instead are able to change and improve over time. Earlier, Equiano has made this argument in order to make the case for Africans’ ability to be involved in the moral and intellectual life of a place like England, despite their origin in a place with a different culture and set of customs. But Equiano is also consistent in his beliefs: if he thinks that Africans can improve and adapt, then he rationally applies this view of moral improvement to all humans.

Equiano’s argument here also has to do with the effects of slavery not just on the slaves, but on anyone involved with the trade. Slavery dehumanizes black people, but it also dehumanizes whites by creating artificial distinctions between people who should be considered equal under God, and justifying behavior that should be unjustifiable. By positing a counterfactual about how the slave traders could have been more moral and good-hearted people if they had been involved in another profession, Equiano argues that all is not lost. Abolishing the slave trade will lead to moral improvement for all humanity, not just the slaves themselves.

Chapter 6 Quotes

As we sailed to different islands, I laid this money out in various things occasionally, and it used to turn to very good account, especially when we went to Guadaloupe, Grenada, and the rest of the French islands. Thus was I going all about the islands upwards of four years, and ever trading as I went, during which I experienced many instances of ill-usage, and have seen many injuries done to other negroes in our dealings with whites.

Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Equiano is still a slave, still bound to obey his master’s will and limited in terms of his own freedom of movement, but in Montserrat his master’s and captain’s strong commercial bent makes them more willing to allow Equiano to participate in international commerce, as well. Equiano has just described how, beginning with barely a few pence, he’s managed to grow his income and join in a thriving international system of trade—one that, of course, includes slaves as some of its most valuable goods. As with other cultural customs and traditions, Equiano has shown himself to be an adept observer and eager learner, choosing not to scorn the culture of his masters, but rather (and more pragmatically) to turn it to his own advantage.

Nonetheless, as the last phrase of the quotation makes clear, Equiano still suffers from unequal treatment that threatens to prevent him from fully becoming an independent man of commerce who is self-sufficient and able to make a fortune for himself by relying on his own cleverness. This was a powerful trope in English culture at the time—that merchants, if clever enough, could be rich and independent—but Equiano’s experience shows that it was also, in large part, a myth. The supposed power and freedom of the market only served those against whom other merchants weren’t prejudiced—the “ill usage” Equiano experienced thus undermines such assumptions.

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.
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

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

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.