Equiano acknowledges the difficulty of escaping the charge of vanity for writing a memoir, a genre usually dealing in remarkable events. He, however, is an obscure person not known to the public. If he were a European, he might think that he’s suffered greatly, but compared to his fellow Africans he feels that Providence has actually been relatively kind to him. But he insists that he doesn’t seek praise: he’s writing to promote the interests of humanity.
Equiano’s modesty stems in part from his self-conscious identity as a Christian; but such demurrals were common for autobiographies at the time, a way for authors to preempt criticism of their work. For Equiano, though, there’s another clear motive—the “interests of humanity” that include the slave trade.
Equiano describes the kingdoms of Africa in Guinea, where the slave trade takes place. Within the kingdom of Benin is an inland province named Essaka, where he was born in 1745. As a child he remained ignorant of white men and Europeans. His father was an elder, an “Embrenche” or judge, given a mark of honor consisting of cutting the skin from the forehead to the eyebrows: Equiano, too, was destined to receive it.
After his initial message to the reader, Equiano begins his autobiography in earnest, beginning with his birth. He knows that European readers will mostly be ignorant of African customs and culture, and he takes on the role of cultural messenger between Africa and Europe.
In the village, adultery was punishable by slavery or death: one time the judges were about to sentence a woman to death, Equiano recalls, but she was spared because she had an infant child. Usually marriages were arranged by parents, who organized a feast and tied a cotton string around the woman’s waist. The cotton string was worn only by married women, who were considered to be their husband’s property. Land, slaves, cattle, and other materials were given as dowry by friends on both sides: the celebrations ended with music and dancing.
Equiano begins a long set of descriptions of the culture and customs of the place he came from. He insists on strong—even harsh—moral precepts, which would seem familiar to a British audience for whom adultery was also a grave sin. The marriage ceremony, too, would have seemed simultaneously foreign and familiar.
Indeed, public dances with music were a common way to celebrate battle victories or holidays. People dressed simply; men and women both wore muslin or calico dyed blue, the preferred color. While they were skilled at cooking, they refrained from overly luxurious meals, focusing on bullocks, goats, and poultry, with several vegetables. Cleanliness was indispensable before eating, and liquor was limited to palm wine.
One of the major distinguishing features of this society is its lack of luxury—something that Equiano will be able to contrast with the decadence and debauchery he sees among white Europeans. The society he depicts, though, is one that’s not unsophisticated and pre-civilized, but rather complex in its own way.
Buildings also lacked ornament, made of dried red earth. The master of each village lived in the middle of the village, with apartments for his wives on each side. The homes of slaves and their families one-story homes with thatched reed roofs, were scattered throughout. Everyone was a skilled enough architect to construct such a home. Given that nature provided most of what was needed, there were few manufactured goods other than calico, earthware, and objects of war. Money was mostly unnecessary, though there were coins, and also markets, where Equiano often went with his mother. Slaves—who were usually prisoners of war or else convicted criminals—were sometimes sold at the markets.
This is the first time Equiano refers to slavery explicitly in his narrative, but it’s not the enslavement of Africans by white Europeans; instead, he nonchalantly refers to the slavery within his own African community. Indeed, slavery as such had been around for as long as civilization had, all around the world. Equiano thus doesn’t idealize his home culture, even while he emphasizes the way in which African slavery was small-scale and part of a particular context.
Equiano describes the rich, bountiful land with its corn, pineapples, spices, and honey: agriculture was the major means of employment. All contributed to the common good: there were no beggars, and most people were intelligent, hardy, and active. There was no deformity amongst them; indeed, he remembers having seen some lighter-skinned children as a child whose complexions he considered deformed.
The common land was where people would go to till their crops, but they also often brought weapons, since the common land was where war took place. War was usually meant to gain prisoners or goods, and it was a common means of obtaining slaves in Africa. Equiano describes the guns and swords used in such battles. Once he climbed a tree to witness a battle and saw a great deal of fighting before his people won and took the enemy chief prisoner; they later sentenced him to death and divided the spoils among the warriors. Equiano’s people kept other prisoners as slaves, but didn’t treat them like slaves are treated in the West Indies: the slaves were almost entirely assimilated into the community, except that they weren’t allowed to eat with free-born people. Indeed, some of the slaves had slaves of their own.
Slavery in the way Equiano sketches it out here is part of an intercultural context of war and politics. This certainly doesn’t make it free from suffering and brutality, but it does distinguish this kind of slavery from the established, institutionalized triangle trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, which increasingly came to be based on race and condemned all descendants of slaves to slavery as well. Equiano doesn’t hide the existence of slavery among his own people, but does emphasize these differences.
Equiano’s village believed in one creator of the universe, who lives in the sun and smokes a pipe (their own favorite indulgence). He can’t remember having ever heard of eternity, though some believed in the transmigration of souls, so that some would give offerings of food to departed friends or family before eating. He would go with his mother, to whom he was quite close, to make such offerings at her mother’s tomb, though the darkness and gloominess of the scene frightened him. When the sun crossed the horizon line the village would make a great celebration, as well as offerings of fruit or animals.
Now Equiano shifts to describing the religion of his people, which, in some ways, he’s able to relate to Christianity (there is one creator of the universe). But in addition to sketching a certain cosmology (that is, an understanding of the universe on the part of a certain culture), Equiano also uses this description as an opportunity to paint a humanizing picture of his relationship to his mother.
Equiano compares the villagers’ customs of circumcision and naming children for some event, past or foretold, to Jewish customs. His own name means “fortunate,” or “favored,” or “well spoken” and “with a loud voice.” Their curse words were mostly benign, and they were remarkable for their cleanliness and purification rites (also like the Jews). Priests calculated the time, foretold events, and served as doctors, healing wounds and countering poisoning. Indeed, the people were always careful about poison, and they held snakes as ominous (though also as potentially good omens).
Having lived in England for a number of years, and well-acquainted with the cultural traditions and knowledge of his readers, Equiano is able to make comparisons that would be relatable to this readership. Again, this is not an idealized portrait of a simple, pastoral people, but rather one that underlines the vibrant cultural life, as well as the traditions particular to this people, of which Europeans would be largely ignorant.
Concluding his sketch, Equiano suggests that there is a great analogy between his own country’s customs and those of the Jews before reaching the land of Promise in the pastoral state of Genesis. He refers to a scholar, Dr. Gill, who has traced the ancestry of Africans to Abraham. Equiano adds that, like the Jews, his people’s government was led by chiefs, wise men, and elders, and it also relied upon the law of retaliation.
In England, the Jews were relatively more assimilated than elsewhere in Europe, but they also were discriminated against. They preserved their own traditions—even while also sharing a common religious heritage with the Christian majority—thus proving a useful comparison for Equiano.
Equiano adds that he’ll leave the question of the different skin color between Eboan Africans and modern Jews to more learned men than himself. but he does cite Dr. Mitchell’s example of the Spaniards, who, since inhabiting the warmer parts of the Americas, have turned as dark as the native Indians. He hopes such an example might work against racism, since the minds of the Spaniards couldn’t have changed because of their complexions. He argues that the “apparent inferiority” of Africans can much more persuasively be linked to their situation—since they are initially ignorant of Europeans’ customs and language—rather than to true difference. Further oppressed by the burden of slavery, they are not treated as men. Equiano urges Europeans to remember that their ancestors were once as uncivilized as Africans, but that there’s no reason those ancestors should have been made slaves. He tells them that, if they look around the world and think of themselves as superior, they should recall a Bible passage stating that God made all nations of men “of one blood.”
In one way, the comparison to the Jews allows Equiano to propose a common ancestry for his people, the Jews, and the Christians (the Jews and Christians being tied by Abraham). Here, though, he moves from speculating about such genealogies to making a forceful case against prejudice based on skin color. While we know today that an individual’s race can’t change from the sun, the idea that it could was a powerful argument against the link between skin color and mental ability. Equiano adds to this argument a broader historical point about cultural change: even as he does seem to accept the “superiority” of European culture, he argues for a common history for all humans, regardless of race.