Before he learns to read and write, Equiano notices his master Pascal and his friend Dick Baker studying the Bible together. Unacquainted with the Bible (and with books in general), Equiano thinks that the men are speaking to it, and that the book is answering. His frustrations with being unable to “talk to” books himself are symbolic of Equiano’s fervent desire to learn what he thinks of as the wisdom and knowledge of Europeans, even though these are the people who have cruelly enslaved him and who continue to subjugate him. The Bible, then, as the most prominent book among the Europeans, represents the mysteries of the new culture to which Equiano has been introduced, mysteries that he longs to unlock by learning to read and write himself.
But the Bible is also a book of a particular kind, one that serves as the central document of Christianity—the religion that Equiano essentially equates with European civilization. In some ways, in fact, the moral teachings that Equiano does begin to access in the Bible allow him to make a connection between European culture and his own, as he remarks to Daniel Queen that it seems his own country’s teachings are reproduced in the Bible. The Bible is vital to Equiano’s own spiritual development as a Christian, but it is also crucial that he is inducted into a specific kind of Christianity, the Protestant Church of England, which emphasized an individual’s ability to access spiritual truth by reading the Bible (rather than through the intermediary role of a priest). In that sense Equiano’s relationship to the Bible can also be mapped onto his education more broadly, as the Bible allows him to begin to think for himself and decide what he believes. This is fitting for an autobiography that is concerned with the development of a rational subject who is both indebted to Providence and a maker of his own destiny.
The Bible Quotes in The Life of Olaudah Equiano
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.