Equiano lived during a period of time that saw the rise of both capitalism and imperialism, in which a chain of supply and demand was established—increasingly worldwide, as the British Empire is expanding. This cycle of trade was most powerfully represented by the Triangular Trade, in which raw materials from the American and West Indian colonies were sent to imperial nations like England, manufactured goods from the imperial nations were traded to Africa, and slaves were sent from Africa to the colonies. Rather than wealth being limited to the aristocracy, who inherited it from generation to generation, this trade meant that wealth was now increasingly able to be accumulated by enterprising, entrepreneurial people (mostly men) who were willing to participate in a global capitalist process, one that had both great risk and potentially great rewards. When Equiano is first sold into slavery, he becomes property within this global system of trade. Indeed, one of the most shocking stories he relates about the barbarous cruelty of his captors, and the treatment of slaves as mere property, is that some of the slavers once chained a group of slaves together and threw them overboard to drown, just so that they could collect insurance on them.
In some ways, Equiano fights against this characterization of himself and other slaves as property, but it’s important to understand that, ultimately, he doesn’t question the commercial system that underlies slavery. Indeed, Equiano himself comes to participate in this commercial system, and his development as a man of commerce is part of the way he forges his own identity and earns respect. Unlike other popular slave narratives of the time, there is no dramatic escape and flight to freedom that takes place in Equiano’s narrative. Instead, as he accompanies different masters on various journeys, he begins to understand the logic behind the system of buying and selling in which his masters participate. Ultimately, Equiano buys his own freedom, working within the system rather than outside of it in order to manipulate it to his own ends. Subsequently, Equiano describes himself as far more like some of the white men sailing around the world than the slaves who are bought and sold. He learns the skills needed to, for instance, invest in crops in the West Indies and resell them at a profit later on, and he also uses his sailing skills to work on the same slaver ships that earlier had carried him from Africa into slavery in the Americas.
By explaining how successful he was in participating in such a system, Equiano does make the case for the possibility that former slaves can succeed in the new, capitalist, industrializing society. And yet that very success is almost impossibly complicated. Ironically and tragically, his success in the world of global trade means participating in and tacitly accepting the validity of the same system that initially enslaved and subjugated Equiano and so many countless other Africans.
Commerce and Trade ThemeTracker
Commerce and Trade Quotes in The Life of Olaudah Equiano
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
At the sight of this land of bondage, a fresh horror ran through all my frame, and chilled me to the heart. My former slavery now rose in dreadful review to my mind, and displayed nothing but misery, stripes, and chains; and in the first paroxysm of my grief, I called upon God’s thunder, and his avenging power, to direct the stroke of death to me, rather than permit to become a slave, and to be sold from lord to lord.
Another negro-man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer. Thus, by repeated cruelties, are the wretched first urged to despair, and then murdered, because they still retain so much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and to retaliate on their tyrants!
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!
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.
Heavens! Who could do justice to my feelings at this moment? Not conquering heroes themselves, in the midst of a triumph—Not the tender mother who has just regained her long-lost infant, and presses it to her heart—Not the weary, hungry mariner, at the sight of the desired friendly port—Not the lover, when he once more embraces his beloved mistress, after she has been ravished from his arms!
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.
Thus I hung, without any crime committed, and without judge or jury, merely because I was a freeman, and could not, by the law, get any redress from a white person in those parts of the world.
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.
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.