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.
Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” ThemeTracker
Culture, Education, and “Civilizing” 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.