Equiano doesn’t overly idealize the African hometown where he came from: there too, he says, slavery existed. But that slavery pales in comparison to the violence of captivity that he experiences from the white men who enslave him. If one way of reading Equiano’s narrative is of a path from ignorance to knowledge, another is as a movement from freedom into captivity and back to freedom. Unlike Equiano’s gradual attainment of education, however, freedom is far more unstable and fragile in this story, in need of constant vigilance lest it be taken away. Some of the most moving passages in Equiano’s narrative involve his lamentations about being enslaved and held captive against his will. He describes his captivity as a flagrant denial of the human right to move freely, a cruelty imposed without justification.
By describing the shocking experience of witnessing slaves decide to kill themselves by jumping off a ship rather than continue to live in slavery, Equiano emphasizes that enslavement can actually be worse than death. Indeed, captivity in the book is always joined to violence. On the slave ship and on the various plantations in the Caribbean and in the United States, Equiano endures beatings and whippings that both injure him physically and wound his very sense of self. Even when Equiano thinks he’s established a profound connection with his master, Michael Henry Pascal, Pascal’s betrayal of Equiano by selling him to a cruel master underlines the way in which slaveowners deny slaves’ humanity by treating them as property. Even after Equiano does attain his freedom—by paying for it himself—his status as a black man means that he’s always in danger of being recaptured and re-enslaved. He witnesses this happen to another freeman in the West Indies, and he himself is kidnapped by two white men who attempt to re-enslave him, a “trick” he only manages to evade by using the excellent English skills he’s acquired.
Tragically, Equiano isn’t able to fully escape from the overwhelming power and logic of the international slave trade. Even after he’s freed, he participates in the slave trade himself: as he earns a living and develops his own independent fortune, he travels around the world on ships carrying slaves to plantations, just as he once was carried himself. He writes his autobiography with the explicit purpose of ending the slave trade, but he only rarely acknowledges the paradox of his own involvement in it. Instead, that involvement remains an implicit example of just how pervasive the logic of captivity was in the British Empire.
Freedom and Slavery ThemeTracker
Freedom and Slavery Quotes in The Life of Olaudah Equiano
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 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.
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.
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!
However, as I was from early years a predestinarian, I thought whatever fate had determined must ever come to pass; and therefore, if ever it were my lot to be freed, nothing could prevent me, although I should at present see no means or hope to obtain my freedom; on the other hand, if it were my fate not to be freed, I never should be so; and all my endeavours for that purpose would be fruitless.
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!
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.
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.
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.