Passage to Slavery, Passage to Freedom: Olaudah Equiano and the Sea

Article excerpt

"The distance of this province from the capital of Benin and the sea coast must be very considerable; for I had never heard of white men or Europeans, nor of the sea."--Olaudah Equiano

THE INTERESTING NARRATIVE of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African tells the first-person story of Olaudah Equiano, an eleven-year-old boy from an eastern province of Benin, who was introduced to the sea--and to white men--when he was captured in 1756 by African slavers and taken to a slave trading port on the West African coast. After surviving the Middle Passage and enduring slavery in the Americas, Britain, and on trading ships sailing the Atlantic, Equiano purchased his freedom in 1766. Subsequent to his manumission, he continued a life on the seas and, encouraged by friends in London, published the dramatic account of his life in 1789. The narrative went through nine English editions in the next five years and was instrumental in generating public support for the suppression of the slave trade. The book was a sensation, an eighteenth-century best seller, incorporating elements of autobiography, history, travel narrative, adventure story, oratory, and antislavery discourse. As a multi-genre and fascinating account of a remarkable life, the narrative remains a compelling text, commanding critical and pedagogical attention across disciplines. Three scholarly editions of the narrative have appeared in the last decade, and excerpts are found in British, American, and African American literature anthologies. Widely taught in university classrooms, the narrative's literary reputation is secure. And while the narrative is indeed a finely crafted tale of the sea, Equiano's account of maritime life and his use of sea imagery more importantly offers a richly detailed portrait of the circumscribed and precarious existence of both enslaved and emancipated Africans living in the eighteenth-century Western world.

The Interesting Narrative's literary significance is unmistakable. In addition to its historical and sociological value as the first full-length account of slavery written by an African, Equiano's text offers itself as a singular contribution to the literatures of Africa, Europe, and North America. In African literary history, Equiano's narrative is seen as an important early Anglophone text that testifies to the humanity of Africans. Similarly, Equiano is named as one of the key figures in Afro-British writing--one of the "unchained voices" of eighteenth-century Britain (Carretta). In American literary history, The Interesting Narrative is most commonly classified as an early and prototypical slave narrative, what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls the "silent second text" of nineteenth-century slave narratives (xiv). The international scholarly attention focused on Equiano has been so extensive and varied in the past two decades that "Equiano Studies" has become a veritable subcategory within the slave narrative genre.

Identifying the Narrative's Genre(s)

The slave narrative genre is generally recognized as a text that persuasively uses autobiography to argue against the inhumanity and injustice of the institution of slavery. Recent literary scholarship both affirms and extends the narrative's status as early black autobiography. Though Angelo Costanzo and Adam Potkay both place Equiano's text in the genre of spiritual autobiography, Potkay points out that the "narrative portion of Equiano's life is indeed just one strand of the work titled The Interesting Narrative, for in his book Equiano employs a welter of persuasive modes--apologia, allegory, sermon, exhortation, jeremiad, and argument directed to economic self-interest--all aimed at the immediate political end of abolishing the slave trade and toward the ultimate end of abolishing slavery" (604, original emphasis). While Potkay echoes other scholars who have focused on the first-person testimony and the political goals of the text, he privileges its oratorical form and religiosity rather than its autobiographical subject. …