Academic journal article MELUS

"Excepting Himself": Olaudah Equiano, Native Americans, and the Civilizing Mission

Academic journal article MELUS

"Excepting Himself": Olaudah Equiano, Native Americans, and the Civilizing Mission

Article excerpt

Benjamin West's 1771-1772 painting Penn's Treaty with the Indians depicts a scene of apparently amicable barter of commodities for land between European settlers and Native Americans. In the painting (Figure 1), Lenni Lenape Indians look intently at the bolt of white cloth displayed by kneeling Quakers, while William Penn and a Native counterpart stand with arms spread, both looking to the Native chief for his judgment of the whites' proposition. But whether he agrees is apparently moot: the deal has already taken place.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

European-style buildings are already being erected in the background; Native homes are crowded in darkness on the right side of the frame. At the extreme right, a Native with a blanket slung over his shoulder appears to be heading out of the frame, while a dark-skinned figure dressed in white heads into it on the opposite side, carrying merchandise from the European ships. Beth Fowkes Tobin suggests that this figure may be "an African servant or seaman" (77). The painting depicts the bloodless conquest of Native lands acquired by Europeans with the help of subjugated Africans through the allegedly peaceful means of commerce. Native ways here appear doomed to fade with the advent of progress. (2)

I suggest that West's popular picture illuminates the triangulation of European, African, and Native American interests that Olaudah Equiano staged in his autobiography of the following decade. In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), Equiano intervenes in West's thoroughly typical representation of the relations of the three peoples: at times, he places himself, an African ex-slave, in the position of white conqueror and merchant negotiating with the Natives, thereby moving the peripheral dark-skinned figure of West's painting into the center of such exchanges and shunting whites to the side. Although he retains West's vision of commerce and capitalism as potential effectors of peaceful intercultural exchange, Equiano also exposes the violence inherent in white men's relationships with indigenous populations, which West obscures, suggesting that compassion and noncoercive religious instruction should characterize European relations with the less civilized. But perhaps the final image with which Equiano leaves his readers is one in which Africans like Equiano have replaced the Natives; in his plea that Britain abolish slavery and bring manufacturing to the continent's many potential consumers, Equiano makes a bid for Africans, not Native Americans, as the people most worthy of the civilizing efforts of Europe, efforts he deems desperately in need of reform, but whose fundamental righteousness he endorses.

Many critics have turned to The Interesting Narrative with an eye to assessing its author's degree of assimilation and Anglicization. Whereas Paul Edwards, Rosalind Shaw, and a recent collection of essays edited by Chima J. Korieh focus on the African elements of Equiano's identity, Adam Potkay argues that Equiano's worldview is thoroughly Christian and western ("History"). Others, such as Helen Thomas, Robin Sabino, and Jennifer Hall, describe Equiano's identity as hybrid. In 1999, Vincent Carretta changed the trajectory of Equiano scholarship with his evidence that Equiano may have been born not in West Africa but in the Carolinas, which would mean that his descriptions of Igbo country and the Middle Passage are at best composite pictures constructed for rhetorical purposes from other African Americans' memories. (3) Such discussions, however, often have been limited by their tendency to consider issues of identity and acculturation solely on a black-white axis, ignoring the moments in Equiano's text in which non-European and non-African people appear and complicate dichotomous readings. Of the many peoples Equiano encountered as a transatlantic traveler, Native Americans are perhaps most important, as Equiano bears a special resemblance to them, given his status as a recently ascended primitive. …

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