The Life of Olaudah Equiano

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The Life of Olaudah Equiano Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Olaudah Equiano's The Life of Olaudah Equiano. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Olaudah Equiano

Equiano was born in an African village and kidnapped into slavery at the age of eleven. After being transported to the African coast and subsequently to Barbados and Virginia, he was bought by a former naval officer and merchant, Michael Henry Pascal, who brought him to England. From there he was traded between a number of different masters and participated in the French and Indian wars, events that he recounts at length in his autobiography, before finally purchasing his freedom. Later he settled in England and began to spend a great deal of time involved in the abolitionist movement as part of the “Sons of Africa,” a group of prominent African men in London. His autobiography was published when he was 44 years old and became an international bestseller, reissued in nine different editions and highly influential in the American abolitionist movement. Later in life, Equiano married a white woman, Susannah Cullen. They had several children, but only one survived into adulthood.
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Historical Context of The Life of Olaudah Equiano

For the nearly 300 years that preceded Olaudah Equiano’s writing of his life, the international slave trade had shrunk the world like never before: “globalization” could already describe this interconnected relationship between humans, goods, and places. Within this framework, European powers—first the Portuguese and Spanish, and later the British, French, Dutch, and others—vied to “discover” lands abroad, but of course these lands were largely already inhabited. Slavery, as Equiano’s description of his own African village implies, had existed in some form for thousands of years, but it was the age of exploration that institutionalized a particular kind of slavery, bolstered by a growing set of arguments among Europeans about the ethical and intellectual inferiority of non-white races. Europeans would capture black people in Africa, or buy them from traders on the coast; they would then ship them to the West Indies to be sold as slaves, trading them for raw goods cultivated on plantations, and would carry these raw materials back to Europe to be processed and then sold in Africa and elsewhere. By the end of the eighteenth century, this “triangular trade” was thriving, and yet, for the first time, many more people than ever before began to object to slavery as a moral atrocity. The Quakers were a potent example of a group vocally opposed to slavery, though, of course, slaves themselves had protested and revolted against their condition for hundreds of years. Starting in 1772, slavery was no longer legal within Britain, but it wasn’t until 1807 that the Slave Trade Act suppressed the international slave trade in the British Empire. This act passed in large part thanks to agitations by Equiano and others.

Other Books Related to The Life of Olaudah Equiano

Equiano’s Narrative is often considered the prototypical slave narrative, even though it doesn’t perfectly fit into the structure of slavery, escape, and freedom that tends to encapsulate the form. But it is one of the first in a long tradition of memoirs by former slaves that often agitate for the end of slavery through a personal story. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an example in the American context, as is Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. The narrative is also a clear example of the form of spiritual autobiography that involves a recounting of a sinful, weak life followed by a conversion or spiritual epiphany, much like Saint Augustine’s Confessions. There are also elements of the adventure story in Equiano’s narrative, and, in that way, it evokes books like Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels. Finally, Equiano’s book can be placed into the general context of the birth of modern autobiography, which is concerned with the ways in which a rational but also feeling self develops over time, and the various experiences and influences that come to shape a mature human being. Another example in this genre is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
Key Facts about The Life of Olaudah Equiano
  • Full Title: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African
  • When Written: ?-1789
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1789
  • Literary Period: Enlightenment/18th-century
  • Genre: Autobiography
  • Antagonist: The slave trade in general is the vast, inhuman antagonist against which Equiano struggles throughout the book—indeed, it is the slave trade against which Equiano writes the narrative itself. The slave trade’s evils and barbarities give it a kind of human agency, especially since Equiano argues that it is slavery itself that corrupts slave traders, not any inherent evilness in them. But this cruelty is encapsulated to different extents in various white people whom Equiano encounters, from his apparently kindly master Pascal (who ultimately betrays him) to the various captains in Jamaica who threaten to return him to servitude.
  • Point of View: As an autobiography, the book is written in the first person by a narrator who is looking back over his life and recounting its events chronologically. At times, Equiano’s narrative voice intrudes from the present, as he makes comments and judgments on his past behavior.

Extra Credit for The Life of Olaudah Equiano

Origin stories. While almost all of Equiano’s narrative has been independently corroborated, scholars have, for several decades, debated whether or not he was actually born in Africa. One historian has argued that he was actually from South Carolina originally, though others have countered that his detailed account of the trade from Africa to the U.S. makes those origins unlikely.

Just for kids? Equiano’s narrative has also been adapted into a book for children, published in the United States with the title The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano.