The Interesting Narrative of Life

July 31, 2007 § Leave a comment

Olaudah Equiano

Portrait of Olaudah Equiano
Circa 1780
Previously attributed to Joshua Reynolds
Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

Although forms of bondage had existed in West and Central Africa (and indeed in Europe) before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, human beings were rarely the main commodity at the African marketplace. In the modern world however, the enslaved African was inspected, assessed, auctioned, bought, sold and bartered by Europeans and treated in any manner his owner saw fit.

In 1788 an autobiographical work, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, was published in England, and which set the precedent for anti-slavery literature written by former slaves themselves, which would have a profound impact on the abolition movements in the eighteenth century. Equiano was born in what is modern day Nigeria and kidnapped by slave traders at the age of 11. He was owned by several masters, educated, adopted into Methodism and as he was allowed by his last owner to conduct business for himself, he eventually bought his freedom.

Among the tradition of slave narratives, Equiano’s is considered a remarkable achievement since the autobiographical style was not a well-developed genre in the eighteenth century. His narrative has vivid details and is written in the picaresque style. Equiano provides a detailed account of his kidnapping, the unfathomable crossing of the Atlantic in the belly of a slave ship and the brutality, the bondage and the life he endured as a slave.

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