Equiano’s curious Argument against Slavery

Reading another one Penguin’s Little Black Classics reminds me of the role narrative plays in identity forming.

Fitzrovia MuralEquiano’s story was clearly important for the abolitionist cause. His account is intentionally emotional and that the book is titled, ‘Kidnapped’ is telling, although, it also has the alternative, original title of, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself.

To call it propaganda would be somewhat disingenuous, but that Equiano was possibly born in South Carolina (rather than an Ebo Village) does force one to reexamine his claims. Although there may be possible explanations for this inconsistency, yet better still, it is not inconceivable that the narrative of the life of the kidnapped prince served the purpose of establishing rights for a man whose (birth) place could be considered historically fictional. Some will consider such an approach justified, given the liberation ends of such a narrative (especially nowadays that activists are popping up everywhere). The end does not justify the exaggerated means, this plays right into the hands of victors who had previously controlled the dominant narrative.

Although Rights was the language of choice for establishing equality among citizens, this same ‘rights’ was only available to citizens and not to those considered inferior. The term itself has, in its origin and consistent use been a language of conflict, rights finds its natural home in the courtroom.

There’s an episode on board a ship in Equiano’s account at a point where he was starting to enjoy a semblance of freedom at the hands of a kind-heart master but this did not last long before the Captain of the ship tried to sell him. The exchange between the two centred around whether or not Equiano had right or the Captain right to sell him. This exchange carried on for a while and knowing the earlier cruelty suffered under the ‘middle passage’ only gave Captain Doran more power over him. In the end, all Equiano could say was if “I could not get any right among men here I hoped I should hereafter in Heaven.

Equiano’s quip could be dismissed as merely influenced by the opiate of religion, yet that this in itself seemed to have been motivation to act counters this claim.

There are stories of ourselves that we could repeat, yet a better narrative is the one God tells about us. This story God tells starts with that of the human body being in his image. This understanding of his rights was evident in Equiano’s story. In defending his rights, there is a curious mention of his baptism:

…I told him my master could not sell me to him, nor to anyone else. ‘Why,’ said he,’did not your master buy you?’ I confessed he did. ‘But I have served him,’ said I, ‘many years, and he has taken all my wages and prize-money, for I only got one sixpence during the war; besides this I have been baptized; and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me:’

The language of baptism does what rights alone cannot do, it affords dignity to a body that was once recognised as property and rather than this being a source of further oppression was the exact transcendent basis of the fight for Justice. Although this idea that baptism conferred personhood was to be later legally challenged, it is not hard to see the effect the sacrament can have on a life. Even after the legal ruling that denied this, many still continued to believe that , “Baptism doth bestow Freedom”.


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