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Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Incorporation Of A Slave Turned Free Into A Dominant Society

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Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Incorporation of a Slave-Turned-Free Into a Dominant Society


By making the personal political in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, Equiano uses sentiments and emotions - both his own and the ones he hopes to invoke in the readers and addressees - to persuade Parliament. Parliament is his primary addressee as he states in his dedication, and it is his strategy to address the entire institution by focusing

on the people in it and their ability to be empathic and to identify with others. As Sonia Hofkosh puts it, "Equiano enters the political debate through personal experience (...) The Interesting Narrative seeks to influence ('excite') the collective, political body of Parliament (...) through the vocabulary of sentiment and feeling, appealing directly to the very hearts of its individual members" (334). Writing about suffering - private, bodily, mentally, financially - is therefore crucial for Equiano to fulfil his political mission.

He does not limit himself to using sentiment and emotion as tools to gain attention and exert influence. He also uses discourses, inherent and familiar to his addressee, to escape prejudices associated with the reception of the words of a suppressed individual. In other words, he more or less deconstructs his position as an object of colonial rule by constructing a narrative self, who makes use of the discourses that are associated with the suppressors. In doing so, it allows Equiano to move himself -literally and literarily - from the margins of the dominant European culture to a central position therein, as it enables him to write and speak out against slavery with an authoritative voice, and to reach his goal by arguing it is actually beneficial to the ruling class and the economy. In this essay, then, we will argue that Equiano is making a case for a stable British economy, rather than just for abolishing slavery. In his attempt, he endavours to make the ruling class see that precisely by abolishing slavery, or at least by treating slaves humanely, this stabilizing and thus flourishing of the economy can be achieved.

Placing himself in the centre

Equiano uses tools from the oppressors' discourse and language to place himself in an authoritative

position, from where it is more likely that he will receive his addressees attention. He does this literally, for instance by adapting to Christianity, but also by using the terminology and language connected to Christianity and the Western culture. Consider Equiano's statements in his Dedication, for example. He tells us there, that even though he was cruelly separated from his family, country and culture at a young age, he felt "infinitely more than compensated by the introduction thence obtained to the knowledge of the Christian religion" (3). He furthermore states that his travel to England, with its "liberal sentiments, its humanity, the glorious freedom of its government, and its proficiency in arts and sciences (...) [that have] exalted the dignity of human nature" was a good enough compensation for losing his family (3). These declarations, and especially his choice of sounding words like "liberal", "humanity" and "glorious", seem to be the words of someone who has become the colonized subject and thus had to and has embraced all conventions and moralities of the discourse of the colonizing object in power. Equiano has embraced the British ways and manners, its language and religion, which are powerful tools of incorporation, to such an extent that he has, in effect, become one of them.

By embracing the dominancy of British culture, Equiano thus places himself right in the middle of the dynamics. He is an outsider no longer. Instead, he sees himself as someone who has adapted to the ruling power, thus making his voice one of "them", dissolving the common opposition of "us" versus "them". Equiano seems to realize that this distinction will only make it harder to get to where he wants to be: getting Parliament to hear him and listen. In "Talking Too Much English," Tanya Caldwell argues that "far from establishing himself and black Africans against Britain as a potential 'new force', Equiano sees the danger of being perceived in this way, and reveals the thoroughly European nature of his mind most convincingly when he proposes strengthening the system of which he is part by offering up Africa to forces of British trade" (265).

The "offering up Africa" that Caldwell talks about, at first might seem disturbing and paradoxical to an abolitionist-tale. But when we look a little closer, it is all part of Equiano's strategy. The degradation of a people is not only inhumane - an argument that most likely would not have made a effective impression on the reader or Parliament - but it is also unchristian and most of all representative of unsound economics. Now having positioned himself in the centre of things - no longer the outsider but spoken from within and thus having a certain authority - Africa could function as an enormous market that would serve as a wonderful feed for the industrial revolution. That would of course imply that Africans should be able to act as consumers -something which cannot be brought about when they are slaves at the same time. Furthermore, as Equiano implores his readers "by changing your conduct, and treating your slaves as men, every cause of fear would be banished. They would be faithful, honest, intelligent, and vigorous; and peace, prosperity and happiness would attend you" (100). Otherwise said: free people are better workers. Note the way Equiano chooses to describe the Africans as "they", once again aligning himself with the oppressor, making his voice authoritative.

Equiano's insights into slavery

Equiano's incorporation into the dominant British culture is reflected in his line of reasoning and how he positions himself within the dominant culture. As he does associate himself with an oppressed slave, and is leaning towards the center, he sees that slavery eventually will pose a threat to his newly adopted way of life. He is not just arguing in favour of abolishing slavery but also, and maybe even mostly, in favour of treating slaves humanely. It is in the best interest of the slaves, their masters, and the overall social and economic stability. It is interesting to see how Equiano has incorporated the ideas of the ruling class, which would



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