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On Equiano's Travels And The Enlightenment

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On Equiano's Travels and the Enlightenment

During the eighteenth century, an age of enlightenment fell upon the people of Europe. Across the continent, knowledge and discovery spread like wildfire. During this era, an overwhelming majority of middle-class citizens became literate, partaking in various forms of high culture previously reserved exclusively to the aristocracy. At the same time, while the age of Enlightenment produced prominent theorists, thinkers, and intellectual works, it also made the common man more aware of intellectuality. With access to literature rich in revolutionary thought, the middle-class assumed an understanding of natural law that encompassed freedom, social equality, and the value of mankind. However, while Europe was taking momentous steps forward in thinking, the practice of slavery was also gaining popularity. In his narrative, Travels, Oluadah Equiano, born in the West African Kingdom of Benin, details to a European crowd the events of his capture and enslavement at the age of eleven. In an attempt to persuade them of its evils, Equiano's account draws upon the hypocrisy of European ideals of enlightenment in contrast to the dehumanizing nature of slavery.

After Louis XIV died in 1715, the French nobility and middle-class merged to form a type of new educated class of intellectuals who would regularly meet to discuss morals, politics, science, and religion in various towns. In certain townhouse salons, especially insightful individuals would visit, earning the title philosophes, to share their thoughts on these subjects. Rejecting much of the past's authority on the rules of religion and science, philosophes developed new explanations and theories to describe the nature of humanity. At the foundation of their beliefs was that human beings were essentially different from all other life forms. This carried over into beliefs that all humans were also entitled to natural laws of equality that no other human being could take away. Theory of these natural laws claimed roots in neither religion nor governmentÐ'--but rather drew from secular, or natural, morality.

Equiano's Travels reveals a European mind state far removed from philosophe theory. From the outset of his narrative, Equiano's description of his short-lived childhood is filled with cultural detail giving insight into the life of his people. His words also convey his naivety, as Equiano claims to have at one time never even heard of Europeans. When he recounts the day he and his sister were kidnapped from their own yard by greedy countrymen, the reader gets a sense of the inhumanity that exists even in the earliest stages of slavery. Being torn from his sister is a similarly gut-wrenching detail that plagues the reader with a sense of guilt that refuses to leave



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