Preserving Ones Identity: an in Depth Look at Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative

Equiano explicitly explains the life he once lived, and the life that he lives after the middle passage. Equiano was one of the thousands of men, women, and children stolen and sold as slaves in the western world. In the text, he is a subtle and explicit narrator with regards to recounting the hardships he endured himself and the ones that he witnessed. His narration also accounted partiality to the select few white men that were kind to him throughout his journey. Equiano’s story is a unique, authentic account instead of the typical textbook explanation of slavery.

It explains his journey in explicit detail. Equiano internally battles with his own self-concept of identity and what his identity is; this is a battle that is heightened after he earns his freedom. Once Equiano is free, society becomes his new master. He faces the same hardships that he endured from his master in captivity, but this time, society made his life hard because of the color of his skin. As Equiano’s narrative unfolds, it becomes evident that his new life has subverted his old one and the only way to survive in this new world is to mask his true identity.

Before Equiano was stolen from Africa, he enlightens his audience about what life in Africa was like. He describes the importance of hygiene to his people and goes into detail about some of the cleaning rituals that they practice. He does this to humanize his people and change the stigma that Africans were an uncivilized, godless, and unintelligent people. Equiano also explains the difference between the different types of slavery in Africa. He emphasized two points: captivity is only temporary, and slaves were treated humanely. One way to become a slave in Equiano’s homeland was to be convicted of crimes such as kidnapping or adultery. Another way a person could become a slave was if they were a prisoner of war.

Laura Tanner explains the reasoning behind constructing a self-image the former slave’s attempt to manipulate the form of his or her narrative to achieve authentication of that narrative as historical evidence worthy of use in a political argument; the second is defined by the ex-slave’s effort to remain true to his or her own unique history and consciousness by focusing on the effort of presenting him- or herself in that narrative as an authentic human being. As Equiano created the himself in the text, he became more relatable to the reader. In turn, he became a more credible source and achieved his goal of authenticating himself and his story. Equiano went through the trouble of giving extensive detail about who he was as a young boy to construct his self-image as a strong and resilient young man however, “In order for a slave narrative to be accepted as historical evidence, Stepto argues, it must be shown that the former slave’s accounting of his story is authentic” .

Equiano accomplishes this by giving the reader a very detailed account of all of the events that took place while he was in bondage. In the summer of 1754, Equiano was sold to a Royal Navy officer named Michael Pascal, and Pascal renamed him Gustavus Vassa. Pascal gave Equiano a new name-Gustavus Vassa. Although Equiano was still a slave, he was introduced to a new lifestyle under his new master. Pascal sent him to a school in London to learn how to read and write. Like other slave narratives, this is when Equiano began to want better for himself. When he was a little boy, he wondered how the books “talked” to the person who was holding it. When he was presented with the opportunity to learn how to read, it did more than give him new information that he did not know; it also gave him a new perspective on life and from that he forged a new path for which his life would go. After a few years of living in England, he became determined to learn the language and become proficient in reading and writing. Being that Equiano was on the path to becoming a learned slave, it gave him an advantage and a chance of survival.

After making a few milestones with academic achievement, Equiano became fascinated with the idea of Christianity and baptism, so Miss. Guerins pressed for his master to allow him to be baptize, “I communicated my anxiety to the eldest Miss Guerin, with whom I was become a favourite, and pressed het to have me baptized; when to my great joy she told me I should. She had formerly asked my master to let me be baptized, but he had refused; however she now insisted on it; and he being under some obligation to her brother complied with her request; so I was baptized in St. Margaret’s church, Westminser, in February 1759, by my present name.

The clergyman, at the same time, gave me a book, called a Guide to the Indians, written by the bishop of Sodor and Man. On this occasion Miss Guerin do me the honour to stand as godmother, and afterwards gave me a treat” After his baptism, he began to embody the European religious character and became fixated on the idea of self-improvement. His conversion from Polytheism to Christianity represents his freedom from sin and new way of life. This simple decision played a monumental role in the rest of Equiano’s life. Through his embrace of God’s salvation, he begins to submerge himself into the ways of the “New World.” It is here that he learns how to interact with other people and learns that being an effective communicator is the key to his survival beyond the life that he lives now.

The only way that slaves could be freed at this time was by buying their own freedom. From his new master, Mr. King, he learned the power of mercantilism. Equiano, a learned man, observed how Mr. King earned his money and learned how to do the same thing. For many years, Equiano bought and sold things around the West Indies until he saved enough money to buy his freedom. Once he saved up forty-seven pounds, he asked the captain, whom he considered a friend, how he should move forward with gaining his freedom. In turn, the captain set up a meeting with Equiano’s master so that he could ask his master if he could buy his freedom. Initially, the master was confused about where he got the money from, but eventually allowed Equiano to go to the register office and get his formal emancipation. Once he was considered a free man, Equiano found many ways to sustain his new life. He tried his hand in trade and other learned-based businesses. In finding new work to do, he got a true taste of what it meant to be free in the “New World.” He was able to choose where he worked and how he spent his money. It is believed that capitalism is the one system that would allow slaves and former slaves to truly prosper.

It is worth noting that even though he was a free man, there were many times where Equiano was treated unfairly by white men. In his trading and other capital ventures, some white men would “get over” on Equiano by finding ways to not pay him the full amount of the item/ service that they inquired. Some men still saw Equiano as a pawn in capitalism versus a player in capitalism now that he is a free man. At first Equiano’s perspective of the white men were of fear, for he felt that they were savages who would kill and eat him. Ironically, white men had the same fear towards the native Africans in their homeland. After getting over that irrational fear, Equiano proved to his masters that he grasps on to new material quickly. In fact, he observes that white people are the ones who learn at a slower pace.

His quick observations enable him to adapt to the western way of life without much breaking in, in this way he is more likely comprehend the society in which he lives. Equiano was given four different names as he was sold from master to master and because of this, he began to lose sight of his true identity and his functionality in society. In this, he also began to lose his power and overall respect for himself. While in bondage, Equiano was restricted on the amount he, as a human, could develop; this led to limited opportunities for him to capitalize on for his own personal growth. Because Equiano has no sense of stability in his life due to constant selling, he began to realize what it meant to truly be a slave. Because of his heightened observation and imitation skills, he learned to speak a little broken English. This enables him to gradually understand the environment that he is in and what is occurring around him. He achieved enlightenment and self-development to a degree through his conversion to Christianity while being owned by Pascal, who enabled him to be baptized.

Through his baptism he embraces God and frees himself from his past sins, simultaneously creating new morals which he would live by once he was a free man. His desire to live a Westernized life and admiration is strange because of his treatment while he was enslaved. In fact, he hated them when he first arrived in the western world, but now he sees them as superior beings. This shift in thinking only occurs because he was told that he was lesser than them since his arrival. Equiano was a slave for ten years. Like most unbroken slaves, he rebelled against traditions of European culture; however, after having several gentle masters, he begins to adapt to his new culture. He goes to great lengths to personally develop, adapt to their religion, and embrace Western mercantilism. The more that Equiano learns about his new culture, the more he grows in his new identity. Since he was born a free man and forced into slavery, it was hard for him to regain the mental capacity to want that innate right back. According to the text, ‘[he was] resolved to make each statement to acquire [his] opportunity and come back to Old England’ .

This is interesting because he is no longer eager to return back home to Africa; by this time, he has lost touch with his true identity and seems to prefer to live in the life that he was given instead of the one he was born with. This development which Equiano alludes to as home portrays his development as a man and his full-fledged transformation into ‘westernism’ and Christianity. Christianity was a contributing factor in Equiano’s submersion into Western culture. As he learned more about Christianity, he became surer of his identity as an Englishman and being absorbed into their community. Since he was baptized at such a young hope, he newfound faith in God propelled him to do everything that he possibly could to become free. The mere thought of an all-knowing being looking over him at all times fascinated Equiano. In a way, Christianity and Western culture shaped Equiano into the man that he grew into. Being that Equiano relied on his wit and keen observation skills to help him survive his life in bondage. With those two skills, he quickly learned the mannerisms of the masters and other white people that ruled over him.

Their goal was to strip each slave of their identity and give them a new one; this is a process that Paulo Freire called “banking.” Banking is an educational method where people of power tell impressionable people who they are and eventually they become who they are told they are rather than being who they want to be. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits . While this worked for many slaves, it did not for Equiano. He was too smart to fall victim to westernization, but he did play the role of a “good nigger.” Equiano did his best to stay in good graces with his masters, but at times it became hard to mask his true identity. Throughout his entire account of his experience, he remains confident that he held on to his African values as a Christian man, but he admits that his two identities conflicted each other from time to time.

Equiano knew that in order to survive and be free one day, he had to mask his African identity and play the role of a trickster. A trickster is a character “which exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behavior.” Equiano does not embody all of the characteristics of a trickster because he does not bend or break the rules to steal things; he just uses it to fool his masters into thinking that he wanted to be absorbed into their culture. In African American literature, the trickster is typically used as way to overcome oppression. This theme use is prevalent throughout Equiano’s entire narrative.

Once he educated himself, he began to free himself mentally, and he embodied the role of a trickster until he was able to buy his freedom and separate himself from the life that he was forced to live while being held captive. In conclusion, as Equiano becomes more educated and gains the trust of his masters, his old life and values must be replaced with the new values in order for him to survive. Equiano depicts himself as a wise, all-knowing, quick witted young man and he credits those innate skills to his survival and eventual freedom from slavery, but without his African values and life lessons, he would not have been able to make it as far is he did. He relied on African trickster rituals to help him circumnavigate his life, but he does not credit his freedom to his own wit; he credits it to his new life as an Englishman. His mastery of adaptation, desire to learn, and cultural background were the real reason why he was able to endure the hardships of slavery and eventually buy his freedom.

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Preserving Ones Identity: An in Depth Look at Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative. (2021, Oct 13). Retrieved October 27, 2021 , from

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