Sunday, August 11, 2013

Life of Olaudah Equiano

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. By Himself, ed. Joanna Brooks

The life of Olaudah Equiano is the first slave narrative we have, an autobiography written by a man who was taken from his home in (now) Nigeria and sold as a slave.  He eventually bought his freedom and was able to write his story down, so this is an extremely valuable text.  It's also a remarkably old one, since Equiano was born in 1745 and wrote his book in 1792.  He argued for the abolition of slavery, but did not live to see it happen in the British Empire.

Equiano tells the entire story of his life, starting with his family and the society he was born into.  He was kidnapped as a child (about age 10, I think), and moved slowly out to the coast, where he was put onto a slave ship of the kind we read about in school.  This one was bound to the West Indies, and he was sold to a sea captain.  Equiano spent most of his life at sea, and his adventures take up a good 60% of the book.  It reads like a Horatio Hornblower story--ships of the line, privateers, battles and wrecks--very exciting stuff.

He also worked hard at learning everything he could.  He got fellow sailors to teach him reading and writing, and any other skill that came along, so he became an expert hairdresser and learned the new science of purifying seawater.  He engaged in trade as much as he could, starting with a halfpenny and eventually earning quite a lot of money--even though he was frequently cheated.  And he became a very devout Christian.  Equiano relates his religious life in detail, describing times when he was assisted by God and how he was converted.

Of course his central theme is the iniquities of slavery and the injustice of the law.  He describes many abuses in detail and is very eloquent about the consequences of slavery to both black and white people.  He also talks about how free black people are always in danger, either from kidnappers or from abuses, for there was no law protecting free black people from being cheated or beaten or whatever.

I'll certainly have my daughters read this when they are older.  It's an amazing book.  I don't think American students generally read it, since it has fairly little to do with the American slave trade, but it should be more known.  But if you have seen the film Amazing Grace that was made a few years ago, Equiano is portrayed in it.

I found this book in an interesting little edition that is part of a series--the Lakeside Classics.  I'd never seen it before.  It's been going since 1903, and every year they publish one new volume.  They are all non-fiction having to do with  American history.  (I was pleased to see John Bidwell on the list!)  This one may be a little bit of a stretch, since Equiano was mostly involved with the British and spent little time in the American colonies, but I'm glad it was included.  It's a beautiful edition, liberally sprinkled with illustrations and maps, and made for a nice reading experience.  It also has very good footnotes.  But I think it will be easiest to find this book in the Dover Thrift edition.

I did not realize at first that the editor is the same Joanna Brooks who is now known for her commentary on the LDS Church.  It took me a while to track the information down, in fact, since this is not listed as one of her books, and at first I looked it up because I assumed it must be a different academic with the same name. 


Emily Coleman said...

I read part of this for one of my classes, and I was surprised I'd never heard of it before. It was so interesting! I want to read the rest of it someday.

Side note--Joanna Brooks lives in my home ward now and taught a couple of my friends in Sunday school. I moved away a couple months before, and I wish I could have gotten a chance to meet her!

Jean said...

You should definitely read it--it was great. And very swashbuckling.

Wow. Well, I suppose you'll meet her at Christmas sometime or something. Do you follow her stuff online? (I do not. Though I certainly class myself as an LDS feminist, she bugs me.)

Jenny/Teachingmybabytoread said...

Well now you've got to get Ann Cameron's book, The Kidnapped Prince, for your girls:

Jean said...

Oh, excellent! I will do so. Thanks!