Black literature begins with the slave memoirs of the 18th century. Equiano’s Interesting Narrative is the most famous of these, especially once it was taken up by supporters of the abolition movement, but he was not the first African slave to publish a book in England, or, if we remember Dr Johnson’s manservant, Francis Barber, the first to have some experience of London literary life.
In the book trade, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho (1782) were probably the first to mobilise English readers against racial discrimination and the horrors of the slave trade. Sancho would pioneer a flourishing genre that runs from Ottobah Cugoano in 1787 (Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species) to Mary Prince in 1831 (The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave). Thereafter, during the 19th century, black literature would continue to flourish, in Britain, with Mary Seacole (no 62 in this series) and, in the USA, with Frederick Douglass (no 68). In the 20th century, this tradition was sustained by largely autobiographical prose, often focusing on the imaginative reworking of the slave experience. Some outstanding recent examples include Grace Nichols: I Is a Long Memoried Woman (1983), Caryll Phillips: Cambridge (1991) and David Dabydeen: Turner (1994). All of these titles owe some intellectual debt to The Interesting Narrative.
Olaudah Equiano(c1745-1797), also known as Gustavus Vassa, was an African writer, born in what is now the Eboe province of Nigeria, and sold into slavery aged 11. Equiano subsequently worked as the slave of a British naval officer, purchased his freedom in 1766 and went on to write his popular slave memoir. No fewer than 17 editions and reprints, and several translations, appeared between 1798 and 1827. In hindsight, The Interesting Narrative became an influential work that established a template for later slave life writing and subsequently an important text in the teaching of African literature. Indeed, to Henry Louis Gates Jr, Equiano is a founding figure in the making of an authentic black literary tradition.
Inevitably, perhaps, The Interesting Narrative has been dogged by controversy from first publication. Equiano’s story was initially discredited as false (despite a preface including testimonials from white people “who knew me when I first arrived in England”). Even now, there are scholars who cast doubt on Equiano’s veracity, claiming that he plagiarised his story from other sources. Whatever the truth, the surviving text of his Interesting Narrative is sufficiently its own, in style and character, to merit serious consideration. Equiano’s story is certainly remarkable.
He gets taken up by white society, patronised by the good and great, but is never free of floggings and incarceration
From the outset, he is concerned to establish his credentials as an ordinary, long-suffering African boy who has endured much and triumphed over adversity. He describes, at some length, the Eboe customs he has grown up with: circumcision, witchcraft and tribal patriarchy. As well as cataloguing his primitive beginnings, Equiano also celebrates the exotic and fabulous natural profusion of Africa, consciously playing to western fascination with the “Dark Continent”: “Our land is uncommonly rich and fruitful, and produces all kinds of vegetables in great abundance. We have plenty of Indian corn, and vast quantities of cotton and tobacco. Our pine apples grow without culture; they are about the size of the largest sugar-loaf, and finely-flavoured. We have also spices of different kinds, particularly pepper; and a variety of delicious fruits which I have never seen in Europe; together with gums of various kinds, and honey in abundance.”
Equiano, for all his modesty the hero of his own tale, also singles himself out for his natural eloquence. It’s his strategy in the memoir to convince his readers of the injustice of slavery by writing withal in a tone of reason and conciliation. While he can pile on the horror of the “middle crossing”, strangely, he lacks any resentment and does not castigate his white masters in print for their cruelty. His tone is nothing if not complicit: “I was named Olaudah, which, in our language signifies vicissitude or fortune; also one favoured, and having a loud voice and well-spoken.”
Having established his origins, Equiano moves to describe his enslavement and transportation to the West Indies, and thence to Virginia, where he served as the slave of an officer in the Royal Navy, Michael Pascal, who renamed him “Gustavus Vassa” after the 16th-century Swedish king. Equiano travelled the oceans with Pascal for eight years, during which time he was baptised and learned to read and write. Pascal then sold Equiano to a ship’s captain in London, who took him to Montserrat, where he was traded with a merchant, Robert King. While working as a deckhand, valet and barber for King, Equiano earned money by negotiating on the side, accumulating enough savings to buy his freedom.
From a documentary point of view, Equiano’s account of life in mid-Georgian Britain is fascinating. He gets taken up by white society and patronised by the great and the good, but he is never quite free of floggings and incarceration. Nevertheless, he does manage to save the money that will buy his freedom.
The Observer view on Britain’s role in the slave trade | Observer editorial
What follows are Equiano’s adventures on the high seas, mixed with his conversion to Christianity. In fact, Equiano spent almost 20 years travelling the world, including trips to Turkey and the Arctic. In 1786, in London, he involved himself in the movement to abolish slavery. He was a prominent member of the “Sons of Africa”, a group of a dozen black men who campaigned for abolition. After the publication of The Interesting Narrative, Equiano travelled widely to promote the book, whose immense popularity became integral to the abolitionist cause and made Equiano a wealthy man. In 1792, Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, and they had two daughters. He died on 31 March 1797.
After a strong opening in West Africa and his account of crossing to the West Indies, Equiano’s personal story becomes fragmented by Abolitionist special pleading. He closes his account with an appeal to his readers’ more tender sympathies: “Torture, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity, are practised upon the poor slaves with impunity. I hope the slave trade will be abolished. I pray it may be an event at hand. The great body of manufacturers, uniting in the cause, will considerably facilitate and expedite it; and it is most substantially their interest and advantage, and as such the nation’s at large (except those persons concerned in the manufacturing of neck-yokes, collars, chains, hand-cuffs, leg bolts, drags, thumb-screws, iron muzzles, and coffins; cats, scourges and other instruments of torture.”
A signature sentence
One morning, when I got upon deck, I saw it covered all over with the snow that fell over-night. As I had never seen anything of the kind before, I thought it was salt; so I immediately ran down to the mate and desired him, as well as I could, to come and see how somebody in the night had thrown salt all over the deck.
Three to compare
Mary Seacole: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857)
Peter Fryer: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984)
Henry Louis Gates Jr: The Signifying Monkey (1988)
•The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano is published by Norton Critical Edition (£9.95). To order a copy go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Olaudah Equiano, Englishness, and the Negotiation of Raced Gender
From its initial publication in 1789, the Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself caused controversy over the identity of the writer and the politics behind the narrative. One of only six surviving slave narratives written before 1800, the Narrative describes Equiano's enslavement in Africa as a young boy in the 1750s, his employment as a sailor and soldier on British ships, his conversion to Christianity, and his life as a freeman in London and elsewhere, In the June 1789 edition of The Monthly Review, one of the first essays about Equiano's story, the reviewer states, "We entertain no doubt of the general authenticity of this very intelligent African's interesting story; though it is not improbable that some English writer has assisted him in the compliment, or at least, the correction of his book: for it is sufficiently well written" (551). Although generally favorable to the Narrative, the reviewer must reinscribe the boundaries between African and Englishman by implying that no African subject could have written the narrative by himself.
Like The Monthly Review, modern literary critics foreground questions of Equiano's identity, his accommodation of British sensibilities, and his glorification of Christianity. As Robin Sabino and Jennifer Hall succinctly state: "Equiano has been characterized variously as a fraud, a plagiarist, an apologist, a hero, a capitalist, and a guerrilla fighter" (5). Some scholars question the authenticity of Equiano's African roots, while other see manifestations of an Ibo world view and language in his narrative. Some find his acceptance of Christianity and of English superiority distasteful, while others see it as a strategic move of resistance. 
Rather than assuming what the identities invoked in the Narrative signify, I propose questioning the concepts of identity as related in the text. I contend that within recent Equiano scholarship, both Englishness and maleness are "unmarked categories," a term used in feminist theory to denote categories taken to be the norm which do not require explanation. Unmarked categories are constructed through comparison with the non-normative other. I interrogate Englishness and masculinity to explore the identity Equiano so reveres—the English gentleman. In this essay I focus specifically on the gendered nature of Englishness in the Narrative, using feminist theories of masculinity and homosociality as well as postcolonial theory to unravel Equiano's contradictory stance towards English masculinity. I show that the Narrative actually goes to the root of English racism by subverting the category of Englishness itself. Equiano subverts English masculinity by insisting on his inclusion in the category. In doing so his account, especially when contexualized by his numerous letters to various newspapers protesting slavery and advocating intermarriage, posits a new hybrid English identity not based on racial exclusivity. Thus his writings, traditionally understood as acquiescent to the norms of Englishness, actually seek to undermine the category it seems to reify.
Part I "Quite Easy with These New Countrymen": Gendered and Raced Englishness
The opening paragraphs of The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano position the narrator in a dialectical relationship between two distinct identities: that of the foreigner and racial other, and that of the civilized Englishman. Equiano begins his narrative by describing himself as an "obscure individual, and a stranger too," commenting that "did I consider myself a European, I might say my sufferings were great" (31). Yet he is familiar enough with eighteenth-century European literary genres to employ the common rhetoric of modesty: "I am not so foolishly vain as to expect from [the Narrative] either immortality or literary reputation . . . Let it therefore be remembered that, in wishing to avoid censure, I do not aspire to praise" (31-32). In this opening paragraph, Equiano figures himself as both a racial and national outsider to England, but also as an astute student of their customs.
Notions of English nationality as found in Equiano's narrative are heavily bound up with ideologies of masculinity and whiteness. Equiano not only reveres England, but the gendered category of "Englishman." For example, he expresses surprise at ill treatment from an English man who owed him money and refused to pay. Equiano sold Mr. Smith goods on credit, trusting that he would be repaid. "I was astonished at this usage from a person who was in the situation of a gentleman," Equiano writes, ironically commenting on the slippage between his own adherence to ideals of honesty and respect for property, and the reality of this Englishman's behavior (172). Equiano presents himself as more English than the English by honoring a verbal contract, and showing himself to be trustworthy.
Equiano's narrative repeatedly articulates his desire for a specifically male English identity. Rather than seeing Englishness as a racially exclusive nationality, it instead stands for an ethnic identity synonymous in Equiano's mind with civilization, Christianity, manliness, and bravery. Within two or three years after his capture and enslavement, the Equiano notes "I no longer looked upon [Englishmen] as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them, to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners" (51-52). Equiano wished to belong to a specific "imagined community," as critic Benedict Anderson would put it, of adult English men.
Frantz Fanon's theorization of the male colonial subject is useful here. According to Fanon, the colonized man's envy of the colonizer extends to a wish to possess his culture and belongings. He describes the colonial world as a "Manichean world" where the "colonized man is an envious man" (40, 39). Fanon equates the struggle between colonized and colonizer with the struggles of male identification and homosocial contact: "The look that the native turns on the settler's town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession—all manner of possession: to sit at the settler's table, to sleep in the settler's bed, with his wife if possible" (39). For Fanon, the colonized man both envies and fears the colonizer, wishing to be him and to destroy him.
Fanon's elision of female colonial experiences has been rightly criticized, but it is interesting to take the step Fanon does not, and to theorize about colonial masculinity as its own category represented in writing. Equiano's identification with England and Englishmen derives, in part, from not wanting to be placed in the disempowering position of an African or female, subject to being exchanged between men. I relate Equiano's desire for English masculinity to Susan Bordo's discussion of the imbrications of heteromasculinity and homomasculinity. Bordo argues that traditionally understood male heterosexuality is based on reifying gender differences. Homoeroticism violates traditional masculinity through its celebration of gender sameness.
Bordo's analysis gives us new way to think about the politics of racial and cultural difference in Equiano's Narrative. She writes:
Here is where the paradox lies. If masculinity itself is a construction premised on, parasitic on, gender difference, then the eroticization of gender sameness is a violation of masculinity. Homoeroticism is paradoxical because it "both embraces and violates masculinity." (285)
While Bordo's argument here deals primarily with homoeroticism and masculinity, both Englishness and masculinity are constructed through an articulation of difference from either racial, cultural, or gendered others. Equiano's desire for a male English identity conforms to Fanon's paradigm of masculine envy, making his quest for literacy and prosperity understandable. However, there is a subversive aspect to his desire. Equiano's embodiment of English cultural values and normative masculinity disrupts the boundaries of Englishness, placing the racial hierarchies necessary to establish a masculinized English identity in jeopardy. To paraphrase Bordo, Equiano's adoption of the positionality of a Englishman "both embraces and violates" Englishness and masculinity. Equiano's narrative positioning of himself as an acculturated Englishman is both a strategy to avoid being constructed as a feminized or disempowered subject, as well as a way to implicitly critique the racial exclusivity of English national identity. Equiano disrupts the fantasy of a homogeneous culture by intruding on what Paul Gilroy calls the "historically authentic English sensiblity" which admits no racial diversity (49).
Writing about his fourteen-year-old self, Equiano describes his acculturation, "I could now speak English tolerably well, and I perfectly understood everything that was said. I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners" (77-78). Equiano acknowledges his English shipmates as his "countrymen" and proudly relates his warm relationship with his master:
It was now between three and four years since I first came to England, a great part of which I had spent at sea; so that I became inured to that service, and began to consider myself as happily situated; for my master treated me always extremely well; and my attachment and gratitude to him were very great. From the various scenes I had beheld on ship-board, I soon grew a stranger to terror of every kind, and was, in that respect at least, almost an Englishman. (77)
The message of this passage is two-fold. Equiano tells us that he forms a strong affectionate homosocial bond with his master while they are at sea, and that this bond facilitates his identity as an adult man. Significantly, the identity Equiano tries to claim for himself as an adult male, "a stranger to terror of every kind" is as an Englishman. The comparison to himself as a young boy, terrified of all white men, which comes several sentences later in this passage, alerts the reader to Equiano's growing maturity as well as to his "desire to resemble [English men], to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners" (78). This identification with, and desire for the mannerisms of Englishmen functions as the way the narrator can enter into adult manhood and a position of power.
Nowhere in the text does Equiano suggest that he can become an adult man who is not English; he notes at one point that he is very glad he did not receive his family group's tribal markings on his face which would signal his entrance into mature Ibo manhood. Equiano states: "As I was now amongst a people who had not their faces scarred, like some of the African nations where I had been, I was very glad that I did not let them ornament me in that manner" (69).
In the rhetoric of English nationalism, a celebration of Englishness is actually a celebration of English masculinity. For example, less than ten years after Equiano published the first edition of his narrative, Samuel Bishop published a poem titled "The English Character." Bishop glorifies stereotypical English qualities of valor in battle, frankness, and an innate sense of justice. He makes clear, however, that these characteristics, labeled "English," form the Englishman's character:
"Provoke an Englishman! how warm he glows!
No longer fierce, when you no more oppose." (25-26)
Shew him some harder task, some manlier aim,
Some feasible benefit, some sublimer claim,
His powers fresh impulse from despair will take,
And all the Englishmen within, — awake. (44-48)
Bishop's poem suggests that not only are there essential qualities of English identity, but that the very best of the English character manifests itself in particularly masculine behavior.
An important component of English culture in the late eighteenth-century, and arguably to the present day, is that it must be free of the presence of racial and cultural others in order to be truly English. Englishness historically relies on the maintenance of the boundaries between the national self and the colonized racial Other. Students of British imperialism may find such a notion laughable given the hybrid nature of British culture after initial encounters with non-Europeans. It is no accident that Englishness, although embodied in eighteenth and nineteenth century novels by people drinking tea, chocolate, and coffee sweetened with sugar, wearing silk garments, and admiring silver and gold extracted from American mines, (all commodities attained through Empire) cannot be discussed as the products of a hybrid culture. Indeed, Bill Overton asks why imperialism, "[t]he most important social, economic and political development involving Britain, among other European countries, from the early seventeenth to the late nineteenth century rarely receives more than lip-service in courses of 'English literature'" (302). In contrast, Equiano's narrative stands as an early testament to the presence of people of African descent in Britain.
Historian Linda Colley remarks that "in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britishness was forged in a much wider context . . . They defined themselves, in short, not just through an internal and domestic dialogue but in conscious opposition to the Other beyond their shores" (316). While I am in agreement with Colley about the constitution of Britishness through a "conscious opposition to the Other," I incorporate Talal Asad's observation that Britishness is in many ways "a cultural hierarchy organized around an essential Englishness" that is racialized and reified in the colonial encounter (241). Equiano's Narrative, when read in conjunction with Bishop's poem, forces us to realize that the Englishness they invoke rests upon a construction of an essential male identity along with an essential national identity.
Part II "Lord to Lord": Relational Identity, Labor, and Exchange
Throughout the Narrative, Englishmen take a fancy to Equiano, and attempt to buy him from his male owners. After arriving in the Caribbean for the second time, and being sold to his fourth master, Equiano comments: "My master was several times offered by different gentlemen one hundred guineas for me; but he always told them he would not sell me, to my great joy; and I used to double my diligence and care for fear of getting into the hands of these men" (103-104). Being exchanged between men is always interpreted as a potentially traumatic event by the narrator. The horror of becoming a commodity, no less than servitude itself, occupies Equiano's mind:
At the sight of this land of bondage, a fresh horror ran through all my frame, and chilled me to the heart. My former slavery now rose in dreadful review to my mind, and displayed nothing but misery, stripes, and chains; and in the first paroxysm of my grief I called upon God's thunder, and his avenging power, to direct the stroke of death to me, rather than permit me to become a slave, and to be sold from lord to lord. (98)
In documenting Equiano's enslavement during his childhood and adolescence, the text negotiates an unstable distinction between the abhorrence of slavery and an admiration of the culture of the slaveholders. As the above examples indicate, the condition of being an exchangeable body between Englishmen ("lord to lord") is a condition Equiano cannot tolerate.
I find it remarkable that the exchange perhaps more than the enslavement of his body vexes Equiano. After being sold by Captain Doran to Robert King, Equiano states that in comparison his current condition, his former life on the seas "hitherto had been perfect freedom" (95). What I would suggest is that to a large degree Equiano accommodates himself to the daily conditions of enslavement, as long as he is treated fairly by his master. Indeed, it is striking that he remains under the control of Robert King for longer than required out of a sense of obligation.
Equiano represents himself as the object of exchange between men, unable to own property, and unable to testify against them because of a legal system which benefited Englishmen. Claiming the spoils of war from fighting on British ships against France, Equiano asserts his status as a sailor and soldier. Equiano protests that he cannot be sold since "I have served [Pascal] said I, many years, and he has taken all my wages and prize-money, for I only got one sixpence during the war" (93). Captain Doran rebuffs him saying, "I talked too much English and if I did not behave myself well, and be quiet, he had a method on board to make me" (94). Captain Pascal further humiliates him by taking "the only coat I had with me" and stating 'If your prize-money had been 10,000£, I had a right to it all, and would have taken it'" (94). Silenced, threatened with violence, and without the right to his own earnings, Equiano seems to readers to be linked with other eighteenth-century characters such as Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, because they share the experience of being passed from man to man.
In perhaps the second most traumatic event of his enslavement, after his initial capture Equiano is sold by Captain Pascal to Captain Doran while they are docked at Graveshead in England. Equiano is again the object of exchange between men. Captain Pascal's new mistress, who also lived on board the ship, "conceived a pique" against Equiano, and requested that he be sold, rather than be given to her lover's former mistress (97). In a footnote, Equiano comments:
Thus was I sacrificed to the envy and resentment of this woman, for knowing that the other lady whom she had succeeded in my master's good graces designed to take me into her service; which, had I got once on shore, she would not have been able to prevent. She felt her pride alarmed at the superiority of her rival being attended by a black servant; it was not the less to prevent this, than to be revenged on me, that she caused the captain to treat me thus cruelly. (267)
The Narrative positions the Captain's mistresses and Equiano as exchangeable. The current and former mistress, themselves objects of exchange and desire for Captain Pascal, are caught up in similar networks of exchange as Equiano. As Susan C. Greenfield observes about the strained connection between white women and slaves, "Although the trope of the English woman and slave capitalizes on an emotionally charged history while erasing the specific cruelty of slavery, the analogy simultaneously disrupts the national and racial distinctions on which justifications of slavery depend" (219). This passage invites us to read the exchange of the "other lady" in conjunction with the exchange of Equiano, de-racializing human exchanges so that they happen to both English and African subjects. However, Equiano finds this problematic, since it links him to the powerlessness and exchangeability of the female subject by men.
Crossing the boundary between colony and metropole, Equiano is first brought to England at the age of twelve by a man named Pascal, who, Equiano tells us "meant me for a present to some of his friends in England" (40). As Peter Fryer explains, African children or adolescents brought to England constituted a "fashion" for "titled families, by high-class prostitutes, and by others with social pretensions" (24). As status symbols, African or Afro-Caribbean children became part of the conspicuous display of the ruling classes' wealth and power. As a boy and early adolescent, Equiano was similarly used as a marker of his male owners' class standing, much as women were used to display their husband's wealth through their appearance.
From the perspective of an eighteenth century reader, the Narrative places Equiano in position which is usually constructed as belonging to women. We might speculate that the subtext of the horror of this exchange is that its positionality is similar to that of African and European women during this time. The powerlessness Equiano has over his body and its potential exchangeability between Englishmen might explain his perhaps paradoxical identification with them. Equiano's loss of power over his body, his property, and his geographic location mimics eighteenth century novels where women lose control over their bodies, property, and residences as they are exchanged by men in the marriage contract. The Narrative very strongly suggests that the powerlessness of Afro-Caribbean women to resist being exchanged between men and to resist the sexual advances of their captors is a feminized position. The connection between other texts' representations of Englishwomen's powerlessness and exchangeability in marriage have a correlation to the Narrative's representation of Equiano and other African subjects both male and female as exchangeable objects. In attempting to become an Englishman, Equiano resists being placed in the position of an African man and an African or European woman.
It would seem then, that in forming a bond with an English "master," which Equiano conspicuously does when he is both a slave and free, Equiano is then put into a hierarchical homosocial relationship. Describing life in Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, John Gillis points out that people "lived in a hierarchical social order in which everyone knew his or her place" (13).
From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, households were large, complex institutions . . . Everyone in the household was equally subject to the absolute control of the master and mistress and was legally and culturally a 'child' of the household for the duration of their residence. Servants, apprentices, and slaves were expected to give their obedience and labor in return for shelter and nurture. (33)
Equiano's status (under more liberal masters) mimics the relationship of servant and employer, or tradesman and customer. In representing his labor as valuable, Equiano is not being submissive, but rather taking his place in the hierarchy of English manhood.
Fanon's observation about colonized men's envy of the ruling class colonizer takes on an interesting form here, as Equiano desires the identity of an English servant, not necessarily of an English master. Stressing his value as a servant, Equiano includes in the Narrative several notes of satisfaction from former masters. Equiano calls these notes "certificate[s] of my behaviour" (163, 210) reprinting with pride statements such as "The bearer, Gustavus Vassa, has served me for several years with strict honesty, sobriety, and fidelity. . . in every respect I consider him as an excellent servant" (210). A contemporary writer observed that "a great Number of black Men and Women" when brought to England:
No sooner arrive here, than they put themselves on a Footing with other Servants, become intoxicated with Liberty, grow refractory, and either by Persuasion of others, or from the own Inclinations, begin to expect Wages according to their own Opinion of their Merits. (extract reprinted in Carretta 268)
For Equiano, his identification with his masters comes out of his desire to become like them in their ownership of their own labor. It is only when this fiction of a reciprocity of value is disturbed by the exchange of Equiano's body, not simply his labor, that trauma is produced. Equiano longs to be in England as a freeman, precisely because this exchange of bodies cannot take place there. He will still be in a subservient relationship with both Englishmen and English culture, but his body will not be exchangeable.
Equiano's identification with Englishmen, and his repeated insistence on forming protective or hierarchical bonds with them prevent him from being placed in the position of being exchangeable. Equiano insists on the value of slaves' labor:
I have sometimes heard it asserted, that a negro cannot earn his master the first cost; but nothing can be further from the truth. I suppose nine tenths of the mechanics throughout the West Indies are negro slaves; and I well know the coopers among them earn two dollars a day; the carpenters the same, and oftentimes more; also the masons, smiths, and fishermen, &c. and I have known many slaves whose masters would not take a thousand pounds current for them. (103)
This is a somewhat odd description of African labor in the West Indies given that most slaves would have been employed as agricultural workers and not as tradesmen. However, by presenting male slaves as productive, the Narrative belies racist ideas of the dependence of Afro-Caribbeans on whites. "By the last half century of slavery," writes Michael Craton, "not only were the slaves providing most of their own subsistence but had so far upset the theory that as chattel property they could hardly own property or money themselves as to participate in the cash economy" (360). Through the representation of slaves as wage earners, Equiano can demonstrate a class value to the labor of slaves who have learned a trade and are more highly valued than mere cane-cutters. It also poses the possibility of Afro-Caribbean men as fitting into a masculine role in an English class structure outside of their status of slaves. Equiano himself repeatedly insists on his value to his masters, and the commercial worth of his labor.
In describing himself as a productive and trustworthy servant, the narrator of the Narrative becomes an explicitly relational subject, existing in a series of insider and outsider positionalities in relation to Englishness, Africanness, and gendered roles. While looking for another position on board ship, Equiano finds himself longing for home: "had my heart not been fixed on England, I should have stayed [in the Bahamas], as I liked the place extremely, and there were some free black people here who were very happy, and we passed our time pleasantly together" (157). In another incident, Equiano's former master in Monserratt offers to assist him in becoming a West Indian gentleman, promising "in a short time . . . land and slaves of my own" (163). Rejecting the offer to become a West Indian gentleman, or to live among other freed slaves, Equiano insists on going back to England. We can read Equiano's valorization of his own Englishness in tandem with Bordo's theory of homomasculinity as a practice that subvert identities based on maintaining difference. In publishing his experience of acculturation, as I discuss in the next section, Equiano paves the way for a new understanding of English national identity and the role of African subjects within it.
Part III Narration as Subversion: Creating a New Englishness
Equiano's transition from an Ibo speaking West African youth to an adult man literate in English stands as the significant marker of his acculturation. Like many slave narratives, Equiano focuses on reading and literacy as keys to dignity and self worth. His description of first encountering English men reading has become paradigmatic for the meaning of literacy to the enslaved African diaspora, in its quest for literacy: "I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning" (68). The English text when discovered by colonial subjects, according to Homi Bhabha, "installs the sign of appropriate representation: the word of God, truth, art creates the conditions for a beginning, a practice of history and narrative" (31). Through reading Equiano does learn a beginning, that of the rise of Christianity. In writing, however, Equiano supplies his readers with his own narrative, and his own "practice of history" which seeks to disrupt racially pure notions of Englishness.
In the dedication of his Narrative to "The Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the great Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain" Equiano voices his precarious cultural position. The Narrative is dedicated to the members of Parliament in order to attempt to convince them to abolish the slave trade. However, in order to convince these English gentlemen of the necessity of abolition, Equiano's representation of the English people and culture cannot overstep certain boundaries. Unlike the production of another African residing in Britain, Ottobah Cugoano, Equiano did not write statements such as "every man in Great-Britain [is] responsible in some degree" for slavery and that "If any man should buy another man. . . and compel him to his service and slavery without any agreement of that man to serve him, the enslaver is a robber, and a defrauder of that man every day" as Cugaono did in 1787 (qtd. in Fryer 99). Indeed, rather than castigating Parliament as frauds and "robbers" of his freedom, Equiano thanks them for giving him access to authentic English culture and Christianity.
Equiano's dedication does charge Parliament to take account of the "horrors of that trade [where] I was first torn away from all the tender connections which were naturally dear to my heart" ("Dedication" 3). However, unlike Cugaono's statements, Equiano's testimony derives its moral authority from establishing the author's and the members of Parliament's common humanity and equality; the sympathy and powers of identification of the reader are clearly being addressed here. Equiano writes,
through the mysterious ways of Providence, I ought to regard [my slavery] as infinitely more than compensated by the introduction I have thence obtained to the knowledge of the Christian religion, and of a nation which, by its liberal sentiments, its humanity, the glorious creed of its government, and its proficiency in arts and sciences, has exalted the dignity of human nature." ("Dedication" 3)
Despite the narrator's naming of his loss as the severing of "tender connections" to family and country, Equiano goes on to state that he has been "more than compensated" by the "knowledge" of Christianity. This dedication both charges Parliament with the theft of Equiano's identity as an Ibo man imbricated in a series of cultural and kinship networks, as well as expresses his gratitude for the replacement of these networks with a new knowledge of English religion, nationality, and customs. While the two descriptions of England as participating in the "horror" of the slave-trade and as "exalt[ing] the dignity of human nature" seem to contradict each other, I would argue that for Equiano they are both true.
Equiano's arguments against slavery depend on invoking his readers' specific and shared standards of what England and English men should be. Without this shared understanding, his condemnation of England would be little more than a diatribe, rather than the call for Englishmen to act as their better selves and abolish slavery. At the same time, the fact that Equiano must contrast the ideals of English manhood with the reality of Englishmen's actions suggests that norms of Englishness were not uniform.
For example, the discourse of English nobility and chivalry Equiano invokes competes against emerging imperial and mercantile identities. Joseph Fichtelberg comments that Equiano's text is "situated at the focus of a profound cultural transformation, one that in a sense it embodies" largely through its depiction of the emergence of modern capitalism made possible by Britain's imperial possessions (466). England's economic transformation accompanied a profound social transformation in which the good of the country became rhetorically predicated on the good of the empire. Equiano's condemnation of slavery reflects this shift as he asks Heaven to "make the British senators the dispersers of light, liberty, and good policy," in abolishing slavery, figuring the senators as benevolent lords to their vassals (233). In the same breath Equiano argues "These are designs consonant with the elevation of their stations; they are ends suitable to the nature of a free and generous government; and, connected with views of empire and dominion, suited to the benevolence and solid merit of the legislature" (232). The noble and gentlemanly action is to abolish slavery and extend the reaches of empire and Christianity.
By participating in the print culture of late-eighteenth-century England, Equiano inserts himself into the narrative of an emerging English national identity. Equiano re-codes Englishness and literary norms in the first chapter of his narrative, stating:
I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity; nor is this the only disadvantage under which they labour; it is also their misfortune, that whatever is uncommon is rarely, if ever, believed: and what is obvious we are apt to turn from with disgust, and to charge the writer with impertinence." (31)
Equiano turns claims of modesty and humility, common in English literary productions of his time, into an appeal for the reader to believe the "unusual" in his tale of slavery.
English national identity has been largely constructed through literary achievements (such as the writings of Shakespeare). Paradoxically, the literature and culture of the English, as Simon Gikandi notes, in turn have been claimed by colonized peoples who simultaneously reject colonial political control (xix). Therefore the stakes are quite high when Equiano declares himself in his narrative to be the recipient of the gift of English nationality and to have mastered its cultural forms. When Equiano repeatedly declares his longing for England in print, and declares himself (albeit hesitatingly) to be like an Englishman, norms of Englishness are both upheld and subverted.
As Fanon's and Bordo's theories suggest, the cultural envy of the colonized man can become a radical challenge to the identity of the colonizer. Equiano and a white Englishman may share a loyalty to England, and a naturalization of its norms, but Equiano's admiration in conjunction with his racial difference reconfigures Englishness. In the process, traditional boundaries between the racially pure self and foreign others meet in the body of Equiano who is at once the same and different.
The Narrative does not limit cultural hybridity to Equiano himself. In arguing for an end to the slave trade, Equiano proposes that a system of mercantile imperialism be instituted in Africa. The text conjectures: ". . . if a system of commerce was established in Africa, the demand for manufacturers will most rapidly augment, as the native inhabitants would insensibly adopt the British fashions, manners, customs, &c. In proportion to the civilization, so will be the consumption of British manufactures" (233). In return for abolition and British culture, Equiano majestically offers the body of Africa itself to the Englishmen he addresses: "Population, the bowels and surface of Africa, abound in valuable and useful returns; the hidden treasures of centuries will be brought to light and into circulation" (234). The African continent will become the possession of Britain, and the inhabitants of Africa will become Anglicized through the imperial project.
Intriguingly, the Narrative implies by describing Equiano's own marriage to an Englishwoman that English culture will also become a hybrid of African and English. In a review of two pro-slavery texts printed in The Public Advertiser in 1788, Equiano argues that the solution to the sexual crimes inherent in slavery is to abolish it and to promote intermarriage in Britain itself:
As the ground-work, why not establish intermarriages at home, and in our Colonies? and encourage open, free, and generous love, upon Nature's own wide and extensive plan, subservient only to moral rectitude without distinction of the color of skin? That ancient, most wise, and inspired politician, Moses, encouraged strangers to unite with the Israelites, upon this maxim, that every addition to their numbers was an addition to their strength . . . Away then with your narrow impolite notion of preventing by law what will be a national honour, national strength, and productive of national virtue—Intermarriages!
(Public Advertiser 1-2)
By describing imperial possessions as "our Colonies," de-naturalizing racial boundaries in marriage (which results in interracial kinship ties), and aligning Africa and Britain through mercantile and cultural imperialism, Equiano poses himself as a new English subject. In addition, Equiano constructs Englishness as a cultural identity rather than a racialized one, extending the boundaries of English national identity to include African and Afro-British subjects. Equiano reconfigures the sexual unions of Africans and British subjects from the shame of slavery and its attendant oppressions to "national honor, national strength and national virtue," the outcome of a racially mixed and triumphant Imperial Britain.
In conclusion, although Equiano's embrace of English culture and standards might seem inexplicable, upon closer examination the mastery of English culture allows Equiano to re-inscribe the very norms which seek to exclude him. It must be noted, though, that he does so by invoking male privilege and dominance through a bond with the other male colonizers of "our Colonies." Equiano achieves English masculinity through an absorption of its values of dominance and possession. Even though Equiano's very presence in England, and its textual representation in the Narrative, does not allow the traditional constructions of Englishness to be maintained, hegemonic notions of English masculinity are indeed confirmed. Thus Englishness is shown in Equiano's Narrative not as only a raced category, but it is also constructed as masculinely gendered. Ironically, by reifying English national identity, Equiano's text both subverts its racial component while upholding its male privilege.
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Jocelyn Stitt is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Michigan's joint program in English Literature and Women's Studies. Her dissertation explores four twentieth-century Caribbean writers' uses of the historical and literary intertexts of the British Romantic era. She is currently a graduate fellow at Michigan's Institute for the Humanities. Acknowledgments: The writing of this essay was generously supported by a year-long fellowship at the Institute for the Humanities. Michigan's Institute for Research on Women and Gender funded my research for this essay in 1997. My thanks to the IRWG fellows, and to Simon Gikandi, Lincoln Faller, Michele Champagne, and Lisa Bessette for their collegial encouragement and support.
1. In comparison with the numerous accounts of slavery by African-Americans, there is little textual record left of the West Indian slave experience. See W. Jeffry Bolster.
2. S.E. Ogude doubts the veracity of Equiano's memories of Africa, while Equiano's African ethnicity has been treated as authentic by historians, cultural critics, and linguists such as Paul Edwards and Catherine Obianju Acholonu. Susan Marren finds Equiano's self representation to be transgressive and inspiring for later African-American writing. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker Jr. claim Equiano's narrative as an early African-American text and do not focus on Equiano's English identity. Other scholars such as Peter Fryer claim the Narrative as early Anglo-African writing. Vincent Carretta acknowledges the controversy over Equiano's origins, but categorizes him as a West Indian writer, noting that some archival material supports theories that Equiano was born in South Carolina, although Equiano's recollection of verifiable events in his narrative is "remarkably reliable." William Mottolese recently argued that Equiano's identity as a writer is informed by the theological writings of Thomas Wilson.
3. My thinking on this point owes much to Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw's important work on intersectionality and identity.
4. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Equiano's Narrative will be from the 1794 ninth edition edited by Vincent Carretta.
5. See Anna Marie Smith.
6. S.E. Ogude also sees a connection between Equiano's narrative and the work of Defoe: "Equiano shares with Crusoe, Singleton and Captain Jack, the tradition of Defoe: they are all very well-travelled men of action . . . More significantly, perhaps, they have all experienced life at almost every rung of the social ladder" ("Olaudah" 82). I too see a connection, but between Defoe's female characters who are repeatedly cheated and exchanged between men.
7. See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey.
8. This connection is further complicated by Peter Fryer's contention that Equiano assisted in the publishing of Cugaono's narrative, and thus must certainly have read it (99).
9. An interesting example of English nationalism being promoted through cultural achievement occurs in an 1873 poem where the achievements of two writers, and only one political figure are lauded:
"Ours are great deeds, ours mighty names
That we and Glory treasure well;
Of Shakespeare's, Milton's, Cromwell's fames
Our love and reverence proudly tell" (William Cox Bennett 25-28).