Olaudah Equiano: Uncle Tom of Joseph


Olaudah Equiano 3The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African is one of the most influential and popular of the slave narratives that were published in the late 18th and 19th centuries.  The autobiographical work by Olaudah Equiano (renamed Gustavus Vassa by those who had enslaved him) is not without its literary merit, but like the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, the work is largely written the author’s contemporary white audiences, and so, it reads in parts as though it were written somebody suffering from Stockholm syndrome.  Reading the work in its historical context though, it becomes clear that any arguments suggesting that Equiano was an ‘Uncle Tom’, fail to see that he uses the religion of the oppressor to challenge the exploitation of the enslaved people in the Americas.  By positioning himself as and 18th century version of Joseph (son of Jacob, not stepfather of Jesus), and detailing the life of a slave through a religious context that highlights the hypocrisy of Europeans, Equiano was able to not only challenge the preconception that the peoples of Africa were culturally inferior, but also helped to spur the movement that led to the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished of the slave trade in the United Kingdom.  Though geared for a ‘white’ readers at the time, the work’s nuance and subtext demonstrate the vast extent of Equiano’s intellect and literary skill.




A portrait of Equiano.

A portrait of Equiano.

Even upon reading the work’s title, it is clear that the process of colonization is strongly rooted in language, but while Equiano allows the reader to see how language can serve as a tool of colonization, he also uses it to highlight the hypocrisy of the West.  In the title, Equiano is referred to both as ‘Olaudah Equiano’, and ‘Gustavus Vassa’.  He notes that in his native tongue, his name had a meaning: blessed or fortunate (30).  Upon being enslaved, this name is taken away, demonstrating a failure on the part of Europeans to recognize the name of the enslaved.  This may seem unimportant, but changing a person’s name changes the language that shapes their perceptions.  This is actually a key strategy that cults use to brainwash people.  Often times when a person joins a cult, the group gives the individual a new name, and thereby a new identity, creating a separation between their new identity and their former selves.  This was a common practice for all slaves, but what is so encouraging about Equiano’s narrative, is that he takes his original name back, just as many people who join Islam reject their given name and choose their own name, or like those who managed to escape the bonds of slavery often renamed themselves with surnames such as ‘Freed’ or ‘Freeman’.  Equiano also uses language to contrast the brutality of the Western world with the civility of African dialects.  He notes that the people from his tribe were “totally unacquainted with swearing” and that “all those terms of abuse and reproach which find their way so readily and copiously into the language of more civilized people” (41) are people absent in his native tongue.  The use of the word ‘civilized’ is overtly ironic, given that his observations illuminate how brutish the English language was with its vulgarities, in comparison to his own language.  Language, then, is used both to illustrate the ways in which slavers sought to colonize the mind, but is also used to highlight the hypocrisy of the oppressor.




Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote the introduction for the edition of Equiano's autobiography that I read.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote the introduction for the edition of Equiano’s autobiography that I read.

As much as language can be an oppressive force, it can also be an empower one, and for Equiano, it was his mastery of language and of the English Bible that allowed him formulate his argument against slavery, which in turn spurred the Slave Trade Act of 1807.  Equiano links laws and religion together, noting that he had “been baptized: and, by the laws of the land, no man ha[d] a right to sell” him (98).  This is a two-pronged allusion to Exodus.  Firstly, Exodus instructs that should one “stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (21:16).  Since Equiano was stolen, then those who participated in the theft of his freedom, by Judeo/Christian law, should be sentenced to death.  Even if the enslavement were acceptable, Exodus also states that the slave who serves six years shall, in his “seventh… go out free for nothing” (21:2). On both counts, Equiano should have been a free man.  He also draws on Exodus when asked a man who beat an enslaved man to the point where the enslaved man’s injuries had him on the brink of death, “how [the slaver], as a Christian, could answer for the horrid act” should the victim die (110).  This scenario is addressed in Exodus, which dictates that“if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished” (21:20), prescribing corporal punishment for people who physically abuse servants or enslave people.  It is also written that “if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake” (21:26).  Therefore, those enslaved people who suffered severe injury should be set free according to Judeo/Christian law.  Though Equiano does not mention scripture specifically in these instances, his audience would have been well versed in it, and given that he speaks of Moses and Egyptians (116), it is clear that he wants the audience to link his arguments with Exodus specifically.



An add for a slave auction.

An add for a slave auction.

Equiano also calls upon the New Testament (aka The Bible II: Return and Resurrection) by invoking The Golden Rule (which can generally be applied without incident by everybody save masochists) when he calls upon the Christian reader: “O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, ‘learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?’” (63)  This passage asks that the Christian reader consider how they would feel if they were in place of the enslaved people.  He then calls upon John, stating that “no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (195), asserting that those who are complicit in the crimes linked with slavery cannot expect to count themselves amongst those who will enter heaven.  Equiano asks the reader to put these actions into this Christian context, but being the careful writer that he is, he does not rely on accusations and finger pointing; he is equally critical of himself.  When articulating that he had only broken two of the Ten Commandments, he expresses his humility when a Christian versed in theology notes that “He that offends in one point is guilty of all” (194).  The beauty of this passage is that in showing his humility, he encourages the reader to let their guard down and share in passing judgement on him, but once they’ve fallen into that trap, they must concede that they, like him, are complicit in sin.  By drawing on Christian law and Biblical text, Equiano is able to humble himself by adopting the oppressor’s faith and concedes to his own ‘guilt’, but offers a far more virtuous account than most readers would be able to, thereby forcing them to confront their own sin and complicity in the exploitation of the peoples of Africa.




An early edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

An early edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In supplicating himself to the oppressor and adopting their religion and culture, Equiano opens himself up to accusations of betraying his own people.  Indeed, he tries to covert some in both the West Indies and in Africa.  Worse yet, after earning his freedom, he takes a job with a man where he helps to ship enslave men and women (212), and as Django says, “there ain’t nothin’ lower than a Black slaver.”  Rather than an ‘Uncle Tom’ (which I find to be a misleading term given that Uncle Tom was willing to be whipped in place of another slaver and died to protect the secret of two runaway slaves), it seems that Equiano is framing himself for the Western reader as a contemporary version of Joseph.  Like Joseph he was stolen and sold into slavery, and like Joseph, Equiano seems to be able to access the dream world in a manner that foretells the future, such as when his dreams predict a shipwreck (152).  The portion of the Joseph narrative that overlaps with the ‘Uncle Tom’ stereotype, is the fact that both Joseph and Equiano endear themselves to and have great affection for their ‘masters’, Joseph, who becomes the head of the house after serving his master well, and Equiano who several times notes that he liked the masters he had, and even says that he “could not think of leaving [his] master, to whom [he] was very warmly attached” (75).  This overt supplications seems overtly problematic, but one must consider how this is framed.  First, in order to gain the sympathy of the Western reader, and in turn get the public support required to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807, he had to take a passive tone.  The fact that this work helped to speed up the emancipation process, justifies whatever subservience he displays.  This aside, it is also import to note the way in which Equiano frames his words; both at the beginning and the end of the novel, Equiano is dismissive of his words.  In the dedication, he concedes that the work is without literary merit (17), and later writes that he is “far from the vanity of thinking there is any merit in [the] narrative” (242).  In doing this, he reduces his own acquiescence and docility to the realm of meritless literature, and undermines the compliance that was required to gain the sympathy of the Western readers and serve his own purpose.  This obedience, then, can be read, not as a promotion of subservience, but as a performance.




Founding slave owner Thomas Jefferson claimed all men were equal, yet owned slaves: the epitome of hypocrisy.

Founding slave owner Thomas Jefferson claimed all men were equal, yet owned slaves: the epitome of Western hypocrisy.

This reading of Equiano’s subservience as a performance is reinforced by the fact he is constantly observing the hypocrisy within Western society, suggesting that his praise of it and his adoption of its religion is not without severe reservation.  Just as he notes that his native tongue was devoid of vulgarity, he also notes that his native society lacked the barbarity of the Western world.  He observes, for instance, that after being tied and flogged, he “had never experienced anything of [the] kind before”, going onto say that “the white man looked and acted… in so savage a manner” that he “had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty”, and that this cruelty was “not only shewn towards… blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves” (58).  The language suggests that the barbarity he saw among Westerners was absent in Africa, contradicting the notion that it was Africans who were uncivilized, and framing the West as the home of savagery.  Africans were specifically stereotyped as being cannibals, but it is Equiano who “very much feared [that whites] intended to kill and eat” him (67), not the other way around.  This Western hypocrisy extended to the sexual realm as well.  Though chastity was seen as a virtue in Christian society, Equiano observes that “it was almost constant practice with… whites, to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves” and they were “even know [to] gratify their brutal passions with females not ten years old” (109).  This child rape was commonly excepted when it was white men violating women and girls of African descent, but a man of African descent was staked to the ground and had his ears cut off for associating with a white sex worker (109).  The double standard is this instance is especially tragic.  Though Equiano does speak to harsh punishments for adultery in his tribe, the savagery and depravity of Western society is absent, and given that it was the Europeans praising Christian virtue and accusing the peoples of Africa of being savages, this is especially hypocritical.




The brand of slavery present in Africa did not play host the barbarity of American slavery.

The brand of slavery present in Africa did not play host the barbarity of American slavery.

Equiano’s surface supplication is not only offset by his criticism of Western hypocrisy, but also by the praise he offers his own civilization, as he is sure to give praise to the culture of Africa.  His first chapter is dedicated to outlining the manufactures, buildings, commerce, agriculture, and priests of Africa, and though he does speak to their superstitious and frames the priests as magicians (29), this is likely in part to appease the Christian readers.  He mentions the dancers, musicians and poets of his nation (33), and also observes how hygienic they are, washing before every meal (34), a true mark of civilization.  His description frames the peoples of Africa as progressive, not only compared to the Europeans of his time, but even compared to the developed world of today.  There was no poverty, for instance, as “Every one contribute[d] something to the common stock”, and they were “unacquainted with idleness” and had “no beggars” (37).  This is likely in part because their wants were few, suggesting that the people of Africa were able to implement Marxists ideals far more effectively than Russia of China would attempt to do in the 20th century.  Their commerce was in “Bullocks, goats and poultry” (34), and Equiano notes that because they did not seek excess, nature was “prodigal of her favours” (36).  He is sure to note as well that “Pope Benedict was a black man” (207), and praises the beauty of the women of Africa by noting that he “could not help remarking the particular slenderness of [white] women, which [he] did not like at first” (70).  I guess he didn’t want no size two.  As for gender equality, there is even a suggestion that men and women lived on parity terms in Equiano’s culture as the “dress of both sexes [was] nearly the same” (33), demonstrating that there were few oppressive gender prescriptions.  By giving representation to their arts and culture, the parity of their economic system. their absence of poverty, their religious leaders, and the beauty of their women, whilst also placing women and men on parity terms, Equiano serves to temper his outwardly acquiescent approach to the West by praising Africa.



Solomon Northup, who was a free man sold into slavery.

Solomon Northup, who was a free man sold into slavery.

This does not mean he is universally complimentary about African, and indeed, he notes that the customs of slavery was present in Africa before Europe’s arrival; however, the institution of slavery present in Africa was far more humane that its American counterpart.  Slaves, for one, were either prisoners of war, or were guilty of crimes (36).  To be made a slave, then, one had to first infringe upon the rights of others.  Even when made a slaves, the enslaved people “do no more work than other members of the community” and “their food, clothing, and lodging, were nearly the same… except that they were not permitted to eat with those who were free-born” (39).  There was no “Torture, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity” practiced “upon the poor slaves with impunity” (240) to the point where they were urged to murder (110) or prefer death (113), as happened in the Americas. So the two constructions of slavery are vastly different. There were some men who treated enslaved people relatively well, though ‘well’ is used quite loosely in this context.  Equiano notes that one man “treated his slaves better than any other man on the island, so he was better and more faithfully served by them in return” (105), but he also notes that other slaves were driven to such despair by their maltreatment that they attempted to escape on a canoe and ended up drowning, serving as an echo of the Zong massacre where and entire ‘shipment’ of slaves was tossed overboard to secure insurance payments for them.  There is also a story of a freeman who was kidnapped and sold back into slavery (128), reminding the reader of the experiences of Solomon Northup, and demonstrating that ‘freedom’ did not exist for people of colour, even they were not categorized as slaves.  There is one quote about slavery that carries a profound meaning.  Equiano relays a common argument that “asserted that a Negro cannot earn his master his first cost” (108).  Equiano goes onto argue that the economic cost is easily offset, however, there seems to be an interpretation to that expression that goes beyond economics.  As Equiano notes, “no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (195).  Those who partake in the slave trade become complicit in murder, and if the initial cost of a slave is the loss of one’s virtue and morals, and in turn eternal life, then the expression holds true: no wealth a slave might earn you will offset the cost of one’s morals and virtue.




Olaudah Equiano 2The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African is a work that presents some complex issues.  Yes, it is easy to extrapolate that slavery was and remains a corrupting force in the Americas, and yes, Equiano’s efforts and ability to secure his freedom make for a remarkable and inspiring narrative.  Still, his eagerness to adopt European custom over his own, and supplicate himself to any number of slavers, is problematic at best.  Like those who wrote in the same era, most especially Phillis Wheatley, Equiano was writing for a white/European/Western audience with the express purpose of securing sympathy with the end goal of promoting the abolitionist movement.  Equiano may seem like a man suffering from Stockholm syndrome on the surface, but in reading the subtext of his work, it is clear that he understands that the most effective way to bring about change is by appealing to the system and using the moral standards set out within it to draw out the overt hypocrisies that led to the exploitation and oppression of the peoples of Africa and their descendants.  Equiano praises Africa, and notes the West’s savagery in a narrative that was no doubt engaging for audiences at the time, and managed to humanize an a complex issue that divided many.  It is certain that without Equiano, the abolitionist movement would have secured its goal, but Equiano’s literary contributions not doubt helped it to gain momentum, and for that, as well as Equiano’s literary skill, the work deserves merit.


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Interesting quotes:

“After washing, libation is made, by pouring out a small portion of the drink on the floor” (34).  Apparently that whole ‘pour some liquor’ thing has its roots in African tradition.  Who knew?

The author is baptized—narrowly escapes drowning” (79).  Two unrelated narratives placed side-by-each to comedic effect.


Words I thought I’d look up:

Frapping:  To bind something tightly, not to be confuse with fapping, which can also involve binding something tightly.

Trepanned:  The drilling of a whole into a human head!

Peculation:  To embezzle.


Works Cited:

Equiano, Olaudah.  The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.  From Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Signet Classics.  2002.  15-248.  Print.


Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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