A Critical Analysis of the Depiction of Slavery in the Caribbean in Olaudah Equiano's "Interesting Narrative"

Term Paper, 2009
20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 African Slavery in the Caribbean and the Interesting Narrative
2.1 Society and Slavery
2.2 Africa, Africans and the Slave Trade
2.3 The Rise of the Caribbean Slave Societies
2.4 Working Conditions and Treatment of Slaves
2.5 Equiano’s Manumission and Mercantile Activities

3 Evaluation and Criticism


1 Introduction

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself is the astonishing and moving autobiography of an 18th century slave. The author, the aforementioned Olaudah Equiano[1], tells the story of his life, recounting events such as his capture in Africa at early childhood, the notorious Middle Passage, his time in the service of the Quaker Robert King, his life as a freedman in the Caribbean, and finally his involvement in the abolitionist cause.

This term paper will be concerned with the author’s observations of the conditions of slavery in the West Indies, made first as a slave to Mr King, later as a free businessman. His account will be checked against external evidence drawn from a number of scholarly sources. The comparison includes the development of the slave trade in Africa and the rise of the Caribbean slave societies in the light of the ‘sugar revolution’, although the working conditions of slaves, together with the treatment of freedmen, will be at the centre of attention. While my original interest lay in researching the accuracy of Equiano’s version, my fascination gradually shifted from the ‘if’ to the ‘why’ and brought the question of identity into play. What with the restricted dimensions of this essay, the critical evaluation in the final chapter cannot provide the full range of answers, but offer a profound basis for a more specialist examination of the topic of identity in slave narratives.

2 African Slavery in the Caribbean and the Interesting Narrative

2.1 Society and Slavery

Although the present analysis considers slavery within fairly closely-defined geographic boundaries and a specific time frame, it is of interest to briefly look at it from a more general perspective and to establish a universal framework for a broader understanding of the topic.

Slavery is a phenomenon that can be found in all ages and across all societies. Klein calls slaves “the most mobile labor force available” due to their “lack of ties to the family, to kin, and to the community” (1986, p. 1), which allowed them to be employed for a large variety of purposes. Turley (2000) distinguishes two types of societies in which slavery could exist.[2] He points out that, historically, most societies were not dependent on slaves and could well do without them; he therefore calls them societies with slaves. Under these circumstances, slaves were often used to allow their masters greater comfort, e.g. as domestic servants, or to perform manual labour that was deemed too ‘dirty’ or dangerous for others, such as in the mining industry. The vast majority of societies worked according to this principle. By contrast, “slavery as a system of industrial or market production was a much more restricted phenomenon”. (Klein, 1986, p. 2) In this case, slaves not only played an important role in the domestic sector, but also fulfilled a vast number of administrative tasks and were a crucial factor for the economic welfare of the system they were subjected to; hence the name slave societies (cf. Turley, 2000). The earliest examples of slavery becoming such a dominant factor were the Greek poleis and the Roman Empire, the latter of which can be seen as the forerunner of the slave societies in the Caribbean and North America in terms of customs and legislation. The “Romans can be said to have created a modern slave system which would be similar to those established in the Western Hemisphere from the 16th to the end of the 19th century.” (Klein, 1986, p. 5)

The following chapters aim to see Olaudah Equiano’s individual observations of the Caribbean slave trade as found in the Interesting Narrative against the background of a more objective description based on the works of various renowned scholars in the field. We will begin by exploring the history of slavery in Africa and the beginnings of the transatlantic trade with the Americas which were the prerequisites for the formation of the West Indian slave societies.

2.2 Africa, Africans and the Slave Trade

We know from Equiano himself that already as a boy, the concept of slavery is by no means alien to him. On page 46, he informs the reader that “[m]y father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter”. (Equiano, 2003) It is curious how he passes over this fact without any alarm, treating it as a mere footnote almost too trifling in its nature to be even worth mentioning. This impression is further intensified by his description of the household in Tinmah he is sold to and lives in for a while after his capture at the age of eleven. Equiano, drawing a comparison between his own tribe and the people holding him now, observes that “[t]hey also had the same customs as we. There were likewise slaves daily to attend us [...]”. (p. 53) While this may be surprising to him initially, his awareness and acceptance of slavery from the outset will have a strong influence on his views and opinions of the matter in his later life.

When we look at the historical facts, we indeed find that as far as slavery was concerned, Africa was not in any way different from other continents, though in the time before the 15th century, the slave trade was primarily a domestic affair. Inter-tribal conflicts produced a lot of slaves that were distributed within Africa, although Muslim traders from the 8th century onwards took up selling slaves to other continents. It was the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to put foot on African soil when taking Ceuta in 1415 (cf. Russell-Wood, 2000²) and who would lay the foundations for the transatlantic trade.[3] After initially emulating the Muslim merchants, they began to ship Africans to their new settlements in America across the Atlantic. (cf. Klein, 1986)

From a modern viewpoint, the explanations brought forward by Europeans to justify the inferiority of black Africans border on the ridiculous. One is an interpretation of a story from the Book of Genesis. According to Moses, Ham, Noah’s son, found his father drunk and naked, laughed at him and then told his brothers about what he had seen. When Noah himself learned of the incident, he condemned all descendants of Ham to be servants forever. “The curse [...] seemed to provide a justification based on the Bible for inequality expressed in racial difference after the re-establishment of human society in the aftermath of the Flood.” (Turley, 2000, p. 27) Even though Donoghue reiterates Winthrop Jordan’s observation that no mention is ever made of skin colour in that passage, “expressly or implicitly”, (2008, p. 8) the story of Ham was nonetheless used as a powerful argument to justify slavery by European Christianity.[4]

A related and (at the time) equally acknowledged ‘reason’ is that of the perceived ‘Otherness’ of Africans in terms of colour and race. “As early as 1550, one English voyager to Africa recorded his conviction that Africans lacked all marks of civilization; they were ‘without a god, law, religion or common wealth’.” (p. 27) There was even a discussion about whether Africans actually qualified as humans. Donoghue draws attention to John Atkins, a surgeon in the (British) Royal Navy, who published his Voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West Indies in 1734, and expressed his

fascination upon encountering Africans with black skin and wooly hair during his travels in Guinea in 1720: ‘The black colour and wooly tegument of these Guineans, is what first obtrudes it self [sic] in our observation, and distinguishes them from the rest of mankind, who no where [sic] else in the warmest latitudes, are seen thus totally changed.’ (p. 7)

This led Atkins to the conclusion that whites and blacks do not share the same heritage. A Danish planter was outspoken in his belief “that their black skin gives proof of their wickedness and that they are destined to slavery, to the extent that they should have no freedom”. (quoted in: ibid., p. 7)

In her essay Filling Up the Space Between Mankind and Ape (2007), Salih depicts the contemporary perspective which regarded some humans as “more human than others” (p. 96) and ranked Africans in the vicinity of or even alongside orang-utans on the grounds of their visual likeness. “Long [author of the History of Jamaica ] accordingly inventorize[d] the visual ‘marks’ of bestiality in black people” (p. 105), which ranged from the features of their face to their “bestial” manners, and he concluded “that they are a difference [sic] species of the same genus”. (quoted in: Salih, 2007, p. 106) He even suggested regular sexual intercourse between male apes and female Africans. According to Donoghue, Atkins treaded a similar path by presenting several anecdotes in support of his viewpoint, one of which told “of a Captain Flower who had [...] returned to England with the disemboweled and preserved genitals of an “ourang outang”. In Atkins [sic] reasoning, the fact that the genitals of the baboon and the Negro were very much alike offered further proof of the beastly affinity of the two kinds of animals.” (Donoghue, 2008, p. 14)

The instances presented here are proof to the astounding creativity displayed by whites when it comes to providing explanations for the subjugations of both Indians and Africans. These popular conceptions of the time gave the Europeans “a mindset attuned to colour and race difference as a basis for slavery.” (Turley, 2000, p. 27) Grouped with the reputation that Africans were hard workers and particularly suited for tropical conditions, it seemed to make them the ideal choice for plantation labour in the Caribbean slave societies which will be described in the next part.

2.3 The Rise of the Caribbean Slave Societies

African slavery in the Caribbean came into existence shortly after Columbus claimed the American continent for the Spanish crown in 1492, making it “a late development in the evolution of slavery in human society.” (Klein, 1986, p. 1) Portugal, one of the other leading colonial powers of the time, immediately followed suit, and the two countries began to cultivate their New World territories. As early attempts to enslave the Native American Indians proved unsuccessful, mainly due to infections with and death from European diseases, the Portuguese fell back on their expertise in the trade of Africans. Together with the Spaniards, they were the first to ship slaves to their freshly established overseas settlements. These two countries can thus be seen as the pioneers of the transatlantic slave trade. Over the next 300 years, an estimated 10 million Africans would be taken across the ocean and be put to work there. (cf. Klein, 1986)

In their earlier days as African colonisers, the Portuguese had already identified sugar as a crop promising high output and commercial success on plantations on Madeira, the Azores and São Tomé, and they set about exploring the same path in Brazil, which they now held. Eventually the country became the market leader in sugar output and in this way attracted the interest of other colonial powers such as England and France, who envied the ongoing success of their Iberian rivals. Attacks by both parties on the Spanish holdings of Jamaica (England) and Santo Domingo (France) handed them strongholds they would not relinquish again. But where Portuguese and Spaniards had struggled to turn the local population into an efficient workforce, their northern competitors were faced with an obstacle of a different nature: there simply were no Indians where they had dropped anchor. So at the beginning of the ‘sugar revolution’ in 1640, there were only a few imported African slaves present in the area, while the majority of the workforce consisted of indentured whites. (cf. Turley, 2000) Yet both France and England would eventually turn to Africa for their supply of slaves and take over the leading roles in the trade, so that “[b]y the end of the 17th century, then, a whole new sugar and slave complex had emerged in the French and British West Indies.” (Klein, 1986, p. 53) So dominant did the British become, in fact, that they were responsible for at least 45 % of the total number of slaves shipped across the Atlantic in the whole 18th century. (cf. Turley, 2000)

With commerce and the number of plantations growing and the transatlantic trade in full flow, population figures in the Caribbean increased dramatically. Turley reports that “by 1750 in Barbados, out of a total population of just over 80,000, slaves numbered some 63,000 and whites almost 17,000.” (2000, p. 79) In Jamaica, which Klein calls “proto-typical” (1986, p. 55) for West Indian plantation societies, blacks outnumbered whites by a staggering ten to one: out of a total population of 142,000, almost 128,000 were slaves (cf. Turley, 2000), 75 % of whom were involved in the sugar business. These figures suggest that already by that time the slave plantation system had been properly established in the Caribbean (and on the whole continent). 1.4 million slaves of direct or American-born African descent, or 40 % of the total number of African and Afro-American slaves in America, were bound in the sugar commerce, the single largest occupation.

One of the slaves to arrive in the West Indies during the time of the sugar revolution is Olaudah Equiano. He comes to Montserrat in 1763 at the probable age of 18[5], after a life already full of events including: capture at the age of eleven and sale within Africa (as related in chapter 2.2); the Middle Passage and subsequent arrival in Barbados, from where he is sold to England; his extended stint on board of various naval vessels in the service of Captain Pascal and the disappointment of being denied his freedom.

In Montserrat, he is sold to Robert King, a Quaker and according to Equiano “the first merchant in the place” (Equiano, 2003, p. 99) who makes him a clerk and involves him in his various transactions between the West Indies and his hometown Philadelphia. At first Equiano is made to perform exclusively manual labour: “I have rowed the boat [laden with several goods], and slaved at the oars, from one hour to sixteen in the twenty-four.” (p. 101) But very soon he is handed a multitude of other duties requiring more advanced skills and he has

the good fortune to please my master in every department in which he employed me . . . I often supplied the place of a clerk, in receiving and delivering cargoes to the ships, in tending stores, and delivering goods: . . . I used to shave and dress my master when convenient, and take care of his horse; . . . I worked likewise on board of different vessels of his. By these means I became very useful to my master; (p. 103)

Equiano can consider himself very fortunate indeed to be in this position. He is, first of all, extremely lucky to be sold to England as a boy and then passed on to Captain Pascal. It is there that his undoubted talents are recognised and that he is allowed to advance them, e.g. reading and writing, basic mathematical skills and knowledge of how to sail a ship. Later, after being sold again instead of being granted his freedom, his merits and good behaviour render him attractive to Mr King, who buys him “on account of my [Equiano’s] good character” (p. 99) and always treats him exceptionally well, allowing him to do a little trading himself and thus, if unconsciously, paving him the way to freedom. We can therefore say that by a combination of skill and fortune he earns himself a life of comparative comfort and far fewer worries than most other slaves. We must remember that Equiano enters the service of Mr King when the sugar business is at its absolute peak and requiring huge numbers of workers. Of those 1.4 million slaves mentioned in chapter 2.3, around 80 % were actually properly working as compared to 55 % in modern Third World agricultural societies. (cf. Klein, 1986) Except for his early days as Mr King’s slave, Equiano seems never to have been engaged in hard manual labour. This makes him more of an exception than the rule. Also, the simple fact that he ends up where he does is interesting in itself.


[1] For reasons of convenience, I will exclusively use the name Equiano throughout this paper

[2] For a comprehensive account of the sociology of slavery in general, and a comparison of slave societies in particular, see Stinchcombe (1995)

[3] The full story can be found in Russell-Wood (2000²)

[4] For further details, see Donoghue (2008)

[5] I write ‘probable’ because his exact date of birth, as was so often testified in slave narrative, is unknown. Equiano himself suggests 1745 as the year in which he was born. (p. 32)

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A Critical Analysis of the Depiction of Slavery in the Caribbean in Olaudah Equiano's "Interesting Narrative"
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglophone Studien)
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Critical, Analysis, Depiction, Slavery, Caribbean, Olaudah, Equiano, Interesting, Narrative
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Sebastian Altenhoff (Author), 2009, A Critical Analysis of the Depiction of Slavery in the Caribbean in Olaudah Equiano's "Interesting Narrative", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/164257


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