Strategies of Emancipation in Olaudah Equiano's 'The Interesting Narrative and Mary Prince's 'The History of Mary Prince'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Individual Strategies of Emancipation : Olaudah Equiano
2.1. Adaption to a foreign cultural system
2.2. The Liberal Economic System
2.3. Emancipation through Religion

3. Individual Strategies of Emancipation: Mary Prince
3.1. Protest against the System of Slavery
3.2. Economic System
3.3. Religion

4. Strategies of Emancipation in Literary Terms
4.1. Equiano
4.1.1. Spiritual autobiography
4.1.2. Fictional Autobiography
4.1.3. Travel writing / Adventure story
4.1.4. The Sentimental Novel
4.2. Prince

5. Conclusion

Primary Sources:
Secondary Sources:

1. Introduction

As representatives of Early Black Literature, two texts have entered the canon of university courses lately: Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself, which was published in 1794, and Mary Prince’s The History Of Mary Prince. A West Indian Slave which was first published in 1831. Both at their time have been drawing the attention of the British public to the cause of abolition and have ultimately been a means to finally establish the legal rights of the enslaved. This essay attempts to establish a connexion between the individual strategies of emancipation as utilised by the two individuals in their struggle for freedom, and the way these strategies are reflected on a literary level, that is the use of language and of narrative genres. It will be examined in how far Equiano and Prince act as agents of a free will and present themselves as such, with a focus an the means by which this is done. In a second step, the literary level will be analysed, that is the use of narrative strategies and language in both texts with regard to popular literary genres in eighteenth century literature. The approach Equiano chooses on his way to becoming a free individual can be described as an indirect tactic of adapting to a new culture. It is reflected on the literary level, as well as Prince’s direct and outspoken attempts at emancipation. The outcomes of both authors’ endeavours differ greatly, and so do their strategies and literary uses. The Webster Dictionary defines emancipation as

the act of setting free from the power of another, from slavery, subjection, dependence, or controlling influence; also, the state of being thus set free; the act or process of emancipation, or the state thereby achieved; liberation; as, the emancipation of slaves; the emancipation of minors; the emancipation of a person from prejudices; the emancipation of the mind from superstition; the emancipation of a nation from tyranny or subjection.

In this essay, ‘strategies of emancipation’ will be defined as strategies being followed consciously or unconsciously to achieve a state of independence, legally and socially. The term ‘agency’ signifies an active role of the protagonist which is not restricted or forced upon by others. The end pursued is that of gaining a status of equal rights, not only in Great Britain, but as well in the colonies, and a status as a free person who is in control of all of his or her actions.

2. Individual Strategies of Emancipation : Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative gives an account of the whole life of the author, from being born in freedom, captured, enslaved, sold, and finally having gained manumission by buying himself free. Freedom is only a stepping stone to various episodes in his life to follow, among these are the establishment of himself as a successful businessman, his spiritual development and finally marriage to an English woman. From the moment of his capture, the process of his emancipation emerges, which can be subdivided in three approaches: first as emancipation by adapting to existing cultural values and norms, second as emancipation by the liberal economic system, and third as emancipation by spiritual development. The latter are closely linked with the idea of cultural adaption, but nevertheless stand as strategies on their own.

2.1. Adaption to a foreign cultural system

Being forced into a system very much different from that into which he was born, and entering this system as a disenfranchised person, the strategy Equiano chooses to employ is that of adaption. Although he physically differs, he soon is no longer “mortified at the difference in our complexions” but gradually comes to accept his otherness and develops an identity by embracing the new cultural system (Equiano, 69). Among the most empowering abilities is his acquisition of the English language. At first unable to understand or to express himself and thus completely reliant on other people, he soon begins to “smatter a little imperfect English” and ventures to gain knowledge about the world surrounding him (Equiano, 64). His language proficiency increases rapidly due to his curiosity and constant questioning, and with it, his acquiescence to his situation. He does realise that instead of fighting against his fetters, acceptance could perhaps improve his circumstances and is awakening to the idea that reading and writing can be powerful tools. It becomes clear that with language acquisition, he also adopts British manners and values by actively seeking to imitate white people:

I could now speak English tolerably well, and I perfectly understood every that was said. I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and I therefore had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners; I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement; and every new thing that I observed I treasured up in my memory. I had long wished to be able to read and write; and for this purpose I took every opportunity to gain instruction.


Pudaloff argues that ultimately, this ability to read and write empowers Equiano to write back against the colonialist powers, for “resistance and identity can and do arise from the capacity to speak and write the language of the dominant culture, to differentiate among the discourses available, and to appear as a speaker who can be acquiescent and resistant simultaneously” (501). A discussion of the possibilities literacy brings about for Equiano will be dealt with in the second section.

The first time he accounts for himself is when refusing to answer to the name of Gustavus; however, he still has to submit to it. His awareness of the agency inherent in mastering a language and naming objects, and ultimately himself, is raised (Bozeman, 64). Later, Equiano stands up for himself and tries to prevent being sold to a cruel master by speaking out. His ability to speak is recognised as a dangerous weapon. Captain Doran insists that he is a commercial good rather than a person and scorns his attempt at verbal persuasion with stating that Equiano talks “too much English” (Equiano, 94). Equiano regards knowledge as an opportunity. When facing the cruel treatment of slaves in the West Indies, he is determined to run away, should that kind of fate ever happen to him. Preemptively, he aims at developing exactly those skills which might be of advantage. Consequently, he even pays the mate of his vessel to teach him navigation, for he thinks that “knowledge of navigation might be of use” to him (Equiano, 122).

2.2. The Liberal Economic System

The interplay of cultural and economic adaption is obvious in Equiano’s Narrative. The thesis that by adopting liberal market theory, Equiano is both able to develop his independence and at the same time able to critise the very system for not obeying ideals which are implied by it has been put forward by a lot of scholars. Coleman states that “Equiano realizes that [...] a commercial transaction is the only way he can transform himself from an anonymous piece of property into a unique personality” (251). It is also trade which makes each trading party an equal in this process of exchanging goods.

When Equiano first learns about the system of slave trade, he internalises that despite the saying that a slave can never “earn his master the first cost”, slaves are precious goods, and he comes to realize his own ‘market’ value (103). From now on, he is keen to make himself a necessity. Speculations to receive good treatment and eventually manumission in return for his labour and trustworthiness come well into play here, a “utilitarian calculation”: Instead of taking the opportunity to flee, he ponders the benefits he may gain by staying against the “gratification of immediate desires” (Kelleter, 77). Remarkably, Equiano threatens his master verbally by exclaiming that he would rather die before being “imposed upon as other negroes were” (120). Although this threat is directed against his own life, it still has the wished for effect, that is to have certain “liberties” in comparison to other slaves. Equiano knows about his own value and makes use of these structures to improve his conditions in life.

In addition to this, Equiano is setting up his own business with selling goods. Even though the payment he receives only brings about a very small surplus, he steadily increases his fortune. By engaging in transactions, Equiano gains the status of an acting individual, though his legal rights may be restricted. Kelleter puts the idea forward that “the very inconsistency between ideology and lived experience does hold a promise to the slave, which is the promise to adjust reality to his own actions” (76). Liberal market theory assigns rights and status to whoever is actively involved in mercantile business and has accumulated capital. A critique of the system is possible when it is proved that despite its ideological outset, agents in transactional processes are not on equal footing. The discrepancy between ideologial and material conditions can be overcome by living up to those ideals of equality which appear as a farce.

Ultimately, freedom is gained by accepting his role as a commodity and an agent at the same time. Buying his freedom is only possible with capital and character, both of which he has accumulated. The captain convinces his master to let obtain freedom by accounting for the economic value Equiano’s service has had so far, and still will: “You have laid your money out very well; you have received good interest for it all this time, [...] I know Gustavus has earned you more than an hundred a-year, and he will save you money, as he will not leave you” (135).

Thus, he is freed legally. Later in his life, he has completed adaption as far as even engaging in the slave trade himself as an overseer, but is disgusted with the behaviour of his coworkers and quits. Then, he is appointed commissary to the Black Poor, but dismissed. As he is a free person, he claims his outstanding wages and receives them in return, which shows that he has been fully integrated into a system he didn’t stand much chances in in the first place. He comments on this as follows: “Certainly the sum is more than a free negro would have had in the western colonies!”(231). Finally, he has managed to live as a free businessman.


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Strategies of Emancipation in Olaudah Equiano's 'The Interesting Narrative and Mary Prince's 'The History of Mary Prince'
University of Münster
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Strategies, Emancipation, Olaudah, Equiano, Interesting, Narrative, Mary, Prince, History, Mary, Prince
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Meike Kohl (Author), 2006, Strategies of Emancipation in Olaudah Equiano's 'The Interesting Narrative and Mary Prince's 'The History of Mary Prince', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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