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The Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano: Religious Roles In The Narrative

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Category: Biographies

Autor: anton 10 November 2010

Words: 1834 | Pages: 8

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Religious Roles in the Narrative

The narrative of Olaudah Equiano is truly a magnificent one. Not only does the reader get to see the world through Equiano’s own personal experiences, we get to read a major autobiography that combined the form of a slave narrative with that of a spiritual conversion autobiography. Religion may be viewed as at the heart of the matter in Equiano's long, remarkable journey. Through Equiano’s own experiences, the reader uncovers just how massive a role religion played in the part of his Narrative and in that of his own life. More specifically, we learn of how his religious conversion meant a type of freedom as momentous as his own independence from slavery. As one reads his tale, one learns just how dedicated he his to that of his Christian faith; from his constant narration of the scriptures to the way that Equiano feels a growing sense of empowerment from the biblical texts for the oppressed community. However, at the same time, one may question Equiano’s own Christian piety. Did Equiano really seek to tell the tale of his soul’s spiritual journey, did he really believe God would set him free or was he simply using religion as a ways of manipulating British and American readers to accept him as a credible narrator. Regardless of which of these facts is true, religion is quite possibly the defining feature of his life story.

Equiano’s own exposure of Christianity first began when he was no older than 12 years old and was first arriving in England, where he experienced the sight of snow for the first time. Curious to what it was, he asked a mate and soon found out that “…a great man in the heavens, Called God…” [Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, ed. Angelo Costanzo (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Literary Texts, 2004), 82.] created it. This caused in him a feeling in which he had never felt before, and thus inspired him to new things to get himself more aquatinted with God:

After this I went to church; and having never been at such a place before, I was again amazed at seeing and hearing the service. I asked all I could about it; and they gave me to understand it was worshipping God, who made us and all things. I was still at a great loss, and soon got into an endless field of inquiries, as well as I was able to speak and ask about things. (Equiano, 82)

As the years past, Equiano had been through numerous hardships, however he still considered himself very fortunate to have a kind master (with equally kind family members.) One day as he was attending his master’s sisters, a servant told him that he could not get into Heaven unless he was baptized:

This made me very uneasy; for I had now some faint idea of a future state; accordingly I communicated my anxiety to the eldest Miss Guerin, with whom I was become a favourite, and pressed her to have me baptized; when to my great joy she told me I should. She had formerly asked my master to let me be baptized, but he had refused; however she now insisted on it; and on being under some obligation to her brother complied with her request; so I was baptized in St. Margaret’s chuch, Westminster in February 1759. (Equiano, 93)

To Equiano, being baptized was the equivalent of his soul being set free. From that precise moment on, no man could own him, he belonged to God. And anyone who tried to be in possession of him, was breaking the laws of the land, and thereby breaking Gods law “… besides this I have been baptized: and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me.” (Equiano, 109) Equiano’s baptism is one of the key points in the initial dedication of that to his Christian faith. Being baptized finally gave Equiano something pure to live for, for the remainder of his life.

As Equiano’s struggle with slavery was a daily reminder in how he was oppressed, religion brought him a sense of something to believe in, something to escape to as to remind himself that the situation he was in wasn’t always going to be this way. Since he was a black slave, Equiano barely had any rights justified to him and with that knowledge, he hoped that religion would lead him to a far more extraordinary & unprejudiced world. “That as I could not get any right among men here I hoped I should hereafter in Heaven.” (Equiano, 109)

Equiano’s own identification with biblical narrators is seen a few times throughout the novel. Nevertheless, it becomes essentially prominent in his depiction of his manumission. It appears that Equiano can only tell his experience with help from the biblical texts, only by appealing to scriptural narratives of liberation. For example he first mentions Psalm 126 “I glorified God in my heart, in whom I trusted.” (Equiano, 156) These words, he declares, have been fulfilled by his own specific experience of emancipation. In a similar fashion he next links himself to that of the apostle Peter, “My imagination was all rapture as I flew to the Register Office, and, in this respect, like the apostle Peter (whose deliverance from prison was so sudden and extraordinary, that he thought he was in a vision) I could scarcely believe that I was awake.” (Equiano, 156) By creatively referencing himself to Peter, Equiano shows how that Peter, like himself, was also once a captive. And in that reference Equiano silently claims a sense of religious empowerment by his identification with Peter. Furthermore, the intensity of Equiano’s emotion of finally achieving his freedom is the biblical equivalent of the dramatically supernatural events that occurred in the story of Elijah:

Who could do justice to my feelings at this moment? Not conquering heroes themselves, in the midst of a triumph--Not the tender mother who has just regained her long-lost infant, and presses it to her heart--Not the weary hungry mariner, at the sight of the desired friendly port--Not the lover, when he once more embraces his beloved mistress, after she had been ravished from his arms!--All within my breast was tumult, wildness and delirium! My feet scarcely touched the ground, for they were winged with joy, and like Elijah, as he rose to heaven they were with lightning sped as I went on. (Equiano, 156)

Equiano had a view that religion not only saved him from (the possibility of) damnation, his faith also accredited to his survival through horrendous ordeals during life. For example, Equiano was onboard a vessel when a brutal gust of wind overtook the ship. Feeling that at last his time was up, Equiano prayed to God. However, it seemed as if God had favor on him and the vessel did not indeed sink. “All the swearers on board now began to call on the God of Heaven to assist them: and sure enough, beyond our comprehension he did assist us, and in a miraculous manner delivered us!” (Equiano, 173)

Although Equiano’s spiritual piety brought upon him many positive attributes, he occasionally uses religion for a somewhat more crass sense; in a vindictive approach. For example, in a certain circumstance, two white men promptly rob Equiano & his friend out of their bags of fruit. As these men would not return their bags, Equiano told a commanding officer, who did absolutely nothing to help Equiano & his friend. Being in such a state of anguish & thinking that there was no possible way to recover their stolen goods; Equiano wished it that God would take it upon himself and bring these men to justice. “I now, in the agony of distress and indignation, wished that the ire of God in his forked lightning might transfix these cruel oppressors among the dead.” (Equiano, 113) Equiano also uses this vindictive approach in regards to his personal judgment towards the behavior of others. In a law that states if a white man kills a Negro, the white mans only penalty is paying a small fee. Equiano wonders why these hateful men still have the label of Christians and not that of something much worse. “And do not the assembly which enacted it deserve the appellaition of savages and brutes rather than of Christians and men […] it is an act at once unmerciful, unjust, and unwise; which for cruelty would disgrace an assembly of those who are called barbarians…” (Equiano, 125)

However, even though there is countless evidence (as I had just mentioned) that Equiano was undoubtedly sincere in his Christian piety, one truly wonders if he turned to the Christian religion for the right reasons, to which he implies too. Was Equiano a Christian simply because he wanted to relish the society and manners of the English countryman? Just before his baptism he spoke in a way of wanting to have a sense of self with the white men, and it almost appeared that he would do anything in which to fit in with those men. “I no longer looked upon them 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 […] for this purpose I took every opportunity to gain instruction, but had made as yet very little progress.” (Equiano, 93) Also, during some parts of his narration, he repeatedly questioned Gods methods. If someone were as religious as they implied to be, it would seem that one would not underestimate the technique of the Lord. “The oppressor & the oppressed are both in his hands; and if these are not the poor, the broken-hearted, the blind, the captive, the bruised, which our Savior speaks of, who are they?” (Equiano, 124)

Undeniably there is no doubt that religion played a major role in Equiano’s own life and in his Narrative. No matter what you believe about Equiano’s own Christian piety, there is no question that his religious conversion (at the very least) gave him a type of freedom of tranquility that was as vital to his heart, as his own manumission from slavery brought him. Just as Equiano himself mentions about his life and all the events that occurred in it; “…what makes any event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser, and learn ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God?’” (Equiano, 253)

Bibliography

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Edited by Angelo Costanzo. Orchard Park, NY: Broadway Literary Texts, 2004.

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