The Propaganda Book That Freed a Race: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself

Most Americans would probably say, if asked, that the greatest embarrassment in the history of the United States was its participation in the transatlantic slave trade. Others might reasonably argue that the United States had some other more destructive embarrassments, such as the extermination of the continent’s indigenous population. The important point, however, is that none but a madman would sincerely argue in the 21st century that the slave trade was anything but evil. Because of this fact, many people neglect to examine the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century and do not see it as an actual political movement that used tactics similar to those of other revolutions, such as the Protestant Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution, such as propaganda. Many merely see the end of slavery as the natural progression of things without examining the causes of that natural progression. Unfortunately, some even believe in the bizarre non sequitur that if anti-slavery activists had partaken in the dissemination of propaganda and engaged in deceptive political operating, that the premise of the anti-slavery movement would have been undermined. Nothing could be further from the truth. Simply because the anti-slavery movement dismantled an institution that is now universally regarded as evil does not mean that anti-slavery activists did not engage in the grittiness of politics. Some of those who labored for the abolitionist movement and exercised exceptional political intellect are also not extended the credit that is their due. Olaudah Equiano, for example, who is principally remembered nowadays as an ex-slave who recorded his personal story of slavery, was much more than a mere victim of the slave trade. Equiano was an intelligent and strong-minded political activist who, not only engaged directly in gritty politics in England, but also had an acute understanding of the power of propaganda and used it with a Machiavellian shrewdness to expedite the end of the slave trade and to effectively free countless slaves in the United Kingdom. The suggestion that Equiano was a slave and therefore could not have engaged in propaganda as other revolutionaries and intellectuals had, such as Jacques-Louis David, who produced immensely successful propaganda for Napoleon and the French Revolution, is a brand of internal racism that suggests that Equiano was either too simple-minded or too uneducated to properly understand the functioning of propaganda and Realpolitik. One glance at Equiano’s personal letters, his achievements in the British Parliament, and the other records that have been collected from his life reveal that he was a towering intellectual of the anti-slavery movement and one of the most skilled political operators and propagandists in the entire history of the movement. Indeed, the manner in which Equiano not only composed, but also marketed, his masterpiece The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself, demonstrates the man’s true power as a political activist and propagandist.

Olaudah Equiano’s self-published narrative did not become successful merely by dint of its merits, but rather because Equiano traveled extensively to do so and had a keen understanding of the best manner in which to market the book. Equiano understood, first of all, the manner in which whites perceived black men and also perceived him, a genuine anomaly—a free and refined black man who wore his hair in the European manner and dressed as a European did—a black man who could read as well as the English, write as well as the English, and play the French horn better than the English. Equiano artfully, and intelligently, exploited this self-image as means of marketing his book and thereby disseminating the anti-slavery message across England. Equiano understood that he was indeed an anomaly to whites—a marvel, a curiosity, and, in short, a side-show attraction—and he knew that if he were to parade himself around England engage in what a leading Equiano scholar calls the “most successful political tour in history” that he would draw crowds eager to see a well-spoken black man in a cravat and periwig (just as whites reading his book today are likely surprised to see the same image on the frontispiece of the narrative). Equiano would then sell a narrative “written by himself” to white men and women who had never seen a refined black man before, never mind heard of one who wrote a book in a European language9. Equiano’s status as an anomaly is likely what led to his appeal and something that (alongside his natural talents) turned his book into a best-seller. In short, Equiano marketed his book as a curiosity item to the gaping white men and women of England, who were confusedly marketing at the sight of a refined black man, and then he, in turn, handed them an anti-slavery propaganda book—something that was not an actual account of his own life, but an item that was used as an instrument to put an end to the white institution of Negro slavery. He first exploited the whites’ preconception of blacks as “heathen illiterates, with minds and bodies alike scorched into strangeness by the intense heat of the tropics” by drawing attention to himself as an anomaly, and then up-turned the very same preconception which had caused the whites to gape at him in the first place by selling them anti-slavery propaganda that extended more rights to all black men and women9. Equiano essentially used a pincer movement to, on the one hand, become a best-selling author in England and, on the other, to promote the end of the slave trade in England by directly influencing the “enactment of Slave Trade Act of 1807”11. Such can only be the masterwork of a supreme propagandist.

Equiano’s marketing of the Narrative was not his only successful political maneuver. The contents of the book were supremely powerful and effective in driving slavery in Europe towards its conclusion. In the first chapter, for example, it becomes immediately clear that Equiano understood the propagandistic power of recording the horrors and distress of one’s being torn from one’s homeland and taken against one’s will to a foreign land. He understood that such was an important aspect of the slave experience and that it would be highly effective in generating a distinct, sympathetic response from his readers. Even though the records show that Equiano was born into slavery in South Carolina and was not captured in Africa and taken to the New World, as his narrative claims, Equiano nonetheless understood that a slave narrative without a story of a slave’s being taken from his homeland is an ineffectual slave story. Equiano recognized the essentialness of juxtaposing the calm and plentitude of a life in Africa with the darkness and misery of a life as a slave in the Western world. That is the reason that Equiano describes himself as one who comes from an idyllic vale that “produces all kinds of vegetables in great abundance” and from a community in which everyone “contributes something to the common stock” and all are “unacquainted with idleness”6. Indeed, that is the reason that Equiano dedicates most of the first chapter of his narrative to illustrating his homeland as something that can only be rivalled by More’s Utopia. Had Equiano neglected to include this juxtaposition in his narrative (one that was both effective and real for many slaves who came to the New World), it is possible that the book would have fallen flat and failed to properly become, not the most sincere slave narrative, but the most effective one.

To ensure that his audience would respond sympathetically to his narrative, Equiano also needed to have a main character who was a humble, gentle, and intelligent man—someone who calmly and patiently endures his cruelties, and seldom condemns or casts aspersions on his captors and masters. When Equiano describes his capture, for example, he writes:

…my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack. They also stopped my sister’s mouth, and tied her hands … I cried and grieved continually; and for several days I did not eat anything. (Equiano 50-51, The Interesting Narrative, Vol. I)

In addition, when Equiano understands that he will not see his sister or family ever again, he does not curse and condemn those who captured her, but explains with an air of patience and understanding that he “did not long remain after [his] sister” (Equiano 62, The Interesting Narrative, Vol. I) before proceeding on to his next struggle. Such calm and Christ-like endurance on behalf of Equiano demonstrates to his audience that he is, not only a human being, but an ideal human being from the Christian point of view, and therefore, a supreme object of sympathy in the eyes of Christian men and women. Had Equiano complained in his narrative—had he condemned more than he expressed gratitude—, then he would have lost his saintly luster and readers would have also lost some small part of their fondness—and their sympathy—for him and his cause. Generating sympathy and maintaining a tone and a tolerance that is in accordance with the Christian ideal was therefore essential for Equiano’s maintaining sympathy in the hearts of his Christian readers.

The tone that Equiano assumes in the Narrative is not a genuine tone, but rather, one that he assumes to ensure that his readers will respond sympathetically to and, in turn, push for the end of slavery. Equiano himself was not a gentle and soft-spoken man; in fact, he was quite the contrary, as many of the “forceful letters” that he sent to newspapers, “praising new anti-slavery books, defending abolitionist friends, and protesting a pro-slavery speech he had heard from the House of Lords visitors’ gallery,” reveal9. Equiano was someone who was bold and who did not “shy away from controversy, and even strongly praised intermarriage—something never endorsed by white abolitionists”9. In one such letter to a West Indian plantation owner, Equiano writes:

A more foolish prejudice than [the prejudice against interracial marriage] never warped a cultivated mind. … 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 … without distinction of the colour of a skin? (Hochschild)

Equiano’s tone in this excerpt—that is, calling the majority of whites in Europe “cultivated,” but mentally “warped,” and denouncing their prejudices as “foolish”—is noticeably different from the more humble and modest tone in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano9. For example, when Equiano is describing his homeland in his book for what he believes is too long, he says, “I hope the reader will not think I have trespassed on his patience in introducing myself to him with some account of the manner and customs of my country” (Equiano 45, The Interesting Narrative, Vol. I.). In summary, Equiano presents himself in his narrative as someone who is modest and deferential, but, in his personal and political letters, he reveals himself to be an opinionated and assertive man. Indeed, the only time that Equiano uses the word “foolish,” as he does so freely in his personal letters, in the nearly 530 pages of his narrative is in reference to himself (Equiano 3, The Interesting Narrative, Vol. I). This marked contrast in tone demonstrates that Equiano’s character in his narrative and Equiano himself are not necessarily the same person. That does not mean that Equiano was deceptive, but rather, that he understood that the, if he had portrayed himself sincerely, as a firebrand and revolutionary—as a slave who was born in the Carolinas, had the intellectual wherewithal to earn his freedom by the age of 20, and spent his adulthood in political activism fighting against the status quo of the white Europeans, he would have been far less successful in generating a sense of sympathy in the hearts of his readers. It was rather this gentle, sensitive, and thoughtful innocent, who was torn from his land unwillingly and forced to live a life no better than a brute that evokes sympathy in readers and furthers the cause the Equiano fought for his whole life—that is, the end of slavery of England.

Most Equiano scholars also now accept that he was not born in Africa, as his Narrative claims, thereby leading one to conclude that he must have been knowingly creating a propaganda piece3. That does not make Equiano a deceptive person, but rather, a practitioner of Realpolitik. Equiano likely saw the institution of slavery as so vile and so wicked that he prioritized his efforts to end it above the sincerity or integrity of his narrative, and he created a brilliant propaganda piece that achieved just that. First, according to a 1759 baptismal record from St. Margaret’s Church in London, Gustavus Vassa was “born in Carolina” and baptized at the age of twelve7. A number of Equiano scholars, such as Vincent Carretta and Angelo Costanzo, point out that Equiano’s descriptions of Eboe are almost identical to the writings of the famous Philadelphian Quaker and anti-slavery writer, Anthony Benezet2. For example, in Benezet’s historical account of Guinea, he writes: “That part of Africa from which the Negroes are sold to be carried into slavery, commonly known by the name of Guinea, extends along the coast three or four thousand miles”1. Two decades later, Equiano, in his The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself, describes Guinea in an almost identical manner by writing the following: “That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade of slaves is carried on, extends along the coast above 3,400 miles…” (Equiano 4, The Interesting Narrative). It is no coincidence either that Equiano’s descriptions are so similar since Equiano was, not only familiar with Benezet’s work, but adored it. He reviewed many of Benezet’s books and also favorably mentions Benezet’s essay, Caution to Great Britain and Colonies Concerning the Calamitous State of the enslaved Negroes, in a letter that he sends to Quakers in 17858. It can therefore be concluded that Equiano’s stories of being born in Africa were invented for propaganda purposes—to depict the slave experience as effectually as possible.

Equiano’s claim that he was born in Africa also had the intended effect of humanizing the Africans, since it creates a sense of cultural relativism and shows that Africans are not sub-human savages, as many whites believed, but are merely different culturally. For example, in the first chapter of the Narrative, Equiano describes the manners and customs of his native country of Eboe, which, in some ways, are equal to the European customs, and, in other ways, superior to them—especially in terms of their equitability. In one of his stories, he describes an instance in which “a man was brought before [his] father, and the other judges, for kidnapping a boy; and, although he was the son of a chief or senator, he was condemned to make recompense by a man or woman slave” (Equiano 7, The Interesting Narrative, Vol. I). In the United Kingdom, no slave would have ever been afforded legal rights, thereby suggesting that the legal system in Equiano’s supposed home country is more just than that of European ones. That story is effectual since the Europeans probably did not believe that savages could have a sense of justice, and Equiano’s descriptions showed, first of all, that blacks were not savages, and, secondly, that, in many ways, African societies were more equitable, and much less avaricious, than European ones. Such stories likely made the Europeans reconsider their preconceptions about black Africans and helped to further the anti-slavery cause in England.

What relieved the burden of Equiano’s task somewhat was the fact that he was not generating a new feeling of sympathy in white Europeans; the idea that slavery was an evil practice had been afloat amongst European intellectuals long before the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 in England. Thomas Jefferson, for example, had denounced King George’s support of the slave trade in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, deeming it a “cruel war against human nature itself,” and a violation of human nature’s “most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him”5. The majority of Quakers, such as Equiano’s personal favorite, Anthony Benezet, had also held anti-slavery views almost as long as Quakerism was a belief system. In addition, around the time that Equiano released his work, anti-slavery propaganda was in full swing in England; engravings of packed-slave ships were being published in newspapers and people were openly condemning slavery in the public arena9. Equiano’s work, which elicited the right amount of sympathy in readers, was just what the anti-slavery cause needed at the time and, with Equiano’s gentle voice, it toppled the slave trade in the United Kingdom.

Part of the success of Equiano’s skill as a propagandist is evinced in the fact that his book became a best-seller when it was first published in 1789 and, from 1789 to 1794, underwent nine editions and was translated into German, Dutch, and Russian4. Even though some scholars now recognize it as an “important instrument of abolitionist propaganda,” and a piece that directly influenced the enactment of the Slave Trade Act of 180711, the preponderance of people continue to take the work at face value and see it from the perspective of those whom Equiano needed to convince and, in a sense, that perspective dilutes the true intellectual power of Equiano, a master propagandist and writer—as a man who implemented Realpolitik, and not simplicity and sincerity, to end the slave trade. Sympathy was the primary instrument of his propaganda and, the freedom of the slaves, his primary end—one that he had worked towards for many years. Equiano’s talents as a writer and marketer made him an instant celebrity in the United Kingdom, but some neglect to remember that he had been politically active for many years before the publication of his book and was known well amongst British abolitionists: In 1788, for example, he “led a delegation to the House of Commons to support a William Dolben’s bill, to improve conditions on slave ships, by limiting the number of enslaved Africans that ships could carry”12. There is a letter addressed to Parliament at the beginning of the book, and a letter addressed to the Queen at the end. In his letter to the Queen, he beseeches her to raise “the wretched Africans” from “the condition of brutes, to which they are at present degraded,” and to endow them with “the rights and situation of freemen” (Equiano 245, The Interesting Narrative, Vol. II). Equiano’s name even extended back to Continent where he was born—America—, where it was “the sole new literary work from England reprinted in the United States” for a period of time9. It would not be too much to say that Equiano’s narrative was not only important in England, but in all of the West; it was as important for the abolitionist movement as Jacques-Louis David’s paintings were for the French Revolution10. Olaudah Equiano, like Jacques-Louis David, understood what was needed to appeal to the common man and woman and to draw them into his cause. That is the reason that Equiano’s book was not only a commercial success, but a political success as well. Equiano should be celebrated, not for being a victim, but instead, for being the skilled activist and propagandist that he was. As Vincent Carretta, a University of Maryland professor explains:

Equiano’s possible American birth [does not] undermine the importance of the Narrative. … To imagine that guile and deception were of no use to slaves and former slaves would be ridiculous, as the Brer Rabbit stories show. (“The True Story of Equiano”)

Just as a slave on a plantation would have been justified to use some form of deception to escape his master, so does it make sense that Equiano, in his attempt to free all black men from their enslavement in the United Kingdom and its colonies, used propaganda as well.

If an intelligent, resolute, and strong-willed person is enslaved, it is only reasonable to believe that that person will do all in his power to ensure his future safety. Equiano did just that. He first earned the modern equivalent of £6,000 through trading to earn his freedom from his master Robert King, and then, he learned how to read and write. Equiano pored over the anti-slavery texts of the day, mostly written by Quakers, and then, he reasoned that the best formula for an anti-slavery book would be this: To travel as much as possible around England and to market the book as a curiosity—that is, to sell an “interesting narrative” to white Europeans who had never read a book by a black man, or perhaps never even saw a black man who could write—, and then, to deliver them a powerful anti-slavery narrative that persuades one of the wickedness of the slave trade through an invocation of sympathy, cultural relativism, and, most of all, the fact that Equiano, a mere slave, is as educated and as eloquent as most whites. Just as art historians would argue that Caravaggio implemented certain techniques in his paintings to create the powerful religious messages that he created, so did Equiano implement specific techniques to pull at the heartstrings of his audience and to convince them of the injustices of the slave trade. For these reasons, Equiano’s autobiography was a much more powerful propaganda piece than the posters of slave ships and the speeches that some of the abolitionists of the day were presenting to the public—Equiano single-handedly undermined all of the prejudices of the white Europeans and, through sympathy, showed them that what they were doing was evil.

REFERENCES

1. Benezet, Anthony. Some Historical Account of Guinea, Its Situation, Produce, and the general Disposition of its Inhabitants with an Inquiry into the Rise and Progress of the Slave Trade, its Nature, and lamentable Effects. Also a Republication of the Sentiments of several Authors of Note on this interesting Subject: Particularly an Extract of a Treatise written by Granville Sharpe. Project Gutenberg, 7 March 2004, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11489/11489-h/11489-h.htm#I.

2. Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. 2004. Penguin, 1999.

3. Costanzo, Angelo. “Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797).” Georgetown University, http://faculty.georgetown.edu/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/vassa.html. Accessed 24 March 2017.

4. Dabydeen, David. “Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-made Man,” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 2 December 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/dec/03/
featuresreviews.guardianreview3. Accessed 21 February 2017.

5. “The Deleted Passage of the Declaration of Independence (1776).” BlackPast.org, http://www.blackpast.org/primary/declaration-independence-and-debate-over-slavery. Accessed 21 April 2017.

6. Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, Vol. II. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001. Electronic Edition.

7. Equiano, Olaudah. The Letters and Other Writings of Gustav Vassus. Edited by Karlee Anne Sapozik, Markus Wiener Publishers, 2012.

8. Equiano, Olaudah. “Letter to the Quakers from Gustavus Vasa (Olaudah Equiano) and others,” The Abolition Project, http://abolition.e2bn.org/abolition_view.php?id=0&expand=1. Accessed 21 April 2017.

9. Hochschild, Adam. “The Interesting Narrative.” Slate, 3 June 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/
the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/olaudah_equiano_s_autobiography_the_most_successful_political_book_tour.html. Accessed 24 March 2017.

10. “The Legacy of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825).” The Met. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jldv/hd_jldv.htm. Accessed 21 April 2017.

11. “Olaudah Equiano Biography.” Biography Online. http://www.biographyonline.net/writers/olaudah-equiano.html. Accessed 25 March 2017.

12. “Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745-1797): The Former Slave, Seaman & Writer,” The Abolition Project, http://abolition.e2bn.org/abolition_view.php?id=0&expand=1. Accessed 21 April 2017.

 13. “The True Story of Equiano.” The Nation, 2 November 2005. https://www.thenation.com/article/true-story-equiano/. Accessed 21 April 2017.