Olaudah Equiano: Radical of the Enlightenment

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Through most of the history of farming societies, slavery has been an accepted institution. The Atlantic slave trade, which began in the 1600s, elevated (or lowered) slavery to unprecedented levels of cruelty, and thus over time turned world opinion against this ancient practice. One of the first efforts in the centuries-long campaign against slavery was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, the autobiography of a British subject who had spent many of his formative years as a slave. Born in the Ibo province of central Africa, Equiano was enslaved by fellow Africans in his childhood, around 1755, and shuffled through various owners before coming into European hands and being shipped to the West Indies. There, he worked briefly on a plantation before being sold to a British officer and commencing an active naval career during the Seven Years’ War and after. Purchasing his freedom after eleven years of slavery, he continued his maritime career and became a keen proponent of Methodism. A fairly prominent African in English society, he became heavily involved in the campaign to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, and published The Interesting Narrative largely to promote this cause. Although born in Africa, Olaudah Equiano was clearly a product of the European Enlightenment. The Interesting Narrative reveals this influence through the book’s radical arguments in favor of individual equality and its opposition to slavery as a cruel and inhumane practice contrary to enlightened society. Early on, Equiano describes the relatively benign conditions of slavery in his native region of Africa, wherein slaves lived much like any other people, even sometimes owning slaves of their own (pp. 39-40). Upon being initially enslaved, his main hardships were those of separation from his family and “the mortifying circumstance of

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