Text of first writing assignment (see syllabus;
homepage links about Equiano):
Equiano essay. (At least 800 words, ca. 3-4 pages.) Vassa/Equiano wrote his autobiography to expose the evils of slavery and prove that Africans are intellectually equal to Europeans. Often he anticipates criticism and counterarguments. What are some of the justifications of slavery that he refutes? What arguments does he make in order to do this? Pick several and assess them: Do they convince you? If so, why, and if not, why not?
Professor's comment: Note the clear thesis statement at the end of the first paragraph ("His main arguments are ..."). The second paragraph begins with an assessment of the arguments (the economic arguments are "primary"). The author laters assesses the humanitarian argument as "perhaps the most convincing." In each case, the author summarizes the counterarguments that Vassa/Equiano is addressing.
The autobiography of Olaudah Equiano serves as evidence of the cruelty and injustice of the slave trade. People of the eighteenth century did not wish to give up slavery due to justifications that slavery is more profitable than wage labor, prejudiced notions of white superiority, and the religious and social quest of "civilizing" those people colonized. Equiano makes many points to refute these justifications. His main arguments in which he successfully refutes slavery are based on his notions that exploitation of labor is incompatible with the capitalist system, incompatible with religious notions of equality, and incompatible as an institution that brings out the worst of human nature.
Equiano’s primary argument against slavery is economic. He is mainly interested in the effect that slavery has upon the capitalist system, a system which he himself uses in order to gain his freedom. He argues that brutal treatment of slaves is not in the best interest of their owners. Instead, he contends that "benevolence [is] their true interest." (95). If slaves were treated better, they would work harder, and be less likely to run away. This would be more profitable for the slave owner, because slaves would not have to be replaced, and would maintain a greater output. This argument is convincing mainly because Equiano himself is an example of this system. As a hard-worker who understands the capitalist system, he receives many opportunities to run away. Instead he stays with his masters and tries to save money so he can purchase his freedom. Equiano trusts in the system of capitalism, although it has treated him so badly. He believes that wage labor will strengthen the justice of the business world.
The second economic argument Equiano uses against slavery is one in which he recognizes the resources and possibilities of commerce within Africa, besides the slave trade. He portrays Africa as a major manufacturing interest for Britain. This argument is ingenious because he directs the interests of the main slave-trade operator (Britain), away from slaves and towards sources of commerce that would benefit Africa. As an educated man he has clear conceptions that if blacks were able to remain in Africa, the population would increase, as would the demand for manufactured goods. This theory of supply-demand could be more profitable than the slave trade. In this manner he appeals to the capitalist motivations of both Europeans and Africans.
Besides his economic arguments, Equiano provides an argument against the common conception of white superiority as a justification for slavery. Indeed, the entire premise behind his book is to prove that blacks can be just as intelligent and equal to whites in every manner. He wishes to understand and explain the sociological aspects of race relations, in which "man is hindered by his situation." (45) In the case of the African slaves, they are confined into ignorance due to their enslavement. They are not allowed individual growth, and so are denied from being accepted as contributors to their society. This is problematic because it is not only anti-capitalist but also anti-humanist. Inequality leads to the breakdown of morals for everyone; such is the example of the white men awarding money to the black and white children for fighting.
Equiano also proves, to a predominately god-fearing audience, that slavery is incompatible with biblical teachings. Slavery is neither compatible with the "civilizing" mission undertaken by the Europeans, nor does it complement the Christian doctrine of "Do unto others." (58) As a man who has ironically found solace in the religion of his oppressors, Equiano struggles to understand his place in a world which apparently opposes religion and Enlightenment reason. In many instances Equiano proves to have a stronger sense of morality and greater intelligence than his white oppressors. His religious argument is complex, because at times even religion frustrates Equiano as an answer for his suffering. It is difficult for this to be a convincing argument because he himself is at times unconvinced of the ability of religion to refute slavery.
Perhaps the most convincing argument in Equiano’s narrative is that slavery exposes the brutality within human nature. The institution of slavery regards men as property, not as people. Equiano feels that African slaves need incorporation and acceptance into society, not oppression and isolation from that society. From his journey from an African slave to a free man, he has experienced and gained firsthand knowledge of the horrors and suffering of the slave trade. By telling his story he wishes to have the audience regard him as a man. In his description of his birthplace in Africa, he affirms his culture and his traditions. Equiano wants people to identify with him as a human, and not dismiss him as the "other."
Equiano recognizes that dehumanization accounts for people’s use of brutal violence. Only through people’s identification with the slave’s situation can blacks be accepted into society. Ideological change, in Equiano’s mind, must be the primary motivation. The prevalence of the slave trade is proof that economic arguments alone will not change people’s minds. He proves himself an equal through learning to read and write, and succeeds in a society that constantly opposes his success. Equiano proves to be strong enough to rise above even the greatest of brutality and adversity. Slavery "defrauds men of their virtue" in that forced ignorance is a product of forced enslavement (99). Through his adventures Equiano proves his resiliency. His description of the Indians of the Mosquito Coast goes further to prove that claims to white superiority are invalid. The "unenlightened Indians" prove to be "better" and "more pious" than the white men. (172) Equiano points out that all people must be regarded upon equal terms; he recognizes not racial but human strengths and failings. It is slavery’s hindrance of human potential, and it’s massive affliction of prejudice and violence that he finds to be most damaging.
Equiano makes convincing arguments throughout his narrative against the evils of slavery and how they degrade the quality of human life and nature. As a man who has experienced firsthand the injustice and cruelty of the slave trade, he presents both a convincing humanitarian and economic argument against slavery. The wealth accumulated by the slave trade system is tainted with the blood, sweat, and tears, of the slaves exploited by it.
Paper written by Rebecca Harris, April 13, 2003; prepared for web by H. Marcuse
on May 8, 2003
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