Equiano’s Travels

EQUIANO’S TRAVELS

The interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vasa the African. London: Heinemann, African Writers Series. 1996. 190 pages.

Ozodi Osuji

     Like many Africans, I read Equiano’s travels and used it to try understanding the travails of slavery. Since it was a firsthand account by a slave it was extremely instructive. In this piece I want to focus on the role of our fear of harm and death in slavery. But before we get to that topic, let me briefly recapitulate what the book said (this is not a thorough summary of the book, if you have not read it, please read it).

   Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) said that he was ten years old when kidnappers (enslavers) kidnapped him and his sister. He said that his town is called Esaka. We do not know where that is, but Chinua Achebe claimed (without proof) that it is in Alaigbo.

     Many observers dispute Achebe’s claim. As we all know, success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. Olaudah was the first successful African writer, his book was published in 1789, so, many Africans would like to claim him as part of their ethnic group. But very few Africans are ready to also take ownership of their people’s evil deed in selling Olaudah to the white man; he clearly said that those who kidnapped him spoke his language and were like him, black. Africans are too quick to blame white men for slavery but forget that slavery also existed in Africa. When you point two accusatory fingers at other people you forget the three pointing right back at you.

     All humanity is responsible for slavery, not one ethnic group; we must collectively heal it.

     He narrated how he and his sister were kidnapped and marched from their village, hidden in the bushes during the daytime, and travelled mostly at night, until they got to a town where they were sold to a family. The family eventually resold them to other families and the process continued until they finally were brought to a sea town (that we assume is the Atlantic Ocean) and he was packed into a slave ship.

     He told us about the transatlantic travel of the ship until it got to Barbados. There, those who survived the several weeks of ocean journey were sold like cattle. People (planters) came and bid on them and thus they were sold. He, being less than eleven years old, was not going to be of much use on sugar cane plantations, so, a man bought him as a kind of batman, a gofer who did whatever he wanted done around the house.

     He exchanged masters several times. With his masters, he made trips to most of the Caribbean islands; slaves were sold from one island to another. The slaves were brought from West Africa to one of the West Indies countries and sold and those who bought them then took them to other islands and to the Americas and resold them to local planters. If you recall, a group of similar slaves were brought from one of the West Indies to the newly established Jamestown, Virginia, established in 1607, in 1619, hence initiating slavery in the USA.

      He talked about his visits to Savannah, Georgia, South Carolina, and Philadelphia with his master as they sold slaves and other goods to the local population. Eventually, his master, an Englishman, Pascal, took him to his home country, England. In England, his master rented a quarter from a family, and the children of the family became his play mates; they taught him how to read and write in English.

     His master thereafter returned to sea and took him along with him. The narration is the same, taking slaves from one West indies port to another and from one North American port to another; he described what transpired at these various countries and gave an outstanding description of how slavery worked in the Americas. Occasionally, they returned to England, especially to London, for a respite. While In London he continued improving his English language skills and, indeed, learned arithmetic.

     His master, Lieutenant Pascal, was recalled to fighting during the English- French wars of the early 1760s and he was taken along. He narrated his war episode, which consisted mostly of bringing weapons to the deck of his ship and the English soldiers fought away with their French counterparts. The English won that war (George Washington, who later became the first President of the USA, was a colonel in the English army during that war).

     Thereafter, his master returned to merchant navigation. He narrated their travels to the Mediterranean, to Italy, Turkey, and other Mediterranean Seaports; the merchants they transported sold their goods and bought goods. The traders bought and sold goods that folks in these areas demanded and bought goods and resold them in England. He would then stay in England for a while and continued his education. He would return with whoever master he is now serving to sailing. He made countless trips to the Caribbeans, selling and reselling slaves, rum, sugar, and other goods.

     He learned about what people in the various countries they visited liked and began buying a few such items and keeping them in his quarters in their ships and when they got to their destinations, selling them. He eventually saved the forty pounds that his master paid for him.

     At age twenty-one (21) he tried to give to his master the sum he paid for him, and the man refused taking the money until a friend intervened and told him that he had heard him say that if Gustavus Vasa paid him back his money that he would set him free (manumission). His master acceded and took the money and the right papers were procured from one of the West indies islands and were signed and he became a free man.

     Now, as a freeman he sold his labor to seagoing captains who took him along, as a sailor, to wherever they were trading. He became an asset to his masters. As usual, occasionally, he returned to London and travelled with his master to many parts of England.

      One of his masters participated in the 1770s effort to find a Northwest Passage to India and took him along so he was taken to the Artic. He narrated his visit to Greenland, to the various islands that we now call Northwest territories of Canada and his harrowing experience when their boats were caught between two sheets of ice. The trip failed and they returned to London.

     Thereafter, he, again, went on many trips to the Caribbean. At some point, he became involved with the Abolitionist Movement in London. He knew the major Characters in that struggle to end slavery, and they knew him; his book has sample letters they wrote to him. These honorable gentlemen decided to resettle the African slaves in England in Sierra Leone, West Africa and Gustavus Vasa was to lead that resettlement, but a quarrel arose among them and him and he was fired from his job.

     He, thereafter, permanently settled in England and married and had two daughters. At age 44, he wrote his travels in 1789 and travelled all over England and Ireland selling his book. The book was something of a best seller and aroused people’s conscience against slavery.

     He died in London in 1797. Thus, he lived for fifty-two years. Those were fifty-two years of action-packed life! What the man accomplished in that brief lifetime is seldom accomplished by folks who lived to be a hundred years old. What a very productive life.

FEAR OF HARM AND DEATH MAKES SLAVERY AND SECOND-CLASS CITIZENSHIP POSSIBLE

      Perception is projection. That is to say that we seldom, if at all, see other people and things as they are; our perception is almost always colored by what is inside us. We do not know what the objective truth is because we look with myopic lenses. Even science does not see the world objectively because it looks at the external world with our five senses and those senses color what we see. Science does try hard to see things objectively, but pure reason tells us that we still color what we see and, as such, cannot be said to know what the external world truly is. Indeed, does an external world even exist? Hinduism says that the so-called world of space, time and matter we see with our physical eyes is a dream inside our mind (Hinduism is a non-dualistic religion, only one mind of one self exists) and that we are sleeping gods (Atman) and project the world out in our dreams; the dream is the symbol of our wished-for separation from our father (Brahman, God).

    My metaphysics says that in truth we are spirits; all of us are parts of one unified spirit self with one unified spirit mind; we are always in spirit but while there we wished to experience the opposite of spirit, which is life in bodies; we could not do so in spirit and went to sleep and in our sleep dream a universe of space, time and matter and use matter to construct bodies for us and now seem to live in bodies and space and time and those give us the impression that we are separated from our true self, formless unified spirit and separated from each other.  

     Because we invented the physical universe and our bodies, we are proud of them; they are our handiwork, our idols and we do not want to let go of them.

      Thus, we strive to live in bodies and convince ourselves that whatever destroys our bodies ends our lives.

      Those who tend to be courageous tend to find a way to believe that they are not only their bodies, that they transcend their bodies and live forever and ever in spirit.

      The problem is that the belief that we are spirits is a faith-based conviction; we have no way of scientifically proving that spirits exist, much more that we live after our bodies are dead.

     Nevertheless, it is self-evident that if one believes that one lives after one’s ego separated self and body is dead, one is more likely to take up arms and fight for social justice and if one gets killed so be it. Therefore, death-defying courage is found mostly in a few people; most human beings live in total fear and are cowards who are afraid of dying hence do what whoever intimidates them tell them to do.

     It is those who see themselves as bodies that are afraid of fighting and dying for justice because they somehow believe that the death of their egos and bodies is their death; they believe in finitude and oblivion.

     We do not need to get lost debating solipsism but simply state the obvious that the seeming objective world we see is colored by what is inside us. In that sense, whatever I say about Olaudah and people in general is colored by my experience. I am not stating the truth but stating concepts that my experience shaped hence not the ultimate truth, what the ultimate truth is I do not know.

    Rereading The Interesting Narratives of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vasa the African (I read it while at graduate school, long ago), what struck me is his struggle with fear and courage. He did not like been enslaved and at every opportunity told his masters about what he thought of them. He believed that they are savages and certainly not as humane as people in his African village. He noted that whereas rich folks in his town had slaves that they treated them like members of their own families.

     American slavery reduced human beings to chattel slaves, to things and produced pseudo scholarship to justify their inhumane treatment of people. They produced silly ideas on the differences between Black and white people, that Black people are not intelligent and used that self-serving rationalization to justify living like brutes who treated people as beasts of burden.

     Slavery, whether we are talking of the African variety or European variety is wrong. No human being should ever be reduced to slavery. It is our collective function to love and respect all people and make them feel like they are related to us.

    Having said that, what kept running through my mind as I read Equiano’s travels is how Equiano felt the desire to fight with his slave masters but was acutely aware that they had the preponderance of weapons and would kill him. He desired to live so much and to live he desisted from fighting for his freedom,

 as he would have loved to do. He resented slavery with every fiber in his body but at the same time his desire to live at all costs prevented him from picking up arms and trying to kill the slave masters and if needs be gotten himself killed. It is his fear of death that kept him in slavery.

    If you have had occasion to relate to white folks, you have noticed that the average Black person will defeat the average white person in a physical fight, but white folks have the technology and weapons to defeat Black folks in a group fight. Aware of the differences in their weaponry, Black folks conclude that if they take up arms against white folks that white folks would defeat them, and or kill them; to live they desist from fighting back and living as free folks or die fighting for it.

    When I first encountered racism, it occurred to me that the only reason I tolerate it is because I do not desire to be harmed or killed by white folks but beyond that I had total contempt for racists. I saw them as an inferior race, for to me a rational race would not be racist. We must not even treat animals with cruelty, yet these so-called civilized people treat Black folks with unimaginable cruelty; and they are fully aware that they are destroying Black folks’ self-esteem and self-confidence hence making them less productive. Why would rational people do such a dastardly thing? Yet, I allowed them to lord it over me. Why?

     It was my fear of harm and death that disposed me to tolerate racism. If you pick up arms to fight those who oppress you, and they are materially more powerful than you, you fear that they would kill you; to live you allow them to lord it over you.

    I submit that what makes people to tolerate slavery and second-class social conditions is fear of harm and death. If it were possible for people to disregard fear of harm and death, they would always insist on social and economic justice.

     Therefore, the slave is partly responsible for his slavery; it takes two to tango; the person wishing to enslave you and you accommodating him because you are afraid of him killing you. If you did not mind getting killed for your freedom, no one could enslave you!

     If you live in the USA, you probably have noted that a handful of the people own most of the money and use their moneys to pay for a powerful military, police and (in) justice system and anyone who speaks out against their amazingly unjust society is arrested, subjected to their kangaroo courts, found guilty and sent to prisons, if not killed.

     Everyone with any intelligence in his head knows that whereas capitalism is the most productive economic system in the extant world that it tends to lead to winners and losers. A few wins and the many lose. If you desired justice, therefore, you would tax the winners and take some of their money and use it to give all people education through university/or technical schools and pay for health care for all people, as they do in the Scandinavian countries, and otherwise allow competition to allocate goods and services, for it tends to bring the best out of people.

     Rational people accept capitalism but attenuated capitalism, one that adds some rational socialism that helped the losers of society. But in the USA the economic system operates as in a jungle and pure competition produces a few winners and many losers. In the USA, some live high on a hug while the many try to eke out so-called middle-class existence and the many live as poor and some homeless. America is the land of injustice. It is so because the people tolerate it; they are afraid to fight for social and economic justice because they know that the leaders of the political economy would not hesitate to stick their police, military, and other oppressive instruments to them and either kill them, or jail them or cancel culture them (blacklist them so that they do not obtain jobs and live on the sidelines).

     America is an unjust society; it is so because the people are fearful and do not want to be killed by the oppressors who control the land. The same phenomenon operates elsewhere in the world.

     In Russia, one deluded autocrat called Vladmir Putin kills those who oppose his kleptocracy and criminal enterprise, his fascist nationalism.

      In Africa and elsewhere fear prevents the people from struggling to bring about social and economic justice in their lands.

CAN WE TRANSCEND FEAR OF DEATH SO AS TO WORK FOR SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE?

    My question is this, can we ever evolve to a point where we look death in the face and say take us if you want to but as long as we live, we will only live for liberty, economic and social justice? Can we ever transcend the fear that keeps us slaves and second-class citizens?

      I do not have the answer to my question. I want the reader to answer that question for himself. Collectively, we must all try to figure out a way to live fearlessly, doing only what we know is right.

    In my metaphysics I tried to find an answer to my question, but I also know that religion, as Karl Marx said, is the opium of the masses; people use their religion to hope for a better life in so-called life after death while in this world they tolerate the oppressive societies they live in.

     I am interested in the here and now world, how do we overcome our fears so that we work to build a free society that treats all people equally while allowing everyone to use his natural talent to get what he can out of life?

DISCUSSION

      Religion served an especially key role in Equiano’s life. Though he was born in pre-Christian Africa, his life in the Americas and in England exposed him to Christianity. He saved money, bought a bible, and read all of it and tried to live his life according to his understanding of Christianity.

     At every turn he was using what Jesus Christ said to measure his and other people’s behaviors, condemning those that did not measure up to it. He became an evangelist, preaching the Bible and what we must do to become saved and attain heaven.

     He reminds one of contemporary Nigerians who are these days more Christian, at least in appearance, than the Europeans that gave them Christianity. There is a Christian church in every Nigerian street (in the south). Equiano and contemporary Nigerans are living hard lives; their backs are against the wall, and they find refuge in Christianity.

     Whatever works should be tried but there is no doubt that when Africans lot in life improves many of them would become atheistic or agnostic. For now, Christianity helps them cope with their economic suffering and their sudden need to live in urban areas with its anomie; religion keeps them alive, as it kept African slaves alive in the Americas.

     William James’ philosophy of pragmaticism is useful here; one should not denigrate working class folk’s resort to what seems infantile Christianity; if you take away their religious opium life becomes extremely unbearable for them.

     Contemporary westerners live meaningless, purposeless, and nihilistic lives, lives where, as Nietzsche told them, God is dead, and they do not need God; the result is their amazing addictions to alcohol, drugs, weird sex, and to anything that would stimulate or deaden their bodies to avoid awareness of living meaningless existence.

   God should not be dead for Africans, not yet anyway; they are not ready to enter the existentialist angst of doubting even their existence. It is enough that they are suffering material poverty; they do not need any more intellectual headaches.

     Primitive Christianity helped Equiano cope with the peculiar institution of slavery; it helps modern urban Africans cope with their economic and other sufferings. Understanding the function of religion for them is in order, not blaming them for what seem their magical beliefs.

     I say all these because as an agnostic I was tempted to see Equiano’s religiosity as escape from the oppression of slavery instead of standing up to it like a man, fighting for his liberation and if needs be died fighting; it is easy to say that folks should die fighting for freedom; how many human beings have actually done so?

CONCLUSION

     Equiano’s story is really the story of all human beings; he symbolizes the human desire for freedom while fearing the death of his body and separated ego self and fearing those who have the capacity to destroy his life, those in power in his society.

      Everywhere on planet earth, most people live fear bound lives; only a few people are courageous enough to try to figure out who they are and then live as it. Most people just do what their society tells them to do and thus waste their existence.

  Equiano struggled with justice and in his own way fought for it but was nevertheless deterred by his fear of death. Given the circumstances he was in, he was an admirable person. Look at his background: he was born in a slave holding African society, his experience as a slave in the Americas and his glimpse of freedom in Britain; he put together what he gained from these three societies and did what he could to bring about a just society.

     He should be a role model for all Africans; Africans mostly live in abject fear, obeying their criminal leaders who steal most of their resource, leaders who do not hesitate in sticking their police on the people and killing them. If many Africans can do what Olaudah did, try to overcome the fear that bounds them to slavery and second-class citizenship, Africa will certainly do better than it is, what Donald Trump called shithole.

     Africa will yet produce many Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Stockley Carmichael, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and other courageous Africans who looked oppression in the face and said:  get behind me, I will live as a free person; folks who paid for their convictions with their lives.

    The majority of Africans live fear driven lives; to live in fear really is to live in hell; fearful Africans and other human beings live in hell but do not know it.

Ozodi Osuji

May 19, 2022

ozodiosuji@gmail.com

(907) 310-8176

Comments are closed.