The study of Romanticism and its place in literature is one that has, for years, been studied and analyzed in countless ways. By introducing readers to measures of the exotic, the imagination, and the search for self-identity, Romanticism not only serves as good entertainment, but also has didactic value and begs further study. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano, is a piece of literature that embodies all of these things and more. Far from being just an historical novel, the work has social relevance and deserves analysis from several angles to gain a strong understanding of its importance. The purpose of this essay, then, is to argue that while Equiano’s narrative is indeed a story of the horrible atrocities surrounding slavery in the 18th century, it doubly serves as a complete spiritual autobiography depicting the author’s conversion to Christianity. By using religion and the Christian faith as a way to contextually frame his argument for equality and human rights, Equiano presents his readers with a very thoughtful look at the role of faith and how it can be used as a tool to overcome even the most dire circumstances. Additionally and more to Equiano’s specific plight, religion is that vehicle which protects and buffers him against a multitude of ordeals he is forced to endure. As a major theme in this work, religion serves two other functions: it gives the author common standing ground (Col. 3:11) with his intended audience, the British (white) aristocrats, and it also gives him credibility as a man who has evolved from a belief system of sun worship and magicians to that of sanctification by grace through Jesus Christ. With this in mind, exploring the life of Equiano through this religious lens becomes our challenge. As such, it plays an incredibly important role when looking at his story critically.
It is important for our discussion to recognize that Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 and kidnapped into slavery at the age of eleven. He describes his early religious life as being cognizant of a single Creator who “lives in the sun” (17) but also has no conception of eternity. His religion spoke more to the ideas of decency and tribal unity than to any idea of personal salvation. Certainly, there was no evangelical form of this tribal faith. For these reason, he often thought of death as preferable to the indentured and persecuted life he was living. With no command of the English language, no measureable skill in reading or writing, and no education, his future seemed endlessly bleak. At points in his narrative, he speaks of “an anxious wish for death,” (26) and calling God to “direct the stroke of death to me,” (69) textually confirming that he thought death to be the answer to his ills. These thoughts continue until he hears servants speaking on the subject of Heaven and baptism – how you cannot reach one without the other. His baptism at age 14, therefore, clearly becomes a decisive point in his life – trumped only by his manumission years later. Once Equiano is baptized, he is consumed by his religion and uses his faith to carry him through the struggles of being bound by slavery.
A series of events – each individual in nature, but Providential in scope – proves to him that his prayers to God for deliverance are working. He is being delivered into safety by putting faith in God’s hand when storms ravage the ship he is forced to work on, or when his crew goes days without water, or when he finds himself beaten and friendless. God’s Providence is there in these instances, and Equiano illustrates to his reading audience that he is slowly becoming more and more aware of it. His desire to learn to read – to build his education – triggers the act of Bible reading, to learn for himself what faith is all about and how it surpasses the belief in pure magic or whimsical fantasy. When he describes his burden in Chapter 3 by stating that “the kind and unknown hand of the Creator…began to appear to my comfort,” (38) readers get the idea that Equiano has discovered not only his coping mechanism, but also his new outlook on life. And from that, he is able to call out in prayer during times of fear or danger and be reconciled by “worshipping God, who made us and all things” (42).
One of the most interesting elements of Equiano’s narrative is that he lives his life based on a moral code of treating others evenly – something equivalent to the Golden Rule. Since he firmly believes that no man has any right over another, he lives by the “do unto all men as you would men should do unto you” motto. By giving readers this glimpse into his worldview, he can expertly show the brutality of slavery. He cites example after example how he saw slaves treated and how he himself suffered from injustice – both while he was indentured and even after he was able to gain his freedom. The prejudices he endured were extensive, but his tone here is unquestionably terse: slavery is bad, men should be treated as equals, and color doesn’t matter. As this relates to the Christian faith, Equiano symbolizes how strong a belief in salvation and eternal life can really be. The strength that he derived from God, the one that he “looked up with prayers anxiously to…for my liberty,” (87) defined Equiano as a man. And perhaps this is the most crucial element in any close reading of his autobiography: religion and faith combined, as the backbone of our narrator’s story, are inseparable when studying the man. For without faith, I would argue, Equiano’s narrative would be quite different. Truly, there is evidence that it might not exist today at all – that it was the strength of his religious convictions, the “encouragement…to trust the Lord in any situation,” (86) that saved his life, and allowed him to survive, buy his own freedom, and prosper.
The unshakable faith of Equiano and his soul’s glorification of God also gives us interesting insight into the abolitionist movement itself. For at its core, the abolition of slavery mirrors, in many ways, the tenets of the Christian faith. It stresses equality for all people, as in Paul’s letter to the Colossians when he states that “but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Col. 3:11 NIV). As such, what better exemplar to fight against slavery than 1) a former slave, and 2) a resolute Christian? My opinion on this leans toward the belief that had Equiano not been baptized into the faith, or had he not lived under such Christian morals, his relevance would likely have been ignored. His power to persuade the section of Britain’s aristocracy and monarchy – the ones who could really affect meaningful and lasting social change – would not nearly have had the punch it did if not for the equal footing Christianity provides. In short, religion gave Equiano a voice and a power he would not have otherwise had. This is why religion is such a crucial thematic element in this narrative. The story simply doesn’t work without it.
Overall, Equiano most certainly makes his Christian argument against slavery a very convincing one. He credibly argues that it cannot be based on color and that good must win out over evil every time. Not only that, but he speaks with a point of view that is unique to his own situation – being both a victim of slavery and one who has overcome its shackles – to give his readers a portrait of hope and survival. Clearly, religion plays the most crucial role in his development as a man, and it is fair to say that it defines his entire story. Leaning on his faith in God, praying daily for Providence to intervene as a rescuer, and by quoting scripture verses that served as a balm to every injustice he received, Equiano uses religion as a way to incite change. While it is the main theme of the story, it is by no means the only one – it enlightens the mind as to what horrors slavery produced, but at the same time puts the onus of that change into the hands of those who can do something about it. And that, for all intents and purposes, is a task well worth our applause. When the author himself states at the novel’s conclusion, “I hope to have the satisfaction of seeing the renovation of liberty and justice…to vindicate the honour of our common nature,” I think he has more than succeeded. He glorifies God (and in many ways, man) with his work, and deserves an immense amount of credit for that.