In 1759 Olaudah Equiano published his self-narrative The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equaino, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Nearly 100 years later in 1845 Frederick Douglass published his self narrative The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Both self-written memoirs were revolutionary first hand accounts of their experiences with slavery which went influenced governing bodies of the time and impacted generations to come. Though the two memoirs are both self-written slave narratives they tell varying accounts of their personal experiences as slaves. The different stories they tell highlights the complexities of slavery and how all those enslaved held varying definitions of what it meant to be a slave.
Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in the village of Essaka, near modern day eastern Nigeria (Onyeoziri). He describes his childhood with strong endearment, he speaks of his village as a community, explaining the celebrations, daily routines, and governing body with a strong positive tone. He explains that they never went without, “As we live in a country where nature is prodigal of her favours, our wants are few and easily supplied” (Equiano 14). They lived a life of few luxuries, but never went without the essentials. Equiano explains the lack of diversity in his community stating “I had never heard of a white men or Europeans, nor of the sea”(Equiano 12), and that his father was “one of those elders or chiefs” (Equiano 12) highlighting the life of privilege he held before he was kidnapped from him home country and put into slavery.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery. He was born in Talbot county, Maryland, with no strong idea on what year he was born, but gives his best estimate to be about 1818. He describes his parentage as such “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant…I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life” (Douglass 30). Douglass states that his father was a white man, but “by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers” (Douglass 31). Douglass describes the remainder of his childhood, until he was old enough to work in the fields, as miserable. He was always cold and hungry, never being given enough food or water, and constantly surrounded by the abuse of the older slaves around him, showing him what his future would look like when he was old enough to move to the fields.
The differences between Frederick Douglass’s and Olaudah Equiano’s childhoods are striking. Frederick Douglass had been born into slavery, he was separated from his parents very early on, and put to work from the second he could hold his own. His childhood was clouded by the abuse of his elders by their masters, foreshadowing what his fate would be when he became old enough to do hard labor. Equiano was born with the promise of one day being a leader of his community. He was surrounded by the rich culture of his people “We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets”(Equiano 12). He knew of slavery, but the slavery in his country was very different than that which Douglass was to experience in North America. Douglass knew what was to come of his future from the second he was born, Equiano lost his future when he was kidnapped and put into the slave trade.
There are many differences between Douglass and Equiano in terms of experience, outlook on life, and path to freedom, but one similarity they share is their faith in religion. Equiano had been aware of religion since a young age, but began to really have faith after his first experience at a church “After this I went to church; and having never been at such a place before, I was again amazed at seeing and hearing this service” (Equiano 27). Equiano came to the conclusion “After this I was resolved to win Heaven if possible; and if I perished I thought it should be at the feet of Jesus, in praying to him for salvation” (Equiano 73), deciding his life goal was to end in salvation at the feet of Jesus Christ. Only once did Equiano state that he saw the dark side of religion “This Christian master immediately pinned the wretch down to the ground at each wrist and ankle, and then took some sticks of sealing wax, and lighted them, and dropped it all over his back” (Equiano 43) here he acknowledges the downfalls of some religious followers, but never once did his faith waver.
Douglass had a similar personal relationship with religion, but saw a much stronger dark side to faith as well. “I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty”(Douglass 93). Douglass saw religious masters as using their religion to be more abusive towards slaves, using verses and scriptures to support their cruelty towards their slaves. “The religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes…For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst” (Douglass 118). Douglass began to question his religion due to the cruel treatment of his brothers and sisters around him “I am almost ready to ask ;Does a righteous God govern the universe?’”(Douglass 122). Donald B. Gibson, a Professor of English at Rutgers University, cites “ Douglass’s response to the question raised by theodicy, the recognition of the problem raised by the co-existence of a just God and evil, had a profound effect on Douglass’s thinking.” (Gibson 591). One moment struck Douglass deeply, he was attempting to teach a group of slaves about religion when the group was attacked by white men “Rushed upon us with sticks and stone, and broke up our virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s – all calling themselves Christians!” (Douglass 122). Though Douglass never abandoned his religion, he had plenty of reason to question his God throughout his life, but his faith maintained his hope.
The most extreme difference between the life of the two men is their path to freedom. For Equiano the means to freedom was saving enough money to buy his way. “The captain then said he knew I got the money very honestly and with much industry, and that I was particularly careful” (Equiano 55).In order to obtain enough money to buy his freedom Equiano had been buying goods from countries they travelled to with his allowances and selling them for a greater cost at their next stop on their voyage. His master had previous promised that if he could make the money, Equiano would be allowed to buy his freedom “My master then said, he would not be worse than his promise; and, taking the money, told me to go to the secretary at the register office and get my manumission drawn up” (Equiano 55). Equiano went to the secretary and had his manumission written as his master had asked, and by the end of the day he was a free man. After his freedom he remained working for his old master, “and from that day I was entered on board as an able-bodied sailor, at thirty-six shillings per month” (Equiano 56) he was making the same as his white coworkers and enjoyed all the privileges of being a freeman. Equiano remained with his former master until the day he died “every man on board loved this man, and regretted his death; but I was exceedingly affected at it” (Equiano 58). After his death he realized how much this man meant to him, thanked him in death endlessly, and moved on with his life as a free man.
Douglass disclaims in the beginning of his last chapter that he will not disclose the exact means by which he escaped slavery. He gives his first reason as stating the minute details would be impossible, and it would put those that assisted him along his journey in a dangerous position. Douglass then states his second and main reason “Secondly, such a statement would most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the part of slaveholders than has existed heretofore among them; which would, of course, be the means of guarding a door whereby some dear brother bondman might escape his galling chains” (Douglass 143). Douglass didn’t want to make it any more difficult for his fellows in slavery to escape than it already was by publishing his story in detail. Three years after his original declaration to escape slavery, Douglass escaped “on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York” (Douglass 151). At first it was very difficult for Douglass “I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost ever colored man cause for distrust” (Douglass 152). He was incredibly lonely and he couldn’t trust anyone for every stranger could be a slavecatcher trying to send him back to his master. Due to the help of a man named Mr. Ruggles, Frederick Douglass was finally able to obtain full freedom in New Bedford, where he began his activism efforts.
Once obtaining freedom and settling down each man turned their efforts towards abolition. In England, Equiano began writing his memoir to be a first hand account of what slaves truly went through. His memoir is considered to be the first self written slave narrative and had a huge impact on the legislature, one of the last lines in his book is directly for the lawmaker “As the inhuman traffic of slavery is to be taken into consideration of the British legislature” (Equiano 94). Equiano did not live to see the abolition of slavery in England but his legacy lived on as the freeman who wrote the memoir that inspired millions. Douglass wrote his memoir and began touring to share his experience in hopes to aid the abolition movement. Once on a book signing tour Douglass was advised not to sound too educated and civilized because his advisors believed it would cause listeners to find doubt in his story (Williams). Douglass was instrumental in abolition in the United States, which occurred in 1833. Douglass continued to fight for Black rights until his death in 1895. These two men left legacies with their memoirs, ones that were powerful enough to still be written about, thought about, and acknowledged nearly 200 years later.
- Onyeoziri, Friday. “Olaudah Equiano: Facts about His People and Place of Birth.” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self Knowledge, vol. 6, no. 4, 2008.
- Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Arcturus Holdings Limited, 2018.
- Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African Written by Himself . The Project Gutenburg, 2005, Project Gutenburg, www.gutenberg.org/files/15399/15399-h/15399-h.htm.
- Gibson, Donald B. “Christianity and Individualism: (Re-)Creation and Reality in Frederick Douglass’s Representation of Self.” African American Review, vol. 26, no. 4, 1992, p. 591., doi:10.2307/3041873.
- Williams, Bayo. “Of Human Bondage and Literary Triumphs: Hannah Crafts and the Morphology of the Slave Narrative.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 34, no. 1, 2003, pp. 137–150., doi:10.1353/ral.2003.0018.
- Potkay, Adam. “Olaudah Equiano and the Art of Spiritual Autobiography.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 27, no. 4, 1994, p. 677., doi:10.2307/2739447.