Monday, January 21, 2008

From the 'Sun God' to the 'Son of God': Equiano's Journey

(Photo: Portrait in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter; posted on Wikipedia)

Today is Martin Luther King day in the United States so it is a fitting time to remember someone who helped to set the stage for the civil rights movement some two hundred years before Dr. King. If you saw the William Wilberforce bio-pic, Amazing Grace, you remember the character of Olaudah Equiano. Well, soon after that movie came out I bought the Penguin Classics edition of Equiano's The Interesting Narrative for about £1 at a second hand book shop here in Edinburgh. It is a fitting title.

There is a lot that can be said about the man and the book. Equiano was born in 1745, in a region he referred to as Essaka, which is in southeastern Nigeria. His father was a chief or 'elder' in his village and Equiano remembered a comfortable early childhood. Strangely enough, he also remembered his own tribe selling slaves to slave traders (the slaves he remembers were prisoners of war, criminals, and 'adulterers'). There were also 'slaves' in his own village. But he was quick to show the difference between the humane treatment their servants received as compared to the brutality of the plantations of Virginia and the West Indies.

He vividly remembered seeing men walking past the village, [carrying] great sacks along with them'. He had no idea then that he would soon be bound and carried away in one of those sacks. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of ten. The book recounts all of the experiences leading up to the point when he was able to purchase his freedom in 1766 while living in the West Indies. After attaining his freedom he eventually resided in England where this account of his 'slave journey' became wildly popular.

The Narrative also chronicles Equiano's spiritual journey. He remembered the religion of his youth which included '...tossing a small quantity of food in a certain place for the spirits of departed relations' (p. 35). His people believed '...that there is one Creator of all things, and that he lives in the sun, and is girded round with a belt, that he may never eat or drink; but according to some, he smokes a pipe, which is our own favourite luxury.' (p. 40).

While in slavery he heard stories from the Old Testament many times. He began to see a 'strong analogy' between 'the customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews before they reached the Land of Promise.' (p. 43). As he began to grasp the elements of the Gospel, he saw a huge disparity between the message of Christ and the 'Christian' slave trade. In one striking passage, as he looked back on his experiences, he wrote:

O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God? [The God] who says unto you Do unto all men as you would men should be done to you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? (p.61).

Despite the tragic examples he witnessed, The Lord softened Equiano's heart to the truth of the Gospel, at which point

I thought I could very plainly trace the hand of God, without whose permission a sparrow cannot fall. I began to raise my fear from man to Him alone and to call daily on his holy name with fear and reverence...[and He] graciously condescended to answer me according to His holy word, and to implant the seeds of piety in me, even one of the meanest of His creatures. (p.88)

At one point in his travels he was in Philadelphia at the same time that George Whitefield was preaching in a small church there. Equiano pressed in among the crowd to watch him preach and said that he saw 'a pious man exhorting the people with the greatest fervour and earnestness, and sweating as much as I ever did while in slavery on Montserrat.' (p. 132).

As for his relationship to the civil rights movement in the United States, there is not a direct correlation. But one passage made me think of non-violent resistance and the tenor of the civil rights 'marchers' in the 1960s.

In the midst of [anxious] thoughts, I therefore looked up with prayers anxiously to God for my liberty; and at the same time used every honest means, and did all that was possible on my part to attain it. (p. 119).

Equiano's first person narrative of his slavery and freedom had an effect on the anti-slavery movements in England that was similar to the impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass on the abolition movement in the United States. Although the civil rights movement owes a great deal to champions like Martin Luther King, Jr., it is also helpful to remember the battles that were fought and won hundreds of years before.


Chris Ross said...

Thanks, Tim! What an inspiring account.

Bridges said...

Thanks Chris.

Sorry for all the typos in the text! I just went back and fixed them. My little girl was playing in the room when I was typing it, so I think I got distracted.



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