This week’s reading, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, coincided with Ryan’s decision that I needed to sit down with him and watch Amazing Grace, the 2006 movie which made the story of William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery in England more widely known. It was fascinating the see the fight Equiano wrote for waged on the screen, but what most interested me is the relationship between Equiano and Wilberforce and the Abolition movement as depicted by both narratives, as well as how both employed narrative biography/autobiography to prove a point rather than provide a factually-acurate history.
Equiano’s account was incredibly detailed. In fact, thinking back to earlier classes, his story could make a gorgeous, detailed, and moving graphic novel for print or online reading. I could not find any good graphic novelizations, but youtube had interesting videos. I was particularly impressed with with student-made video.
In his Narrative, Equiano talks about Africa and his boyhood, and I can almost feel the heat of the sun and enjoy the company of his tribe. Yet scholars debate if Equiano was actually born in Africa and taken through the horrors of the Middle Passage. Naval muster roll and Baptismal records claim he was born in South Carolina, making him an African American by birth. Also, it has proven devilishly difficult to find the specific village and people Equiano claims to be part of before his kidnapping. With details he offers on the Middle Passage were very similar to accounts already published, means he could have fabricated his early childhood and horrific journey in order to prove his point. Other scholars argue that since so much of his account is true, and easily proven so by records and letters, than his earlier accounts must also be true.
Regardless of the veracity of Equiano’s origin, his tale is certainly compelling and works and influences both by evoking pathos in the reader and helping establish his own ethos. Equiano also uses his own time in slavery to expose the very horrors inflicted upon men in the name of the wretched institution. His tale of kidnapping, of a disgusting and terrifying trip across the Atlantic, and first-hand accounts of the various evils pressed upon the slaves certainly revealed the evils of slavery and made many of those who were ignoring or ignorant of the facts face the darkness of slavery.
In the movie Amazing Grace, Equiano is part of a group assembled by soon-to-be-Prime Minster William Pitt, the purpose of which was the convince William Willburforce that he could both serve God and be a politician: his mission would be abolishing slavery. Equiano appears at the initial dinner arranged by Pitt and then attends strategizing meetings throughout the tale until his death is mentioned. His friend, Rev. Thomas Clarkson sits on Equiano’s grave to celebrate the abolition of slavery and share a drop of spirits with Equiano.
While Equiano did write about Clarkson in his Narrative, there was nothing about Wilberforce except a mention that the matters of slavery and abolition were now before the Parliament. At first, I was surprise Equiano did not mention so powerful an ally. Upon reflection, though, I began to see how the narratives were working.
In The Interesting Narrative, Equiano was writing in order to reveal the evils of slavery and bring more people to the cause. Mentioning an ally in Parliament could make people think the war was already won. On the other hand, Ryan pointed out that at the time Equiano’s narrative was published, Wilberforce was not a very powerful member of Parliament. His cause was just garnering attention, and Wilberforce himself was a very young, junior member of the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, although Equiano and Wilberforce were both driving members of the Abolition movement, it is also likely that the filmmakers of Amazing Grace fabricated or exaggerated the two men’s meetings in order to tie a famous former slaver slave into Wilberforce’s narrative, giving him more ethos and creating more pathos in the audience. Equiano’s appearances in the movie are memorable, and I do think his character was treated with due respect and dignity. The movie gave Equiano agency and power, and it made him an equal ally who not only aids Wilberforce and movement but actually helps pull Wilberforce into the fight. (Interestingly enough, the trailer takes away some of that agency). I would recommend it for anyone studying the abolition movement, however tangentially.