Amongst the hopeful expressions of his African home and the dreadful dystopia of his American life, Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa) frequently mentions Christianity here in there, seemingly inexplicably. One part reflecting this stood out to me:
Such is the imperfect sketch my memory has furnished me with of the manners and customs of a people among whom I first drew my breath. And here I cannot forbear suggesting what has long struck me very forcibly…imperfect as it is, appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the patriarchs while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis—an analogy, which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other.ch. 1, ¶ 17
He goes on to cite explanations of other scholars who have looked into the book of Genesis to further compare his life to the lives of the Hebrews. This brings me to my first question:
Why does Equiano compare himself to early Biblical figures?
It’s very daunting to make comparisons from one’s own life to the lives in sacred texts. I imagine its also risky, considering how Christian faith was a huge factor in British/early American culture, as well as sacred it truly was. But not only does he compare the themes in his life to those in this text, he also implies he is connected with them by blood, since he counter-argues the skin color difference with more scholars/scientists. He’s arguing he is related to the Jews not just by similar experience, but quite literally. This is even more risky than it ever was before.
I imagine he wanted to show his white, British/American readers what his life was like by reminding them of something familiar to them (like I said before, Christianity was a big thing for them) and then making that comparison. However, his ancestral argument threw me for a loop for a bit. I wonder if he was so desperate to get to the hearts of each of his readers, that he targeted both the religious, but also the scholarly and scientific. He already cited other white, British/American scholars to prove his point, and then he became more literal and wrote his thoughts more like a research paper than a memoir. Based on how passionate his stories come across in this text, I think he wanted to cover all bases for his audience to ensure some kind of connection to them, whether it was emotional or logical. It’s just so crazy how he almost used Christianity and modern (for the time) studies against their societal rules to make his point. Although, that could just show how desperate he was to get his point across.
My last question revolves around a repeated word in this text:
Why does Equiano use the word “countrymen” to describe other slaves?
Speaking literally, Equiano and the other slaves are not from the same country so therefore they must not be “countrymen”, right? Well, they weren’t in the same place in Africa, but they are now all in the exact same place; America. Sort of going back to that shared-experience argument, I think Equiano wants to instill a sense of community within his fellow slaves because they have all been through similar thing. The main reason for this is because he wants to show the readers that it wasn’t just him who went through all this torture, it was thousands, soon to be hundreds of thousands. Look at the way he uses the word in his opening letter:
…the chief design of which is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen…as the production of an unlettered African, who is actuated by the hope of becoming an instrument towards the relief of his suffering countrymen.Equiano’s Letter to Lords and Gentlemen
He puts negative words right before each use of the word to ensure a sense of dread about their situation. So before you even understand they live similar lives, you understand they have bleak and painful lives.