Slaveholder, How Will You Answer God?

Scholars have identified Equiano’s a protest against the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as well as slavery itself. To that end, Equiano attacked the basis of racial slavery from an ostensibly Protestant worldview. The heart of this jeremiad is found in the first chapter of the narrative. Undergirding racial slavery was the assumption of African inferiority based upon their color. Traditionally, Christians have held that all humans have been created in the image of God, and came from “one blood”—a common set of parents identified as Adam and Eve in the book of the Genesis. Though humans fells from their state of innocence into sin (the Fall), humans still retain the dignity of their creation. At the outset of the narrative, Equiano sought to prove that color is environmental and inconsequential to human dignity.

Equiano used Paul’s statement in , “and [God] hath made of one blood of all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” to argue for a common humanity and by implication a common human dignity. He quoted this verse in the conclusion of his presentation of evidence that skin color is merely an environmental circumstance, and has no bearing on human intellect. In the larger section Equiano discussed the difference of skin color between the ancient Jews and Igbos. Upon reading the work of the English abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, Equiano became convinced that skin color was the result of climate. Clarkson quoted a Dr. Mitchel who concluded that Spaniards and Portuguese who lived in warm climates for a prolonged period had darker skin. In his commentary and analysis of this argument, Equiano wrote, “Are there not causes enough to which the apparent inferiority of an African may be ascribed, without limiting the goodness of God, and supposing he forbore to stamp understanding on certainly his own image, because ‘carved in ebony?’” Equiano argued further that it was slavery that rendered Africans “ignorant” as Europeans perceived them to be: “Does not slavery itself depress the mind, and extinguish all its fire, ad ever noble sentiment?” Here Equiano leaned on the doctrine of creation to argue for the dignity of African humanity, and against the arbitrary nature of racial slavery.

As the narrative progressed, Equiano clearly pointed to aspects of human fallenness as he used this portion of a reformational worldview to argue against chattel slavery. In brief, Equiano implied that human depravity gave rise to such a system of slavery. More explicitly, Equiano implicated Europeans as perpetrators of this particular sin. As he described his experiences on a slave ship being transported to an uncertain fate in the New World, Equiano the man presented numerous horrors endured by African captives through the innocent eyes of Equiano the boy. As he wrote of the heinous acts English sailors committed against African captives on board the slave ship, the sheer horror of the Middle Passage, and the arbitrary separation of family members, Equiano condemned these crimes in a Christian ethical fashion in what is arguably the most famous passage of the narrative: “O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God? who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain?” In this passage, Equiano denoted that such barbarous acts committed by Englishmen belied their Christian testimony. In rhetorical genius, Equiano here turned one of the European justifications for enslaving Africans on its head. By this period of the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Europeans argued that slavery had a civilizing effect on heathen Africans. It is clear from Equiano’s description and commentary on the Middle Passage that Europeans had something to learn from Africans regarding civility as African slavery bore none of the stain of barbarity as European slavery. Essentially, Equiano asserts that there is no possible way to justify the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as an extension of Christian mission; it is sub-Christian, and sub-human.

Equiano continued his argument against chattel slavery as a demonstration of human depravity (by implication European human depravity) further in the text when he described atrocity after atrocity committed against slaves in the West Indies. In the early 1760s, Equiano was a slave of an aforementioned Philadelphia Quaker, Robert King, who did business in the West Indies. Equiano referred to slave masters and overseers who sexually assaulted slave women, and refused to spare physical punishment to pregnant slave women. He also described cruel tortures such as burning, and staking a slave to the ground to allow hot wax to drip on his back. In mentioning that one Christian slave master cut off a slave’s leg who had attempted to escape, Equiano wrote: “I asked him, if the man had died in the operation? How he, as a Christian, could answer for the horrid act before God? And he told me, answering was a thing of another world; but what he thought and did were policy. I told him that Christian doctrine taught us to do unto others as we would that other should do unto us.” The Christian slave holder had no adequate response to Equiano’s assertion. This interchange reveals more Christian nominalism as it pertained to professing Christians and their treatment of slaves. It is obvious from Equiano’s line of questioning that he assumed that Christian slaveholders would treat their slaves with love and kindness. This particular slaveholder dismissed the dictates of the Great Commandment, which to Equiano meant that he was no Christian at all revealing his still un-regenerated heart.

This is Part II in our three-part series on the life of Olaudah Equiano. See Part 1

26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, (ESV)

Eric Washington
Eric Washington serves as Assistant Professor and History Director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Minor at Calvin College. Dr. Washington is primarily interested in studying the African-American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century.

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