Perhaps because he spent his entire adulthood and much of his youth marginalized and not fully accepted by any particular culture or religion, and perhaps also because of the great deal of traveling he did, Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa, as he was renamed) is able to appreciate other religions and cultures in a way no other author whose work we have explored in this class has been able to. Equiano’s views are extremely progressive, possibly even by today’s standards, as he repeatedly draws parallels between the religions of his native Africa, Christianity, Judaism, and even Islam.
In the first chapter, Equiano compared his culture to that of Jewish peoples:
“We practiced circumcision like the Jews, and made offerings and feasts on that occasion in the same manner as they did. Like them also, our children were named for some event, some circumstance, or fancied foreboding at the time of their birth. … I have before remarked that the natives of this part of Africa are extremely cleanly. This necessary habit of decency was with us a part of religion, and therefore we had many purifications and washings; indeed almost as many, and used on the same occasions, if my recollection does not fail me, as the Jews” (55-56).
He also remarks that his village “had priests and magicians, or wise men” who were “held in great reverence by the people” (56). And on page 58, he suggests that Africans and Jewish people share a common biblical ancestor and that “the one people had sprung from the other.”
Equiano also rails against those who purport to be Christian in name but whose actions deceive the title, especially as it relates to the treatment of slaves:
“I remember in the vessel in which I was brought over, in the men’s apartment, there were several brothers, who, in the sale, were sold in different lots; and it was very moving on this occasion to see and hear their cries at parting. 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? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?” (76)
Indeed, Equiano closely links religion and slavery, though not necessarily in consistently condemning slavery as an institution, but instead in condemning the un-Christian-like treatment of slaves in certain parts of the world. He almost even seems to defend the African system of imprisoning and enslaving one’s defeated enemies as a mere consequence of war. But he also refutes the idea that the enslaved are naturally intellectually inferior (he writes about this on page 60, saying in part, “Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous. Did Nature make them inferior to their sons? And should they too have been made slaves?). While he is clearly abolitionist, there are some contradictory thoughts about slavery throughout the book.
Equiano is also a spiritual wanderer who wishes to learn more about religions of all kinds. When in Turkey, he wants to enter a mosque, but “they let no Christians into their mosques or churches, for which I was very sorry; as I was always fond of going to see the different modes of worship of the people wherever I went” (186). When in Italy, he remarks on how the churches “were rich and magnificent, and curiously adorned both in the inside and out,” though he does remark that “all this grandeur was in my eyes disgraced by the galley slaves, whose condition both there and in other parts of Italy is truly piteous and wretched” (185).
While he is a Christian (which he drones on about at length in the last chapter), he also admires those who live Christian values, even if they are not Christian in name. After sailing from Jamaica to the Musquito Coast (in present-day Nicaragua and Honduras), his crew set up camp with the Amerindians and lived as peaceful a life as he had known since his childhood, which he largely attributes to the manners of the indigenous peoples:
“I never saw any mode of worship among them; but in this they were not worse than their European brethren or neighbours: for I am sorry to say that there was not one white person in our dwelling, nor any where else that I saw in different places I was at on the shore, that was better or more pious than those unenlightened Indians” (222).
Equiano also draws interesting parallels between marriage in Africa versus Europe. Women from his homeland were expected to remain faithful to their husbands and were considered the property of their husbands (“after [marriage] she is esteemed the sole property of her husband,” 48). African women were punished severely and even put to death for committing acts of infidelity while men were allowed to openly practice “plurality.” While men were not legally allowed to be polygamous in England and novels of the 18th century, promiscuity and infidelity was generally much more tolerated (and perhaps even expected) from men than from women, which is reinforced by the rape narrative present in many novels, such as Richardson’s Clarissa, of the time.