7/30/12 - a slave not opposed to slavery

In today's excerpt - Olaudah Equiano was a famous African slave who was not initially opposed to the concept of slavery -- even after he had been enslaved:

"Olaudah Equiano, born some­time around 1745 in a rural community somewhere within the confines of the Kingdom of Benin. Kidnapped from his home at the age of eleven, Equiano was eventually sold to British slavers operating in the Bight of Biafra, from whence he was conveyed first to Barbados, then to a plantation in colonial Virginia.

"Equiano's further adventures -- and there were many-- are narrated in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olau­dah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789. After spending much of the Seven Years' War hauling gunpowder on a Brit­ish frigate, he was promised his freedom, denied his freedom, sold to several owners -- who regularly lied to him, promising his freedom, and then broke their word -- until he passed into the hands of a Quaker merchant in Pennsylvania, who eventually allowed him to purchase his freedom. Over the course of his later years he was to become a success­ful merchant in his own right, a best-selling author, an Arctic explorer, and eventually, one of the leading voices of English Abolitionism. His eloquence and the power of his life story played significant parts in the movement that led to the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

"Readers of Equiano's book are often troubled by one aspect of the story: that for most of his early life, he was not opposed to the institu­tion of slavery. At one point, while saving money to buy his freedom, he even briefly took a job that involved purchasing slaves in Africa. Equiano only came around to an abolitionist position after converting to Methodism and falling in with religious activists against the trade. Many have asked: Why did it take him so long? Surely if anyone had reason to understand the evils of slavery, he did.

"The answer seems, oddly, to lie in the man's very integrity. One thing that comes through strikingly in the book is that this was not only a man of endless resourcefulness and determination, but above all, a man of honor. Yet this created a terrible dilemma. To be made a slave is to be stripped of any possible honor. Equiano wished above all else to regain what had been taken from him. The problem is that honor is, by definition, something that exists in the eyes of others. To be able to recover it, then, a slave must necessarily adopt the rules and standards of the society that surrounds him, and this means that, in practice at least, he cannot absolutely reject the institutions that de­prived him of his honor in the first place.

"It strikes me that this experience -- of only being able to restore one's lost honor, to regain the ability to act with integrity by acting in accord with the terms of a system that one knows, through deeply traumatic personal experience, to be utterly unjust -- is itself one of the most profoundly violent aspects of slavery. It is another example, perhaps, of the need to argue in the master's language, but here taken to insidious extremes.

"All societies based on slavery tend to be marked by this agonizing double consciousness: the awareness that the highest things one has to strive for are also, ultimately, wrong; but at the same time, the feeling that this is simply the nature of reality. This might help explain why throughout most of history, when slaves did rebel against their mas­ters, they rarely rebelled against slavery itself. But the flip side of this is that even slave-owners seemed to feel that the whole arrangement was somehow fundamentally perverse or unnatural. First-year Roman law students, for instance, were made to memorize the following definition:


"is an institution according to the law of nations whereby one person falls under the property rights of another, contrary to nature."


David Graeber


Debt:The First 5,000 Years


Melville House


Copyright 2011 by David Graeber


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