What makes Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative particularly interesting is its seemingly docile approach to slavery. Multiple times throughout the text, Equiano excuses the actions of his colonizers, internalizing many of their beliefs, and at times supporting the very actions he condemns. For this reason, readers witness a sort of role-reversal, with Equiano adapting into an Englishman, at times condoning colonization and slavery, while still remaining abolitionist. Equiano’s narrative harkens back to the problem with internalization; his narrative cannot be fully abolitionist due to his defense of his English countrymen. On multiple accounts, Equiano sheds light on the abuse he encounters with the English: he recalls how they frequently physically attacked him, and psychologically tortured him by withholding food from him and telling him that they would kill him. Perhaps in viewing John Bulls’ satirical cartoon in knowledge of Equiano’s narrative one could easily refute its claims, however this is not the case. If anything, Equiano’s narrative complicates the validity of the cartoon.
Bulls’ satirical cartoon is anti-abolitionist, serving as a rebuttal to abolitionist claims about the barbarity of slavery while also bringing in conversation about socio-economic problems. In the cartoon, Bull accuses abolitionists of manipulating the economy by advocating for East India Sugar companies, which at the time did not support slavery. In the cartoon, children sign a petition to seemingly prohibit slavery, while others look through a telescope lens at Africa, only to be blocked by nefarious pictures of “negro slavery”. Bull in doing this satirizes abolitionist claims, making a bold statement that abolitionists’ work is simply a plot to damage West India’s influx of support. Equiano’s narrative does little to combat Bull. Though he castigates the harshness of the English, he knowingly participates in slavery: he subjugates Indians using techniques he garnered from reading Columbus, and he even aids his slave master in choosing slaves being sold at an auction. Equiano even approvingly mentions in the beginning pages of his narrative that “[t]he West India planters prefer the slaves of Benin or Eboe to those of any other part of Guinea, for their hardiness, intelligence, integrity, and zeal. Those benefits are felt by us in the general healthiness of the people, and in their vigour and activity; I might have added too in their comeliness”. Equiano attributes the success of the West India companies use of slaves, which complicates the abolitionist narrative. In addition to this, Equiano trivializes his own suffering, remarking in his first chapter “I might say my sufferings were great: but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favourite of Heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life”. He remarks how not all Englishmen treated him with cruelty and distain, but that several of them touched his life in positive ways (e.g. his “little friend Dick”). Perhaps this is where Equiano’s narrative complicates the slavery narrative; he ceases to serve as abolitionist propaganda and instead serves the opposite. For these reasons, I would argue that Equiano’s narrative qualifies a good portion of Bull’s claims.
– Sara Nuila-Chae