Throughout Equiano’s impactful and crucial narrative, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” one of the most noted elements is his usage and quotation of prominent English figures of his time. He uses several passages from different works like poetry, speeches, narratives, novels, etc., in order to enhance his argument for abolition, artistically describe his *horrid* experiences, and to improve his credibility. I believe Equiano incorporated several quotes from great English figures within his work in order to demonstrate to his targeted audience – the individuals engaging in the slave trade – that like them, he too was highly educated, advanced, and elegant. If Equiano demonstrated to the audience that he was up to par with them in terms of education and understanding of English literature, then it would allow for them to pay his work the time of day and prove he too was an Englishman – further demonstrating his identity crises as well.
In chapter V, Equiano details his experience of being on board of a ship heading to Portsmouth where he would be granted a new master and stray away further from his freedom. As he reaches land, Equiano uses a passage from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to describe the horrid “sight of this land of bondage” which states:
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can rarely dwell. Hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
By the use of this quote, however, one interprets the horrible scenes in a very artistic and not so gruesome manner. What we know about history lets us imagine that what he saw and experienced was horrendous but his use of poetry excludes the gory image. In a sense, I think Equiano used Milton’s poem to romanticize his experience for his audience in order to mimic and reflect English works which he so greatly admired. However, the use of Milton’s quote goes beyond that.
John Milton, one of the most prominent, respected, and significant English authors of the 17th century happens to be one of the authors excessively quoted throughout The Interesting Narrative by Equiano. I think that this quote, along with the several others he incorporates from Milton, are a clear representation of his need to prove his ability to use and understand English literature and language. By incorporating one of the greatest works in the English language, he proves his education was just as relevant and sophisticated. John Milton and his epic-poem also acted as Equiano’s direct link between the African community – by helping him explain what he saw, heard, and experienced in a romanticized manner – and the British oppressors. The main reason why I believe Equiano quoted John Milton quite repeatedly, and incorporated several other important English figures, is due to him being caught in an identity/nationality dilemma. I believe that Olaudah Equiano wanted to prove he was capable of being an Englishman and his need to showcase his education was a way to manifest his capability of nonchalantly fitting into English society. But because he also identified as African, he knew he was never going to be granted that opportunity which is also why he referenced many English figures and displayed his Literature knowledge excessively throughout the work.
- Beverly Miranda-Galindo