Captivity & Slavery in American History
Journey towards Freedom of Mind: Understanding the Worldviews of Mary Rowlandson, Captive, and Olaudah Equiano, Slave
During the Colonial period, American society is undergoing a transition that is characteristic of any colonial territory owned by a European nation — the transition state is “poor” and “nasty,” if not “short,” to borrow Thomas Hobbes’ famous line in the Leviathan. This transition state is ‘poor and nasty’ because native Americans (Indians) met the new occupants of the now-British colony with resistance, demonstrating this resistance by a series of violence that ultimately led to death for both the native and colonial Americans.
Aside from the native Americans’ resistance to the occupation of America by Britain (i.e., by colonial Americans), the Colonial period is also marked by the emergence of the slave trade system. It is through the slave trade system that both colonial America and Britain flourished economically. Unfortunately, it is also through this system that Africans and later generations of African-Americans experienced great resistance and challenge in eventually fighting for their freedom in American and British societies.
These two important events in the history of colonial America become relevant and intertwined in understanding the worldviews of its people, particularly that of a Puritan living in the new colony and an African slave coming to the West. In this paper, the worldviews of a Puritan and an African slave are thoroughly analyzed in the context of the American colonial period. Moreover, further analysis of the Puritan and African slave worldviews are discussed in relation to the role that orthodoxy, specifically the values and beliefs instilled in Christianity, plays in influencing the different realities experienced by Puritan Americans and African slaves during the Colonial Period.
This theme of different worldviews and realities, and the role that Christianity played in influencing these worldviews in the lives of Puritan Americans and African slaves, are manifested in the works of Mary Rowlandson and Olaudah Equiano, respectively. Mary Rowlandson’s the Narrative of the Captivity and the Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, written in 1682, provides a detailed description of her one-year experience as a captive of native Americans. Olaudah Equiano, meanwhile, wrote the Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789. The narrative reflected the “journey” of Equiano from being an African slave to being an educated individual, of which Christianity played a significant role.
Applying these texts in the context of this paper’s discussion, the researcher posits that Rowlandson’s descriptions of the life she lived with native Americans — that is, her prejudiced worldview of native Americans — is influenced by orthodoxy or by her being a Puritan American. Similarly, Equiano’s depiction of his life in Africa and his eventual life as an educated freeman is also influenced in his ‘indoctrination’ of leading an orthodox life, having been educated under the guidance of Christianity as a religion. In addition to the theme of orthodoxy as influential to the authors’ worldview in creating their narratives, this paper also argues that Rowlandson’s journey towards opening up her mind to understanding the native American worldview has been ‘prevented’ because of her strong belief and faith in Christianity. Equiano, meanwhile, allowed himself to take the journey towards freedom of mind by subscribing himself to a new belief system, that of orthodoxy and Christianity.
Role of Christianity in Influencing Rowlandson’s Prejudiced Worldview of Native Americans and Equiano’s Favorable Perception of the ‘White Man’
Narratives of captivity allow readers to get a glimpse into the mind of the writer, and the captivity stories of Rowlandson and Equiano reflect this. From their narratives, both Rowlandson and Equiano subsisted to their Christian beliefs as they tried to make sense of their own ‘versions’ of captivity — Rowlandson as a captive of the native Americans, and Equiano as a labor captive/slave of the ‘white men.’
Throughout her narrative, Rowlandson maintained the ‘savageness’ of the native Americans, her and her fellow Puritans’ beliefs about the early inhabitants of the colony. The author structured her narrative into twenty (20) “removes,” signifying the number of times she had moved from place to place with her captors ever since she was taken captive from her home in Lancaster. Most apparent in Rowlandson’s story was the steadfast way she handled her captivity, allowing her to live through her ordeal, and eventually be able to give her ‘testimony’ and demystify the native Americans for her fellow Puritans, through her.
Recurrent themes in the removes Rowlandson experienced was her consistent expression of gratitude of her plight as a captive who is still alive, the constant hunger and physical weakness she felt as she traveled with her captors, her role as “shirt maker” for her captors, and always, the savage depiction of native American life, whether these descriptions are objective ones or not. Rowlandson attributed the good welfare she received not to the treatment of her captors, but mainly because of God, who she believed to be central to her survival: “I have thought since of the wonderful goodness of God to me in preserving me in the use of my reason and sensesI must not use wicked and violent means to end my own miserable life” (Third Remove).
Indeed, the idea of being held captive by native American had been extremely repulsive for Rowlandson that she wished she had been ‘sold’ “for powder” (Eighth Remove). This repulsion of native Americans and their ways became further apparent in the Ninth Remove, where, through her own account, Rowlandson described her interactions with them as ‘less savage’ and she was actually becoming ‘part of the group.’ Still, she did not took significant notice of this change, and just stated matter-of-factly her captors’ actions as they were, and nothing more. Again, she attributed this seemingly unexpected ‘goodness’ of her captors to God, and interpreted her captors’ goodwill to her as God’s: “I cannot but admire at the wonderful power and goodness of God to methough I was gone from home, and met with all sorts of Indiansyet no one of them offered the least imaginable miscarriage to me” (Ninth Remove).
An analysis of Rowlandson’s narrative found that she actually suffered from “survivor syndrome,” which is a form of psychological trauma experienced by captives “during and immediately aftercaptivity” (Derounian, 1987:83). However, as Derounian’s research reported, Rowlandson’s “psychological commentary” was not given much focus, and what became central to both Rowlandson and her audience (readers) was her focus on her faithfulness to God throughout her ordeal. In fact, the downplaying of the psychological effects of her captivity was Rowlandson’s way of living up to people’s expectations of her as a Puritan, achieving the “captivity archetype,” characterized as an individual whose “ordeal culminate in both a physical and psychological rescue from the devil” (ibid.). Indeed, Rowlandson’s Puritan beliefs developed in her a worldview that created in her the notion that native Americans are the devil, from whom she must be resilient against and survive. Her narrative reflected this belief, allowing the readers to appreciate God’s ‘goodness’ to Rowlandson and not so much about the consequences of her captivity. As far as Rowlandson is concerned, the narrative reflected that God was central to her experience, and she was only an actor in it, albeit a more superior actor than her captors.
Equiano, unlike Rowlandson, expressed a more favorable view and depiction of his captors, the British or the ‘white man.’ In contrast to Rowlandson’s narrative, which is mainly antagonistic towards native Americans, the former African slave’s story was more a journey towards his transformation as an individual, from being a slave and uneducated to being an educated Christian. In fact, Rowlandson and Equiano’s point of similarity was only their fervent subsistence to Christianity, only, they expressed their beliefs at different points in their captivity: Rowlandson during her captivity, and Equiano after, when he was already educated and exposed to the religion.
Equiano proved himself to be as resilient as Rowlandson, may be more than her, since he went through more than one experience of captivity. He was taken first to become a slave by “kidnappers” from his hometown in Essaka, then he was sold to Michael Pascal, then eventually to Robert King, from whom he was finally able to secure his freedom from slavery. It was at the point between his enslavement from Pascal to King that Equiano’s resilience was challenged, particularly his faith in the belief that he would eventually become a free man. Chapter 5 of his narrative reflected his subsistence to his Christian faith when he found out that he Pascal sold him to King, instead of giving him his freedom, as he was first promised: “at the moment I expected my toils to end, was I plunged, in a new slaveryI wept very bitterly for some time: and began to think that I must have done something to displease the Lord” (180-1).
Like Rowlandson, Equiano took in his plight with greater faith, and justified Captain Pascal’s decision by believing that “he (Pascal) had desiredto get me the best master he could, as he told him I was a very deserving boy”(192). It is evident that in his case, he tried to improve his condition by looking at his captors as providing him with guidance, and it is in this perception that Equiano’s journey becomes meaningful, both literally and symbolically, as he eventually improved his status in life by educating himself after being a free man.
Bozeman (2003) considered Equiano’s experience as beneficial and resulted to Equiano’s changed worldview at how he looked at slavery and British society (his ‘captors). Bozeman argued that Equiano’s worldview became “fluid,” wherein
he is exceptional among his contemporary British brethren: not only is he able to stand both on the inside and outside of the window of British society, Equiano can move efficiently between the twoAccepting the essence of who Equiano is, in the end, is to acknowledge the reality he was a living oxymoron perpetuating a simply complex life (62).
It is this “fluid” worldview that Equiano was able to remain resilient despite the worse conditions he experienced after being transferred from one slave owner to another. It is also notable that Equiano’s trust in both his people and his captors remained even though he was betrayed by both, and again, it was his Christian faith that allowed him to carry on with his life without holding any grudge against his captors. For Equiano, he is on a journey, and for him, it is critical for him to reach the end, whatever the means he needs to go through to reach this end. As Bozeman attested, “Equiano’s conditions are the exception, not the rule” (61).
Achieving Freedom of Mind: Rowlandson’s ‘Orthodoxic’ versus Equiano’s Fluid Worldviews
Rowlandson and Equiano’s journeys highlighted how they prevailed in the face of a difficult undertaking, being held captive and experiencing both physical hardships and psychological trauma along the way. But their journeys are similar only to the point when they both remained resilient because of their Christian faith. Going beyond Christian faith, however, differences between the two emerged. In the previous section, it was mentioned that Equiano had a more fluid worldview of his experience with his captors, being a slave more than once, and eventually becoming a free man. Rowlandson was known for her consistent belief that the native Americans are savage people, and that her condition during and after capture was only attributable to God. Her ‘orthodoxic’ view of her captivity puts her in direct contrast to Equiano.
Rowlandson’s ‘orthodoxic’ worldview ‘paralyzed’ her, in effect, from understanding, or at least observing, her captors objectively. Extant literature analyzing her narrative provided a more in-depth look into her seemingly strong subsistence to orthodoxy and depiction of native Americans as ‘savage people.’ According to Burnham (1993), analyses of Rowlandson’s text showed that her “rhetorical treatment of the Indians as devilish instruments of Satan becomes more and more conventional and pro-formaher awareness that her captorsare not personally especially malevolent, becomes increasingly evident” (Slotkin & Folson, as cited in Burnham, 62). This demonstrates that Rowlandson’s orthodoxic worldview is a deliberate choice in order to further reinforce her Puritan identity to her audience (readers). Rowlandson’s choice to remain orthodoxic in her views even if her accounts indicate otherwise is the reason why she was not able to achieve her journey to freedom of mind. This refusal to have a free mind in dealing with her captors perpetuated the popular notion that indeed, native Americans are savages, as most Puritans in her time believed.
Through his fluid worldview, Equiano is able to achieve the freedom of mind and body — becoming a free man with a free mind. Looking at his experiences of captivity and bondage, Equiano developed the goal to abolish the slave trade, completing his evolution from being a slave to being a Christian, then free man, to educated man, and ultimately, an abolitionist. Carrigan (2006) looked at Equiano’s evolution to being a free man with a free mind as a result of his ‘involvement’ “in the mercantile economy of early capitalist oppression” that “entangles him in a system of complicity from which no straightforward teleological accomplishment will allow him to escape, save abolition” (46). Equiano’s recognition of his experiences freed him from society’s limited expectations of him as an individual, eventually motivating him to advocate for a cause that is truly meaningful and significant to him, which is the abolition of the slave trade system.
Bozeman, T. (2003). “Interstices, hybridity, and identity: Olaudah Equiano and the discourse of the African slave trade.” Studies in Literary Imagination, Vol. 36, No. 2.
Burnham, M. (1993). “The journey between: liminality and dialogism in Mary White Rowlandson’s captivity narrative.” Early American Literature, Vol. 28.
Carrigan, a. (2006). “Negotiating personal identity and cultural memory in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative.” Wasafiri, Vol. 21, No. 2.
Derounian, K. (1987). “Puritan orthodoxy and the “survivor syndrome” in Mary Rowlandson’s Indian captivity narrative.” Early American Literature, Vol. 22.
Equiano, O. (1789). E-book, “The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.” Nuvision Publications. 2007.
Rowlandson, M. (1682). E-text of “The narrative of the captivity and the restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” Available at: http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/rownarr.html.
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