“But, just as we got a little below Gravesend, we came alongside of a ship which was going away the next tide for the West Indies, her name was the Charming Sally, Captain James Doran; and my master went on board and agreed with him for me; and in a little time I was sent for into the cabin,” wrote Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo-speaking formerly enslaved man, in his 1789 classic slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Equiano wrote further about this surprising encounter and turn of events in his life. He protested what he believed was an unjust sale of his body: “I have been baptized; and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me.” Here in December 1762 Equiano was on his way to an uncertain future in the West Indies as an enslaved African.Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Written by Himself. Third Edition, ed. Robert Allison (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 87–88.
The significance of the above passage is that Equiano believed his baptized membership in the Anglican Church afforded him some rights and privileges, namely the refusal to be sold to another master. Equiano had received the sacrament of baptism three years prior at St. Margaret’s Church in London. He was then approximately fourteen years of age and had been enslaved for about five years. There is no indication in the text that Equiano desired baptism to gain quasi-freedom. Yet somehow, he received word that a baptized enslaved person could refuse to be sold. Nearly one hundred years before British colonies in the Atlantic World had decided that: first, any African person enslaved was a slave for life; and second, baptism had no bearing on the change of an enslaved African’s social status. Before baptism, he was enslaved; and he remained so after the application of the sacrament.
Stanford University Press, 2018
What is the connection between Equiano and his baptism and Terence Keel’s Divine Variations? As Keel argues, the conceptualization of modern race by Europeans and Euro-Americans emerged from Christian intellectual history. Keel’s treatment of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s work in the late eighteenth century provides a nice context for understanding the continued racialization of slavery in the Atlantic World, and how Christianity adopted by enslaved Africans provided them little to no privileges. This helps scholars of Africa and the African Diaspora who study and teach this era of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and for us who labor teaching and researching the life of Olaudah Equiano and his narrative.
Keel treats Blumenbach in Chapter One of Divine Variations. For Keel, Blumenbach’s work secularized the study of ethnology. In convincing manner, Keel argues that Blumenbach’s so-called secularized ethnology is an extension of Christian ethnology. In his reading and analysis of Blumenbach’s works, Keel also asserts that Blumenbach’s view on the origins of humans is drawn from creationism. He believed that the first man was a Caucasian, which reveals his blend of creationism and Eurocentrism. What evidence did he have to believe that Adam was a Caucasian man? Later in the chapter, Keel summarizes and analyzes Blumenbach’s reasons for his argument; it was all racial assumption about beauty. Later in the chapter, Keel argues that Blumenbach’s assertion that Adam was white and pure was a secular interpretation of the Genesis narrative.
Keel finds no evidence in Blumenbach’s Contributions to Natural History or Natural Varieties of Mankind supporting Blumenbach’s Caucasian Adam. Keel turns to the intellectual and cultural context of Germany of the day. He writes that there was an intellectual interest in Luther’s commentaries at this time. According to Keel, Luther’s comments on creation and fall link to Blumenbach’s logic of human degeneration from the perfect Caucasian. So all other human varieties, then, are degenerate. This in and of itself is a racist argument that stems from a Eurocentric assumption. But this still fails to answer how Blumenbach arrived at his argument that the first humans were Caucasian. Keel then turns to the illustrations in Luther’s Bible from 1534. In the illustration of creation, God and humans are European. This was Luther’s intention and Blumenbach accepted this as part of the ambient Protestant culture. Blumenbach further inferred that God’s image must then be Caucasian. The question is: whence did Luther inherit this idea? Was this Christian Europe’s standard? For how long? These questions are beyond the scope of Keel’s work, but still interesting to explore.
This leads back to Equiano’s narrative. Equiano wrote his narrative to tell his story of being an Igbo person who became enslaved, and eventually purchased his freedom in the mid to late eighteenth-century Atlantic World.I am familiar with debate regarding Equiano’s origins. I argue that Equiano was born in what is now Nigeria among Igbo-speaking persons. He also published his narrative to argue for the suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and implicitly to argue for the abolition of slavery. The basis of Equiano’s arguments was the equal humanity of Africans. Like Blumenbach, Equiano was a monogenist based on Scripture. He quoted Acts 17:26 that “God, ‘who hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth’” (Interesting Narrative, p. 48). Though Equiano was a devout Christian at the time of his writing, he assumed that Africans had descended from Jews, who according to Blumenbach’s racial categorization were Caucasians. This placed the basis of his argument within the same context as Blumenbach. But Equiano’s aim was different.
In probably the most intriguing portion of the narrative’s first chapter, Equiano writes what he perceives to be cultural connections between Igbos and ancient Israel. He wrote:
I cannot forbear suggesting what has long struck me very forcibly, namely, the strong analogy which even by this sketch, imperfect as it is, appears to prevail in the manners and custom of my countrymen and those of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the patriarchs while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis—an analogy, which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other (Interesting Narrative, p. 46).
Equiano drew this peculiar and unfounded connection to argue for the humanity of Igbos and Africans during the height of the Atlantic Slave Trade. As a Christian, the best way he knew to cement this argument was to assert that the Igbos emerged from God’s chosen people in the Old Testament. Prior to this statement, Equiano wrote that the Igbos circumcised and offered sacrifices like the Jews (Interesting Narrative, p. 43).
According to one of Equiano’s biographers, James Walvin, “this link between Africans and Jews was not as odd as it might now seem.” Walvin writes further that there was a healthy scholarly debate on the origins of Africans during this time owing to the nascent abolitionist movement.James Walvin, An African’s Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745–1797 (London: Cassell, 1998), 8. Equiano’s views on ethnic diversity were informed by reading other Christian authors. One such writer was the famous Baptist minister, Dr. John Gill, who, according to Equiano, stated that Africans descended from “Afer or Afra,” who were sons of Abraham and his concubine Keturah (Interesting Narrtative, p. 46).
Equiano then anticipated the obvious question that his readers would have: What of the apparent difference in skin color between Igbos and Jews? In answer to this rhetorical question, Equiano stated,This was Equiano’s monogenism. It denied racial prejudice, which for Africans like himself was a justification for the Atlantic Slave Trade and slavery. “I shall not presume to account for it” (Interesting Narrative, p. 47). Yet he drew from Thomas Clarkson, his friend and fellow abolitionist, who upheld the climate argument for differences in skin color. Equiano also quoted from a Dr. John Mitchell who, in agreement with the climate argument, testified to Spaniards living in Virginia who became as dark as Native Americans, and he pointed to Afro-Portuguese in Sierra Leone who looked African. Equiano accepted this argument because it affirmed what he knew inherently: that Africans were equally image bearers of God, and that they were undeserving of enslavement as a collective group because of skin color or African ethnicity. Equiano hoped that “these instances, and a great many more which might be adduced, while they shew how the complexions of the same persons vary in different climates, it is hoped may tend also to remove the prejudice that some conceive against the natives of Africa on account of their colour” (Interesting Narrative, p. 47). This was Equiano’s monogenism. It denied racial prejudice, which for Africans like himself was a justification for the Atlantic Slave Trade and slavery.
There is one other interesting point Equiano intimates as he concluded this chapter. Though he believed that Africans were equal image bearers of God, he seemed to assert that Europeans possessed a higher degree of civilization than Africans did. Astonishingly, he wrote: “Are there not causes enough to which the apparent inferiority of an African may be inscribed, without limiting the goodness of God, and supposing he forbore to stamp understanding on certainly his own image, because ‘carved in ebony?’” (Interesting Narrative, p. 47). Where would he draw such an inference? It is more than likely that he drew this from the same general intellectual well that Blumenbach drew his assumption about the color of the first parents, i.e., European Christian thought.
When comparing Keel’s analysis of Blumenbach’s monogenism with Equiano’s monogenism, both men thought within the same broad Christian intellectual context. Both accepted Eurocentric monogenism, but with different ends. Blumenbach attempted to untangle ethnology from religious thought while Equiano embraced this Christian intellectual history intentionally as a Christian and adopted a similar conclusion regarding racial categorization. It was Equiano’s design to argue against the Atlantic Slave Trade and slavery, but this line of argument failed to convince those who amassed wealth from the Slave Trade and slavery. Eurocentric monogenism could still promote racism and slavery. A European could invite an enslaved African to the baptismal font while still keeping him or her enslaved believing in the civilizing work of slavery—this irony is thought-provoking. Though Keel’s scope in his treatment of Blumenbach was narrow, I saw connections with my own area of expertise. This particular chapter has broadened and deepened my understanding of Equiano’s text.