Culture-Shock and Double Identity in Slave-Trading Times. The Case of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2011 24 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Index of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Cultures Involved
2.1. The European Culture of Imperialism
2.1.1 Cultural superiority?
2.1.2 Cultural imposition
2.1.3. The European Savage
2.2. African Culture
2.2.1 The African Nations; A Historical Account
2.2.2 Olaudah Equiano’s Depiction of African Culture

3. Culture Clash & Crossing Cultures
3.1. Culture Shock
3.2. Cultural Similarities & Assimilation

4. Social Identity and Double Identity
4.1. From Culture to Identity
4.2. From Identity to Double Identity
4.3. Double Identity in Progress

5. Conclusion

6. Sources

„Before you can adapt to foreign culture, you first have to survive the move abroad“(Storti 2)

1. Introduction

Globalisation teaches us that the world is a village. Is that true? When it comes to human behaviour, this is a very difficult question to answer. Because the conduct of the individual influences his or her social environment and vice versa, cultural behaviour evolves out of close contact. However, not all of the world can be in such close contact that a global normative demeanour can or does apply to every existing social group. In fact, such a global rule does not even exist. Therefore, when being exposed to a foreign culture, and trying to integrate, one has to adapt the social norms and rules of this culture, although possibly being contrary to the individuals known environment. This struggle of integration is discussed in the themes of culture clash and culture shock. Above all, in imperial times, when the known world1 expanded and globalisation took its course, the clash of cultures was inevitable. Based on African cultures and the European (British) culture I will attempt to depict and clarify the processes going on during cross-cultural encounters.

Hence, this term paper will deal with the culture shock of African slaves who came into contact with European imperial society. They, being forced to journey to the Americas, must have had to endure and process many cultural conflicts. The journey's impact will provide the basis to investigate on a possible double identity being created by the slaves to arrange with their new culture, as well as with their cultural heritage. Olaudah Equiano’s The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African will serve as an important resource for this purpose. To begin, the European culture in the 18th century will be looked at. Especially the European attitude towards other cultures will be of interest. Afterwards it will be set into contrast with the culture of the African tribes. A special account will be taken to compare historical data to Olaudah Equiano’s descriptions of Igbo culture and the theme of culture clash will be examined. Included in this, the phases of culture shock will be explained. In the following section, I will look at cultural similarities between British and African societies, based on accounts of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative. Evidence of his assimilation to European culture will be used when attempting to demonstrate his European identity. Having clarified this, a closer look will be taken at how culture and identity are connected. Following that, an attempt will be made to explain the creation of identity. Focusing on Equiano, the circumstances of developing a double identity will be investigated. Finally, Equiano’s case will be used to explain the progress and stages of double identity throughout his life.

Of course, it is arguable, whether Equiano actually came from Africa or was born in the Americas. However, this is no matter of investigation in the present paper. Nevertheless, it shall be considered by the reader. Still, in this paper Equiano’s report of African life shall be taken as it is. For the purpose of exploring his historical accuracy, I have added the historical account of African nations to either verify or disprove his observations. Disregarding of how accurate Equiano’s historical insides will be, his report unquestionably reveals the effects of cross- cultural encounters on the individual’s identity.

2. The Cultures Involved

Considering Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, which will play a major role in this term paper, the cultures addressed here are European and African culture in times of European imperialism, both having been involved in the slave trade of the 18th century. The imperialistic European culture is set in contrast to the tribally dedicated African culture(s). Although these vary in multiple ways, I will mostly refer to them as one African culture, in the sense of manifold cultures having been enslaved and thereby obliged to create a single, all slaves integrating, culture.

“Within West Africa, Equiano suggests, the diversity of cultures is so great that any broad, generalized 'African' identity would be incoherent; such an identity is only possible for him after his arrival on a slave ship and experience of the middle passage” (Boulukos 2007, 248).

Hence, the initiation of the intercultural African identity, which will be contrasted to British society, lies in the enslavement of the nations. The two cultures, and accordingly the clash between them, will be a matter of investigation. First of all it should be mentioned that the constitution of slavery in itself existed in both cultures to a matchable extent. Therefore, slavery as a cultural marker will rather reveal the similarities than the discrepancies existing between European and African peoples.

2.1. The European Culture of Imperialism

Starting with the European culture of the 18th century, it is important to know that the concept of nationhood, which had become a common sight all over Europe, fostered the arbitrary image of national identity, still prevalent today. Along with the creation of national identity, the former identification of the individual with smaller ethnical and cultural groups became less and less influential, gradually strengthening the arbitrary concept of one nationwide culture.

2.1.1 Cultural Superiority?

Being aware of these circumstances makes it easier to follow Catchpole's observations of imperial Europe. As Catchpole mentions, a great confusion of culture and race took place in the Europe of the 18th century, which led to an imperial arrogance of the white “race”2, towards other cultural groups and redeemed them to appear as inferior (Catchpole, vii-viii).

Such are the circumstances that Olaudah Equiano, the narrative's hero, has to deal with. An account of, what on first sight seems to be, cultural superiority, ultimately leading to cultural arrogance, is given by an extract of Steve Biko’s paper on African culture. He relates to the encounter of Europeans and Africans in the following way:

“Whereas the African culture was unsophisticated and simple, the Anglo-Boer culture had all the trappings of a colonialist culture and therefore was heavily equipped for conquest. Where they could they conquered by persuasion, using a highly exclusive religion … firearms were readily available and used to advantage. Hence the Anglo-Boer culture was the more powerful culture in almost all facets” (Catchpole 120).

According to Biko’s report, Olaudah, as an African citizen, already is, by definition, culturally predestined to become, at least to some extent, European.

2.1.2 Cultural Imposition

During the time of Imperialism, the peoples of Europe were clearly the most advanced, at least in respect of technological progress. Exactly these technological advantages played a crucial role in enabling the Europeans to perform a cultural imposition on other peoples. Some of the most important features will be named in the following, just to exemplify the role of technology. First of all what comes to mind is, during that period, the state-of-the-art method of European ship building, which allowed them to ship further than anybody else, opening brand-new opportunities to trade, widen their horizon (in whatever sense3 ) and of course gain and claim new territories as their own. Equiano’s amazement, when seeing a slave ship for the first time, shows how the technological advantage of the Europeans was perceived. Describing the ship's sails as “cloth put upon the masts” and not knowing the function of an anchor therefore declaring it to be “magic” when the ship stops, reflects the slaves' ignorance of European technology (Equiano 33). Therefore, being considered “spirits”, it becomes clear how a European concept of regarding themselves as superior could evolve (Equiano 33).

Secondly, there was the gun. As an extraordinary weapon, not known in African or American lands, the gun gave almost supernatural strength to the European invaders, so that, together with strategic positioning, a few dozen or maybe a hundred gunfighters could win a war against thousands of warriors equipped with bows, spears and wooden shields. Catchpole verifies this thesis by recounting an occurrence from 1836 when a “tiny force of 40 marksman defeated 5000 Matabele4 ” warriors (Catchpole 122).

Of course, along with these advantages arose a racist perception of the world. Technological superiority led them to think of being racially (culturally) superior to others, which in turn was to entitle them to impose their culture upon the inferior societies for enlightenment. The aspect of the European saviour is especially important concerning religion. Yet, the necessity of a saving of the souls of the savages was not the only reason. Many other, very secular factors played major roles in the conquest. In this respect, the first settlers in Africa brought “with them their traditions of trial by jury, schools, sports, newspapers, architectural styles and, of course, the English language”, without unveiling the slightest thought of adjusting to the local culture (Catchpole 121). The idea of actual landowning as well as using money for trading overwhelmed the locals and gave great chances of exploitation to the Europeans. In connection with this, the in Africa aboriginal population was regarded as “an ideal source of cheap labour” since the concept of slavery was already part of African culture (Catchpole 125). Equiano can only confirm these cultural habits in the existing system: “Adultery, however, was sometimes punished by slavery” (Equiano 11). These circumstances led the Europeans to forcing the Africans into becoming servants to the superior race losing their right for equal treatment. It furthermore went as far as even to be forced to let go of their own will. As Boulukos puts it, “expressions of 'gratitude' could … be a humiliating demonstration of slaves’ powerlessness over even their own expressions of feeling” (Boulukos 2008, 180). Hence, the slaves did not get any opportunities to make a stand against the Europeans’ oppressive and savage behaviour.

2.1.3 The European Savage

In Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative we become aware of the Europeans’ savage behaviour when we see them out of their own cultural context, just as it is shown in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As the protagonist travels further inland, along the Congo river, he notices European savagery intensifying. Olaudah Equiano, while visiting the furthest outposts of the European empires, sees the savagery being imposed on his fellow Africans. In fact, his first encounter with the white man in Africa already gives an example of their lawless behaviour. When brought upon a slave ship Equiano noted that

“the white people looked and acted … in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty: and this is not only shewn towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves” (Equiano 32).

Among these countless acts of cruelty were being “whipped for not eating” or being “cut” for attempting to flee (Equiano 32). It seems that the further the Europeans went from their home countries, where they were regulated and had to obey the law, the more savagely many of them behaved. As Equiano’s fellow Africans mentioned that the savages “lived so far off” it becomes clear that no governmental institution could enforce the law upon the seafarers in these foreign territories (Equiano 32). Indeed not only the seafarers changed their behaviour but also the settlers building a new life in Africa. Catchpole describes this change quite fittingly as “[i]n as sense they had already abandoned their European culture when they opted for the life of a trekboer” (Catchpole 120). As a savage commonly is considered of not having any culture, Catchpole's observation creates the link of abandoning culture as inevitably following to abandoning home. This however only proves to be true of individuals who, wanting to be free of any rules and regulations, are not willing to integrate into a new culture.

2.2. African Culture

As mentioned before, the African cultures were seen by a majority of the white European population as a distinct race which on biological grounds are inferior to their own race. As we see in the course of Equiano’s narrative, the main character has to struggle against such prejudices. He finally successfully overcomes them, showing to be just as civilized as the Europeans and thereby teaching the reader that all humanity stems from common ancestry. In his view, everyone has the same precondition to learn the cultural standards of any other human culture. Therefore, the differences are merely cultural, one might say superficial, because, in opposition to race differences, which due to genetics cannot be overcome, cultural behaviour can be learned and the differences thereby annihilated.

2.2.1. The African Nations; A Historical Account

Taking the Zulu nation as an example, I now intend to give an account of the African culture(s) as they were prior to the conquest of the white man. At the time the first European traders and settlers became aware of Africa, the Zulu nation was on its peak of expansion (cp. Catchpole 115). The Zulu were one of a “number of Bantu nations”, all sharing a “common culture” (Catchpole 115). One has to be careful when making such a statement because it has to be kept in mind that sharing a common culture is not identical to sharing the same culture. The two expressions are easily mixed up with each other, which changes their meanings radically. A comparison to the European culture might be helpful to clarify. Looking at Europe from the outside, one might be induced to say that they also share the same culture. However, this might only be the case at first sight. Immersing oneself to a more detailed level shows that between the peoples might be as much cultural differences as there are similarities. So to speak, they share a common cultural basis, but from this foundation onwards, developed in distinct paths. This also proves true for the African nations. They may have common cultural roots but have spread from these roots into many different directions, offering a variety of cultural heritages. Therefore, each culture defines itself through certain similarities to the others, as well as through differences to the other cultures. Still they all essentially share the same cultural background, and thereby similar religious beliefs and worldviews, which allows us to give an example of one African nation while assuming that most of its culture is comparable to the other nations.

Coming back to the Zulu nation, we find that their culture is based on a strictly hierarchical system comparable to European hierarchies. Generally speaking, slaves were on the lowest level, then came the (free) women, then men. All people went through a basic military training, so there was no great distinction between soldier and farmer, but every village had their tribal elders functioning as their chiefs. Their status might have been comparable to the lords in medieval Europe. Above them reigned the king, like the Pope chosen by god, to lead his people. He heavily relied on “consult[ing] with the chiefs” in all national matters, functioning as a “father of his people”, also in religious aspects: Therefore, it was “his right and duty to interpret the myths and magic on which Zulu religion rested” (Catchpole 115). The king “was the richest man in the nation”, “owned all the land” and “personified the nation” but was not seen as a dictator since he “ruled according to the laws of the nation and Zulu law was, in many instances, unquestionably humane” thereby keeping up the “strong tradition of free speech” in Zulu society but nonetheless making the final decision (Catchpole 115). As status symbols can be found in every civilization, the Zulu defined their wealth by the size of their herd and the number of their wives, whereas they had no concept of selling and buying land (cp. Catchpole 116). Talking about their religious believes, it is notable that they, just as the European peoples, believed in a “Supreme Being” that was responsible for, and explained all “natural phenomena” (Catchpole 115). The Zulu religion was furthermore strongly conjoint to superstition and magic: “So Zulu religion was a synthesis of sky gods, magic, sorcery, ritual, and ancestor worship – all designed to protect the nation against the forces of evil, enemy tribes, droughts, and poor harvests” (Catchpole 116). As mentioned prior, the concept of slavery was nothing new for the Zulu at the time the Europeans arrived. Slavery was a common penalty in their justice system, as the accused might have to “pay his dept [...] by becoming a slave (Catchpole 115). Another way to enforce enslavement was through warfare. Every subdued rival tribe offered a source for new slaves, but this is just one of the many reasons why warfare was a common situation in African territories already before the Europeans tried to conquer the land. Hence, equipped with throwing spears and leather shields, “fighting men, committed to a career in the army” were well established in Zulu society (Catchpole 117). With nearly all of the country being involved in warfare, the African people surely knew how to defend themselves. Nevertheless, what they could not anticipate was the Europeans taking advantage of their state of war. Equipped with the superior weaponry and the Africans unable to unite against them, the Europeans could more or less take what they wanted.


1 From a European point of view.

2 Actually a European culture, since all mankind genetically belongs to one and the same race

3 Encountering an African society approving of the concept of slavery, certainly encouraged the European slave trade

4 An African tribe.



Title: Culture-Shock and Double Identity in Slave-Trading Times. The Case of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative