Gender Views Of The Slave Experience English Literature Essay

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Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself and Mary Prince's The History Of Mary Prince a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself are both England-published autobiographical slave narratives written in the in the late-eighteenth century and early-nineteenth century. The narratives were written with the intention of exposing to the British community the injustice of African slavery and to advance the development of the abolition of slavery. Although both males and females suffered horribly under establishment of slavery, these two narratives illustrate that the different gender conventions of the century and its patriarchal foundation enabled male slaves, such as Equiano, to make progress towards their freedom more easily as opposed to female slaves, such as Prince.

Usually autobiographical slave narratives begin with the childhood of the author illustrated as very peaceful and filled with contentment. Besides the amount of truth that there really is in this type of representation, it is its sharp side-by-side contrast to the brutalities of slavery that is left engraved in readers' minds. Prince describes her childhood as "the happiest period" of her life as her "heart always softens" at the thought of her mistress and her family (Prince 7, 9). Prince's joy, however, is soon turned into sorrow when she is sold as a result of Mrs. William's death: "Oh dear! I cannot bear to think of that day, - it is too much. - It recalls the great grief that filled my heart" (Prince 10). With Equiano, there are not many mentions of deep affections for family in the beginning of his narrative other than the love between his mother and him: "I was very fond of my mother, and almost constantly with her" (Equiano 40). Soon enough though, he is forced to mature quickly and deal with his enslavement without the support of his loved ones when he is kidnapped at the young age of eleven. On the whole, the way in which Equiano and Prince experience their slavery from this point in their lives becomes dependent on whether they are male or female, and on the conventional roles that correspond with these genders. Equiano's childhood is portrayed as much more bearable than that of Prince's as he had the favour of his master, made many friends on the ship, and began to learn the things and ways of the White culture. Prince, however, is thrust into a world full of domestic duties such as nursing a baby while she was still a child herself:

'You are not come here to stand up in corners and cry, you are come here to work.' She then put a child into my arms, and, tired as I was, I was forced instantly to take up my old occupation of a nurse […] The next morning my mistress set about instructing me in my tasks. She taught me to do all sorts of household work; to wash and bake, pick cotton and wool, and wash floors, and cook. And she taught me (how can I ever forget it!) more things than these; she caused me to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin, when applied to my naked body by her own cruel hand. And there was scarcely any punishment more dreadful than the blows I received on my face and head from her hard heavy fist. She was a fearful woman, and a savage mistress to her slaves. (Prince 14)

Equiano is not exposed to this harsh type of hard physical labour and punishments and is rather portrayed as being enlightened and educated by the whites that he works for. This would not have been the case for him had he been a female as there was no proper education involved in the female domestic role.

Whereas Prince's narrative emphasizes domesticity and emotions, Equiano's narrative represents the male notion of bettering oneself through education. Equiano is given the opportunity to adapt and learn the ways of his superiors. He no longer is "mortified at the difference in [their] complexions" and starts to "smatter a little imperfect English" (Equiano 69, 64). His never-ending curiosity, his many questions, and his courage to go get the answers enables Equiano to gain much knowledge about the world as the white people know it, and to increase his language aptitude to that equal of the whites. With his new language expertise, he adopts the culture, behaviour, and principles of the "superior" race and begins to try to be like them:

I could now speak English tolerably well, and I perfectly understood every that was said. I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and I therefore had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners; I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement; and every new thing that I observed I treasured up in my memory. I had long wished to be able to read and write; and for this purpose I took every opportunity to gain instruction. (Equiano 77-78)

As a female, Prince could never do the things Equiano does for a number of reasons. The patriarchal society would not allow women, and definitely not slave women, to remove themselves from their domestic duties to gain knowledge of the world in the way men would. They were required to stay within their domestic sphere while men did their duties in the public sphere. Although slaves such as Equiano and Prince were not given the same rights and privileges of the white people, they still fell under their corresponding gender role categorizations.

The difference in the level of education and acknowledgment attained between Equiano and Prince can even be seen in the title of their narratives themselves: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written By Himself and the History of Mary Prince a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. The title of Equiano's narrative emphasizes his belief of his equality to the whites by the inclusion of his European name, Gustavus Vassa. He is given this new non-African name and therefore, a new more empowered identity, by his master Michael Henry Pascal: "Captain Pascal named me Gustavus Vassa. I understood him a little and told him I didn't like that name […] Finally I gave up. I have been known as Gustavus Vassa ever since" (Equiano 64). He carries that name with him for the rest of his life as a symbol of his equality and identity. The title of Prince's narrative includes "Related by Herself" to maintain the authenticity of the narration, however, the book itself is written and shaped by her editor, Thomas Pringle. Being a woman, she is not given the same empowerment to write her own book like Equiano and requires a man to do it on her behalf. Pringle has to provide additional supportive letters that are in some case longer than Prince's narrative to supplement her story and to gain the trust of white readers. The difference in the level of acknowledgement and intellectuality can also be seen in the book covers of the two narratives. The Penguin Classics edition of Prince's narrative depicts a woman in chains who is kneeling in a begging position whereas; the same edition of Equiano's narrative shows a portrait of a confident, well-dressed, and educated man. Although both authors end up achieving their desired freedom in the end, the female ends up being portrayed as a poor victim and survivor of slavery while the male is portrayed as being a an educated over-comer of slavery.

In both cases, Equiano and Prince had to buy their way out of slavery. However, due to their gender roles, the way in which they both earn money throughout their time in slavery differs greatly. Prince describes her attempt to buy her freedom by trying to earn money in secret:

The way in which I made money was this - When my master and mistress went from home, as they sometimes did, and left me to take care of the house and premises, I had a good deal of time to myself and made the most of it. I took in washing and sold coffee and yams and other provisions to the captains of ships. I did not sit still idling during the absence of my owners; for I wanted, by all honest means, to earn money to buy my freedom (Prince 27).

Equiano on the other hand, was given paid employment positions as "a clerk, in receiving and delivering cargoes to the ships, in tending stores, and delivering goods: […] shave and dress my master when convenient, and take care of his horse; […] I worked likewise on board of different vessels of his" (Equiano 103). After saving up enough earnings, Equiano takes up all the courage needed to go up to his master, and successfully purchases his freedom. Throughout Prince's narrative however, she attempts to purchase her freedom multiple times and is refused the right even when she manages to get the necessary funds. This illustrates the patriarchal mindset of those living in that century; women, whether slaves or not, could not have the same rights as men; therefore, even if Equiano's and Prince's means of buying their own freedom is the same, the rights they have to buy out their freedom will not be equal.

The gender perspectives on the sense of community and emotional support also vary between Equiano and Prince. Equiano is never really given an opportunity to be a part of a real community as his masters and surroundings continuously change throughout his life. Some of the noteworthy relationships he forms with his superiors are at most times short-lived due to his constant change of locations. This however, does not affect him to a great degree as he is portrayed as a confident, independent man who is not in need of any close ties or emotional support. Prince on the other hand, is shown in the opposite light during a great portion of her narrative. She recognizes her parents as a great support to her during the time she lives as a slave in the same community as them. She runs away from her master and to her mother when she is horribly abused by him. Prince's mother puts herself in danger by hiding her daughter in a hole in the rocks and feeds her daily to her recovery. Prince's father takes a risk for his daughter by speaking up for Prince when she is taken back to the master. In similar ways, she's almost always had someone looking out for her and supporting her emotionally. This fits in with the way in which gender roles were viewed at the time. Female slaves were seen to need that support in order to keep them strong and keep going whereas male slaves were obliged to find that strength within their manhood.

There are some things however, that differentiate Equiano and Prince from the gender conventions created by the century. In regards to their resistance and rebellion to slavery, Equiano goes against the typical standards of his gender, and opts to take on the female action of resistance. Usually, male slaves affirm their manliness by confronting their superiors through physical altercations and their display of physical strength. Contrastingly, female slaves found power in resisting their white superiors verbally and through silence as they would never accomplish the same with their physical strength. Prince defies her master's sexual harassment by verbally attacking him: "I then told him I would not live longer with him, for he was a very indecent man - very spiteful, and too indecent; with no shame for his servants, no shame for his own flesh" and "I bore in silence a great deal of ill words" (Prince 24, 27). Her verbal resistance held great power and affected her abusers in a commanding way. In the same way, even though Equinao did have a choice to physically confront, he never turns to violence in his attempts to resist against his treatment as a slave. When a promise to him is broken and he is sold instead of being granted freedom for his work, he uses his words of reason and justice to object:

I began, however, to collect myself; and, plucking up courage, I told him I was free, and he could not by law serve me so […]I told him my master could not sell me to him, nor to any one else […] 'I have served him…many years, and he has taken all y wages and prize-money, for I only got one sixpence during the war; besides this I have been baptized; and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me:' And I added, that I had heard a lawyer and others at different times tell my master so (Equiano 93).

Equiano tries his best to act like an English gentleman and a pious Christian and therefore utilizes his voice of integrity to defend himself rather than opting for violence. This is very intelligent of him because it is evident that the more he acts like a white man in the course of his life, the more and more he began to be respected like one. Another similarity between Equiano and Prince is that they both get married to prove their valuing of domestic stability. Although it is greatly opposed, Prince steps out in rebellion and marries a freeman named Daniel James. Equiano takes it a step further and marries a white woman named Susannah Cullen.

Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano and Prince's The History of Mary Prince both proved to be influential in the abolition of slavery in their time and continue to be very significant autobiographical narratives today. They provide two separate perspectives on slavery as each author was treated differently due their gender. While male slaves were opposing the notion that they were inferior due to their race, female slaves were opposing their assumed inferiority in any society as women. Equiano, through his narrative depicts himself trying to free himself from oppression by the whites and therefore attempts to adapt and mimic them in language, intellect, and behaviour so that he may be seen as an equal to them. Prince on the other hand, spends most of her narrative fighting for individual rights and freedom from gendered slavery and social domination by passively resisting and staying strong willed. As a man, Equiano only had to overcome the superior influence of white people in general, however, due to her domesticated gender, Prince had to overcome both men and white people. This leaves her at a disadvantage due to the conventions of gender. In the end, both authors strived to achieve one main goal: to be humanized and to be seen as equal individuals without being dominated by the assumed superiors, which in both cases are white men.

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