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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

Class 11

Oct. 4: Slavery section -- selections and online

Reading Assignment:

Slavery and Freedom Section, NAEL 2806-7
Samuel Johnson, [A Brief to Free a Slave], NAEL 2811-12
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative (excerpts), NAEL 2812-2821

Norton Topics Online: Slavery and the Slave Trade

Due: Post #5 Group B
Paper 1 - close reading

The readings for today introduce you to the history of slavery and the slave trade in Britain, with the Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano as the highlight. I would like for you to browse the website from the Norton Online Materials to read some background on England's role in slavery and the slave trade, to read some documents from slave traders and descriptions of the middle passage -- which will resonate with the description of the same in Equiano's narrative -- and to see some illustrations.

One of the objectives of this class is for you to gain a fuller understanding of this particular history, which is very different from the United States' experience with slavery. The writing of Equiano, although clearly not without controversy today, is an important treatment of slavery and a significant literary accomplishment by an Anglo-African. The writings today also prepare for our understanding of Aphra Behn's story about the African Prince who becomes a slave in Surinam, Oroonoko which we will read for the next two classes.

Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:


The idea of liberty was central to the Enlightenment in England, and the prose writings on the Norton website will give you an indication of the ways in which Britons conceived of liberty, and by contrast slavery, in its literal and metaphoric sense.

Samuel Johnson's brief, written for his young lawyer friend, James Boswell, draws on Lockean notions of freedom and property. What case does Johnson make for freeing the slave? What basic rights does his argument assume? What arguments (for slavery) does Johnson attempt to defeat in his brief?


Olaudah Equiano's narrative deserves to be highlighted both because it is the most developed writing by an Anglo-African writer in our anthology and because it makes the African slave's experience the central perspective of the piece. The excerpts focus on two pivotal moments in his history as a slave, the description of his Middle Passage and the purchasing of his freedom.

What makes the Middle Passage expecially tortuous for Equiano? How does his description compare with those of the slave traders from the Norton Topics Online?

How does Equiano gain his freedom? What about this experience might make this a persuasive argument for abolition in England?

What role does religion play in Equiano's narrative?

Based on the excerpts, how would you describe Equiano's character? What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses?

The language of the manumission underscores the deep contradictions of the British commitment to the native liberty of men. Who are excluded from the claims of liberty? What does the manumission testify to? Why does Equiano include it? What is its historical value (what do we learn from it)? What is its symbolic value?

3. Summary

How does this information challenge or confirm your historical understanding of slavery and the slave trade?

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