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Like Olaudah Equiano, Mary Rowland also wrote narratives that illustrated her own experiences with enslavement. It was during a raid by Native Americans in Metacoms War in 1676 when Mary Rowlandson was captured. On the other hand, Olaudah Equiano was captured in West Africa and sold into slavery in the 1750s. The two writers came from different social, cultural, and economic backgrounds. However, when their narratives are compared, they appear opposites of American versus African, woman versus man, adult versus child, while, in some instances, they appeared quite similar. Despite these differences, their identities were both tested by captivity. It is important to note that although Rowlandson and Equiano varied in color, location of bondage, and experience, the signature trait of slavery was that slavery did or does not apply only to those of the African race. Instead, it applies to any human being held in servitude or captivity. In light of this, the paper discusses how Rowlandson and Equiano understand the identity of their own and that of the other people they encountered.
In The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Rowland revealed her awareness of self-identity as a respectable Puritan woman that was perhaps more superior as compared to her masters. Though the condescending manner of her self-identity seemed to waver from time to time, especially when her Indian captors showed their kindness, she still perceived the natives around her to be heathen and brutal. She did this even when the English captors partook in the same barbaric raids and counterattacks. In this regard, Rowlandson discusses her Puritan belief and her role as a woman and how they shaped her identity at the time of the capture by the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Narragansett Indians.
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Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive during the King Philips War and enslaved for approximately eleven weeks by the Native Americans, associated her slave identity with her religious belief. Rowlandson was a steadfast Puritan who believed that everything that is happening while on earth is happening following God’s will. It was very evident in the way she could hardly imagine an instance where she was not saved by Providence. According to Rowlandson, whenever they found themselves in painful and uncomfortable situations, they believed that it was a punishment for not being the faithful Puritans. For instance, Rowlandson said, Oh, I may see the wonderful power of God, that my spirit did not utterly sink under my affliction: still the Lord upheld me with His gracious and merciful spirit, and we both lived to see the light of the next morning (Rowlandson 73).
Mary Rowlandson as a highly spiritual woman who depended on God believed that everyone, even Indians, was also preserved by the gracious and merciful power of God’s spirit. In describing the strangeness of Gods providence in preserving the heathen, she noted, There were many hundreds, old and young, some sick, and some lame, many had Papooses at their backs… they traveled with all they had, bag and baggage, and yet they got over this River aforesaid (Rowlandson 79).
It comes out throughout Rowlandson’s ordeals that the belief that God was deciding what was best for her and others remained firmly entrenched in her identity. Being spiritually reliant, she had a strong faith which helped her to survive much of her captivity. For instance, Rowlandson admits receiving the Bible, which was as a light of hope. And she pointed out, I might say, as it is in Psalms 38:5-6, my injuries stink and are unethical, I am anxious, I am hunched down significantly, I go bereaved all day long (Rowlandson 240). As a Puritan, Rowlandson viewed herself as being a small piece of God’s grand plan and believed that she had been raised for a living sacrifice to God. In this regard, she viewed enslavement as a part of probation set out by God to test her faith and reexamine her commitment to Puritanism. It was a kind of belief that normalized her experiences in captivity as she considered the strength that carried and helped her as a God’s assistance. This helped her to see more of His (God’s) power than any other could notice (Rowlandson 239).
Probably, Rowlandson Puritans’ belief and strong faith in God helped her being ransomed from the Indians back to her husband. On the other hand, she used to race in identifying English people as being less than human. This came out especially by calling them heathens merely due to their race. However, her identity of being a deeply religious Puritan woman illustrated her limited ability to sympathize with the natives when one of her mistresses’ papooses died. Rowlandson pointed out, On the morrow, they buried the Papoose, and afterward, both morning and evening there came to a company to mourn and howl with her: though I confess, I could not much condole with them (Rowlandson 91). This depicted Rowlandsons identity as deeply rooted in Puritanism. She was only convinced of her own racial and behavioral superiority, despite being a captive. She viewed Indians as little more than beings to loathe since she held no respect for their customs or diversity.
In contrast to Mary Rowlandson, Olaudah Equiano was self-reliant but not spiritually dependent. Born in 1745 and raised in the village called Essaka, now in Nigeria, Equiano was kidnapped being a young child along with his sister. In Equiano’s writing, it is evident that the black slaves were defined by the uncertainty of whether they would stay with their masters, be separate from their family and friends, or be beaten or raped. As a result of these uncertainties, Equiano did not know whether he would ever be free. It was the main reason that gave him the drive and determination to seek freedom by focusing on improving his quality of life through assimilating the manners and religion of Europeans. For instance, Equiano strived to learn English and to read and write. He also wanted to learn about religion and God, leading to him being baptized.
The reason why Equiano willingly changed his identity to adapt to European manners and religion was to gain freedom. He effectively demonstrated this in his narrative when he noted that, as an African and a slave, he had no identity. According to Europeans, he was void, erased, and invisible with no control over his own movements, name, and property. As pointed out by Smith (33), slaves normally rely on themselves and work hard to gain their freedom as their struggle for survival requires them to overcome numerous obstacles through their own talents. This was the case of Equiano, and it establishes a major difference between him and Rowlandson. Unlike Rowlandson, Equiano relied on himself and no one else. He worked so hard since he was not sure that he could trust anyone else. He only believed in himself as the only source that would render him freedom. It is this belief in an individual’s own ability as a source of freedom that lacked in Rowlandson’s case.
Though Equiano endeavored to understand who he was, captivity and slavery limited his opportunities for self-discovery. While his eventual identity is mainly defined by the experience he undergoes while in captive, being freed, he affirms a sense of self-identity as he can make decisions regarding his life (Gates 131). This is based on the fact that having liberated himself, Equiano started to fight against the evils of the slave trade. He did this by proposing arguments against its economic viability, morality, and even, at some point, offering alternate trade solutions that would replace human commerce. These are the actions that prove his self-awareness as a former slave and his awareness of others he encountered as slaves that illustrate his strong sense of identity as an Afro-Christian slave.
Olaudah Equiano views European culture as a way of gaining freedom. His growing attachment to his master and desire to imbibe and imitate the English culture in which he is immersed rose because he believed that it was the only way of gaining self-awareness and identity. The fact that Equiano could speak English tolerably well and started using every occasion to improve, helped him earn the kindness of his masters. This was evident when Equiano was sent by Captain Pascal to wait upon his sister, Miss Guerin. Apart from being treated kindly by them, he was also supported in his education and interest in Christianity as well. Therefore, Equiano viewed European culture as the only source of initiating self-awareness and identity.
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In the case of Mary Rowlandson’s literature, she portrayed and viewed any Native American as a savage who should be saved. Her perspective as a Puritan made her believe that the sole rescue for the Native Americans was conversion to Christianity. While being at times conciliatory towards the Indians and recognizing that these savages are a part of God’s plan, Rowlandson typically displayed the aversion that most Puritans felt towards aborigines. While modern readers do recognize Native Americans as more of victims than perpetrators, many Massachusetts-Bay Christians, such as Rowlandson, viewed Native Americans as representing a hostile group that kept them from expanding and conquering the new land.
In conclusion, Rowlandson and Equiano were truly able to express the terrifying nature of slavery. Although it is apparent that Olaudah Equiano eventually became a free man, he was still subject to prejudices and racism from the white people. As a freed person, Equiano was still being marginalized. That was the ambiguity of the situation that a freed, educated, and the well-mannered individual was still vulnerable to many threats to his person. However, both Equiano and Rowlandson find means of dealing with the captivity issues, loss of personal dignity, and physical and mental hardships they endured. Though they both were slaves for a time, Rowlandson and Equiano perceived the identities of those around them and their own as quite different from what one would expect. Their self-identity has significantly been shaped by their actions in an attempt to survive the hardship and gain freedom. The difference is that Mary Rowlandson’s identity is significantly influenced by the spiritual faith, while Equiano’s identity is defined by self-determination and patience.