The State of Things: Olaudah Equiano and the Volatile Politics of Heterocosmic Desire

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Historicizing Romantic Sexuality

The State of Things: Olaudah Equiano and the Volatile Politics of Heterocosmic Desire

Daniel O'Quinn, University of Guelph

The essay explores the notion of masochist nationalism through a reading of a brief passage in Equiano's Interesting Narrative in which Equiano engages with a young Musquito man named George. The argument pays particular attention to how Equiano figures George in a complex economy of humiliation and revenge. Ultimately, the essay suggests that Equiano's most radical gesture in this scene is to stage politics from the ground of the object. This essay appears in _Historicizing Romantic Sexuality_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.


Women to govern men . . . slaves freemen . . . being total violations and perversions of the laws of nature and nations. . . .

—Francis Bacon

  1. As a strategic intervention in the debate on the abolition of slavery The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African made its author famous, but the full import of the text is only now beginning to re-emerge.[1] The text is a complex political performance because, as Sonia Hofkosh emphasizes, "Equiano enters the political debate [on slavery] through personal experience. . . . The Interesting Narrative seeks to influence ('excite') the collective, political body of Parliament . . . through the vocabulary of sentiment and feeling, appealing directly to the very hearts of its individual members" (334). The preface to the 1814 edition of The Interesting Narrative explicitly states that the representation of his sufferings is designed to elicit sympathetic affect in his readers: "Being a true relation of occurrences which had taken place, and of sufferings which he had endured, it produced a degree of humane feelings in men's minds, to excite which the most animated addresses and the most convincing reasoning would have laboured in vain" (Qtd. in Hofkosh 334). By suggesting that reason may not provide a viable political tool in the abolition of slavery, these prefatory remarks focus the reader's attention on the body itself—on precisely that which is commodified in the trade of African slaves. Hofkosh's appraisal of these remarks draws attention to the shared bodily existence of slaves and readers:

    The book is directed not to the reason, an abstract quantity, but seeks rather to register its effect in the very bodies of its readers—at their feet, in their hearts, and in their minds. It represents individual experience to them—both the author's and their own—creating for them an isolate, intimate space through which they can respond sympathetically to its argument. It operates from the inside out, self-referentially, narrowing its focus in order to universalize its appeal. . . . The political dimension of the text is thus articulated in libidinal language; in Equiano's abolitionist intervention, his life story, the political is personal. (334-5)

    The affect generated by reading about private bodily suffering is therefore crucial to Equiano's political mission.

  2. However, if this generation of affect is to have political effects, a series of complex substitutions needs to unfold.[2] On the one hand, Equiano's suffering needs to be hollowed out such that it can exemplify the pain of commodification as such. His pain needs to synechdocally stand as part of the whole of slavery's anguish. This implies a certain cancellation of his private experience in the service of a generalizable exemplarity. On the other hand, the reader's pain, that which allows him or her to be "put into the place of another," must undergo a similar set of modulations.[3] Before this libidinal economy can be harnessed in the political project of abolishing slavery, the generated affect has to be simultaneously separated from Equiano and from the reader so that it may be attached to the space of commodification. What this means is that the effectivity of Equiano's text lies in its power to make the reader experience objecthood. Paradoxically, I believe that this is achieved by inculcating affective responses and then extracting that which we associate most directly with emotion—i.e. its specific subjective quality. In other words, libidinal language is deployed to make one understand the horrors that attend the libido's cancellation thereby founding a politics from the ground of the object. One of the aims of this essay is to demonstrate that such a politics is remarkably volatile and while apparently opening onto transgressive possibilities also seems prone to reversion in its specific manifestation in the discourse network of anti-slavery activism. However, to achieve such a demonstration requires that we bring styles of thinking endemic to queer theory to bear on the historical materialism of much recent work on the relationship between colonial and metropolitan society in Romantic studies.[4] Specifically, this essay inhabits the still underappreciated period in Foucault's thinking immediately prior to and following the publication of La Volonté de savoir in which he attempted to articulate the relationship between sexuality, biopower, race and the regulation of the middle classes.[5] In accordance with David M. Halperin's recent reminder that Foucault's project needs to be understood as an "inquiry into the modalities of human subjectivation," this essay historicizes Equiano as a subject of desire at a particularly vexed moment in the history not only of British imperialism, but also of circum-Atlantic subjectivity (88).[6] By attempting to historicize specific scenes, desires and sexual acts in Equiano's text, one can discern not only the intersection of sexual and imperial economies, but also the largely forgotten libidinal dynamics of Dissenting religion during the period.[7]

  3. This essay examines this problematic by concentrating on a small episode in The Interesting Narrative in which Equiano meets a young Musquito man for whom property is a largely foreign notion. The interaction between one who was formerly a commodity and one who does not yet know how commodities circulate occurs late in The Interesting Narrative. My contention is that this complex pedagogical scene constitutes the radical core of Equiano's text and as such provides a model for understanding the libidinal exchange between reader and text articulated above. Furthermore, this scene also involves a specific historical intervention aimed at teaching the Musquito prince how to resist the commodification of his people as their region is colonized. In what I see as a symptomatic gap in the existing scholarship on this text, it is never asked who George might be.[8] Since neither Equiano's eighteenth-century readers, nor his twentieth-century exegetes seem willing to enquire after specific Musquito individuals, I want to establish George's identity and suggest that it may provide a key for understanding Equiano's textual and political strategies.

  4. Late in 1775, shortly after Equiano undergoes a Methodist conversion, he is invited by Dr. Charles Irving to join "a new adventure, in cultivating a plantation at Jamaica and the Musquito Shore" in present day Nicaragua (202).[9] Aside from making money, Equiano's primary desire during his connection with Dr. Irving is "to be an instrument, under God, of bringing some poor sinner to my well beloved master, Jesus Christ" (202). Equiano concentrates his missionary activities on a young Musquito prince who is returning to Central America from an embassy in London. That embassy constitutes a minor moment in the British attempts to colonize the Musquito coast.

  5. After a series of struggles with the Spanish for control of the Musquito Shore, "the British bestowed sovereignty on the Musquito Indians, i.e. on the hereditary 'king' of the Musquitos, and formed an alliance with them" (Naylor 46). As Robert Naylor argues, "the weakness of this particular protectorate system was that the territory was occupied by scattered clusters of mesolithic Indians with no formal conception of territorial domain in the western sense. . . . Therefore, the British would virtually have had to create the very [sovereign] entity to which they were allegedly allied" (46). In the late 1760s and early 1770s this fictional sovereign body became the object of intense economic speculation. Eight merchants, including William Pitt the elder, formed the Albera Poyer project, which quietly acquired vast tracts of land in the Black River district from the Musquito "king" George I, with the hope that Britain would formally colonize the region in the near future. Britain's superintendent in the region, Robert Hodgson, became convinced that the natives "were being cheated out of their lands and that the Musquito Shore was becoming 'prey to the rapacity of a few individuals'" (59). In the interest of maintaining faux-diplomatic relations with the Musquito and of foiling a land scheme that did not include him, Hodgson unilaterally declared his authority over all lands and possessions of the Musquito Indians and announced that land transactions involving the Musquito would be regulated by his office. The ensuing legal crisis is directly related to Equiano's text, for the members of the Albera Poyer project sent the Musquito king's son to London to demand that Hodgson be recalled.

  6. When the prince is introduced into Equiano's narrative, Equiano recognizes but does not elaborate on his connection to the Albera Poyer land-scheme:

    Before I embarked, I found with . . . Doctor [Irving] four Musquito Indians, who were chiefs in their own country, and were brought here by some English traders for some selfish ends. One of them was the Musquito king's son, a youth of almost eighteen years of age; and whilst he was here he was baptized by the name of George. (202-3)

    What Equiano does not explain is that George and his companions have come to London to demand that Hodgson be recalled on the grounds that he has failed to prevent the enslavement of natives in the region. Through George, the project is attempting to obviate Hodgson's interference by having him recalled on grounds unrelated to the land scheme.[10] In other words, anti-slavery arguments are being used to further the project's plans for colonization. Robert Naylor is careful to point out the suspicious nature of this visit by emphasizing first, that the other interested party in the land transaction is George's father and second, that the principal agents in the trade of native slaves were the Musquito Indians themselves. Bolstered by their allegiance with the British, the Musquito actively captured and sold their tribal enemies to English planters.

  7. Equiano's temporary reticence regarding this corrupt deployment of George's anti-slavery position breaks down when he attempts to give George a double lesson first in protestant election and later in capitalist exchange:

    In our passage I took all pains that I could to instruct the Indian prince in the doctrines of Christianity, of which he was entirely ignorant; and to my great joy he was quite attentive, and received with gladness the truths that the Lord enabled me to set forth to him. I taught him in the compass of eleven days all the letters, and he could put even two or three of them together, and spell them. I had Fox's Martyrology with cuts, and he used to be very fond of looking into it, and would ask many questions about the papal cruelties he saw depicted there, which I explained to him. (203)

    In this colonial encounter, the scene of reading is remarkably similar to the one Equiano stages in The Interesting Narrative as a whole. In the process of conversion, Equiano has hailed the Musquito prince, who has been baptized and given the name George, into an affective relation with representations of suffering. Once this affect is generated, Equiano then explains the proper interpretation of the represented agony. Equiano subtly intervenes in George's embassy, but the transcultural lesson works by way of a series of perverse narratives. Equiano's interaction with George involves two masochistic scenes—a broad scenario of Christian masochism with a more specifically sexualized fantasy at its core—which establish a series of interlocking political allegories. These allegories draw parallels between the martyrdom of Protestant Englishmen, the psycho-sexual dynamics of shipboard society, and a specific moment in the history of British colonization. The allegorical dimensions of The Interesting Narrative speak directly not only to the construction of racial categories in late eighteenth-century Britain and America, but also to the forms of complex political resistance developed by Anglo-Africans to deal with imperial domination in the Black Atlantic.

    Equiano's Invisible Church

  8. Linda Colley has recently reminded us of the significant role played by Foxe's Book of Martyrs. . . in the consolidation of British nationalism in the eighteenth century (25-8). Based on Foxe's Acts and Monuments of 1563 the book was revived and circulated in an aggressively patriotic fashion in the last thirty years of the eighteenth century. Publishers and patriots alike realized that Foxe's representation of the agonies of Protestant martyrs during the reign of Queen Mary had a certain translatability to contemporary British politics. The burning bodies could be retroactively cited as evidence not only of their resolute faith, but also of their future countrymen's Protestant destiny.What emerges from this specific imagination of community could be described as a form of masochistic nationalism—i.e. a nationalism that coheres in the pain of its annihilated members.[11]

  9. Masochistic nationalism may seem counter-intuitive to our normative understanding of national character since masochism carries with it the connotation of perversion, a turning aside from truth or right, and specifically a turning from pleasure to pain. As the quote from Bacon in my epigraph indicates the perverse is threatening because it deviates from the principle of hierarchy—for Bacon, women should not govern men and slaves should not rule over masters. Significantly, Colley argues that Foxe's text has nationalist effects precisely because it threatens state hierarchy. To understand this we need to recognize that Equiano and George are poring over a book that represents two kinds of violence. The violence in Foxe's Book of Martyrs does not "go all one way." Richard Helgerson suggests that "the persecution and martyrdom of those whom Foxe considers members of the true church of Christ are the book's most persistent subject but God's punishment of persecutors makes a strong countertheme" (255). This is important because the second type of violence allows for a type of nationalism predicated on the disjunction of nation and state and hence from the extant governmental strategies of modernity. Foxe's text contains vivid accounts of Queen Mary's persecution of Protestant heretics accompanied by less systematic representations of sudden violence in which the state sanctioned persecutors are killed by animals or natural disasters. In the first instance, "The violence of Antichrist against the true church of Christ and its members is carried out by willing human agents occupying offices of great worldly power," whereas "the violence of God [in the second instance] is either direct or else mediated by unwitting actors" (258). As Richard Helgerson states, "God's violence requires no institutional order. [Beneath these two distinct forms of punishment] lies a double and potentially divided sense of communal identity" (258).

  10. The way in which these two communities connect is of crucial historical importance, for "the visible church of which the king is the head should also be the local embodiment of Christ's invisible and universal church" (258). In Foxe's Acts and Monuments, the period immediately following Wycliffe's vernacular translation of the Bible constitutes a significant rupture between the visible and invisible church, between the state and a less tangible form of religious community. Of this latter group, Helgerson argues that

    Its members are readers who imagine themselves in invisible fellowship with thousands of other readers, particularly those who encounter the word in the same vernacular translation. Like the nation, this imagined community does not necessarily coincide with the state. Indeed, the state may frustrate its ambition to achieve a visible institutional embodiment of its own, may hunt down and persecute its members. But where the imagined community does not coincide with the state, it saps the state's legitimacy and the legitimacy of the social hierarchy that constitutes the power structure of the state. (266)

    Within the overall narrative, the accounts of the suffering of the invisible church are embodied in the burning Protestant martyrs, but these stories are counter-balanced by a chronicle history of England in which worldly and godly institutions exist in harmony. This balance allows Foxe to figure the period of Queen Mary's reign as an aberration which once corrected will allow a re-harmonization of worldly and divine governance, of state and divinely elect nation. However, the text in Equiano's hands moves in an altogether different direction.

  11. Significantly, Equiano's primary teaching tool is not the magisterial 1563 edition of Foxe's Acts and Monuments, but rather a more portable abridged version of 1760 with elaborate copper plate illustrations edited by Martin Madan, a noted and controversial Wesleyan teacher, entitled The Book of Martyrs: Containing an Account of the Sufferings and Death of the Protestants in the Reign of Mary the First. Illustrated with Copper Plates. Originally Written by Mr John Fox; And now Revised and Corrected with a Recommendary Preface by the Revd: Mr: Madan.[12] As the title indicates the illustrations are a significant selling point, but they also fill the space left by significant elisions. Commenting on the various editions of Foxe's text, William Haller notes that eighteenth-century abridgements

    are a vulgarization of the original for an increasingly narrow evangelical Protestant piety. Foxe's whole account of ecclesiastical and national history, by which he sought to make his contemporaries understand what happened in Mary's reign and its bearing on the situation in which they found themselves under her successor dropped completely out. (252)

    Without its counter-balancing national history, the book in Equiano and George's hands establishes, in Haller's words, "a strongly oppositional identity, an identity founded on suffering and resistance and profoundly antithetical to the hierarchical order of the English state" (268). Standing in place of this historical critique, the illustrations demand closer scrutiny.

  12. With only a few exceptions the illustrations in The Book of Martyrs repeat the same compositional elements (see fig. 1 ). Typically, the centre of the engraving is dominated by the martyr himself who is usually surrounded by a frame of fire and uttering his final testimonies of faith. That frame is itself enclosed by a crowd of onlookers who fill the background of the image. In between the crowd and the burning martyr one finds two or more executioners. In light of Kaja Silverman's analysis of masochism, the illustrations which ostensibly fascinate George conform to the structural contours of Christian masochism as described by Theodor Reik in Masochism in Sex and Society. Reik argues that the psychic economy of moral masochism has three primary characteristics—"exhibitionism or 'demonstrativeness,' revolutionary fervor, and 'suspense'" (Silverman 197).[13] For Reik,

    an external audience is a structural necessity [in Christian masochism], although it may be either earthly or heavenly. Second, the body is centrally on display, whether it is being consumed by ants or roasting over a fire. Finally, behind all these "scenes" or "exhibits" is the master tableau or group fantasy—Christ nailed to the cross, head wreathed in thorns and blood dripping from his impaled sides. (197)
    The illustrations in The Book of Martyrs contain all of these elements. In figure 1 (detail), the displayed body dominates the centre of the image, the earthly audience surrounds the martyr, and key elements of the composition invoke the crucifixion—the attitude of the martyr's body and the lance-bearing officers make the link to Christ all too evident. The body being burned and beaten "is not so much the body as the 'flesh,' and beyond that sin itself, and the whole fallen world" (197). As Silverman argues, this substitution of the flesh for the body "pits the Christian masochist against the society in which he or she lives, makes of that figure a rebel, or even a revolutionary of sorts. In this particular subspecies of moral masochism there would seem to be a strong heterocosmic impulse–the desire to remake the world in another image altogether, to forge a different cultural order" (197-8). When one applies that heterocosmic impulse to the realm of anti-slavery activism, the slave's suffering is retained as the instantiation not only of the eternal punishment of those who participated in and perpetuated the slave trade, but also of a different cultural order beyond the reach of racial derogation and commodification. It is this conjunction of vengeance and radical renewal that characterizes Equiano's largely eschatological approach to the political in this passage.[14]

  13. This threat to the principle of hierarchy gains some resonance in light of Paul Gilroy's recent decision in The Black Atlantic to consider diasporic African identity not in terms of roots but rather "as a process of movement and mediation that is more appropriately approached via the homonym routes" (19). If following Gilroy we recognize "the image of the ship [as] a living, micro-political system in motion," then Equiano's invocation of the invisible church through the act of reading The Book of Martyrs with George establishes him as part of an oppositional community that is being persecuted by the ship-board minions of the English state. As the phantasmatic drama unfolds, the white sailors of the Morning Star are initially deployed as the observers in the illustrations, but, borrowing a phrase from Reik's analysis of Christian masochism, "the subject [in this case, Equiano] functions both as the victim and the victimizer, dispensing with the need for an external object. Even when the punishment seems to derive from the external world, it is in fact the result of a skillful unconscious manipulation of  'adverse incidents'" (Silverman 196).[15] If we understand Equiano's invocation of the Marian martyrs in a thoroughly political fashion, then what is emerging is a subtle bid for political autonomy in a limited field of action. As Silverman summarizes, "the sufferings and defeats of the fantasizing subject are dramatized in order to make the final victory appear all the more glorious and triumphant" (196). However, this demonstrative aspect of Equiano's text involves a second masochistic scene that is much more overtly sexualized, yet nonetheless integrally related to the reading of Foxe.

  14. As Equiano continues his account of George's conversion, he carefully notes that George's act of praying is not prayer in the proper sense:

    I made such progress with this youth, especially in religion, that when I used to go to bed at different hours of the night, if he was in his bed, he would get up on purpose to go to prayer with me, without any other clothes than his shirt; and before he would eat any of his meals amongst the gentlemen in the cabin, he would first come to me and pray, as he called it. I was well pleased at this, and took great delight in him, and used much supplication to God for his conversion.(203)

    One could argue that Equiano's perspicuity regarding the status of prayer is nothing more than a sign of doctrinal rigor, but such a reading downplays the extent to which Equiano himself indicates that reading The Book of Martyrs with George is traversed by a complex economy of pleasure. This process of conversion is operating by way of perversion because Equiano experiences pleasure in spite of the fact that George's activities deviate from true prayer.[16] The moment when Equiano indirectly represents George's use of the word "pray" should give us pause, for there is a sense of estrangement that enters the text when Equiano attributes this naming to George—when in fact it is Equiano who is introducing George to this ritual. This mis-attribution of Equiano's own actions and desires to George are an instance of what Reik calls the manipulation of "adverse incidents." In the paragraphs below, I argue that Foxe is deployed such that Equiano becomes phantasmatically abased as the object of George's desire.

  15. If we look closely at the scene of reading we see that Equiano emphasizes that George "was very fond of looking into [Fox's Martyrology]" (203). But this "fondness" has another register in which Equiano constructs George's desire to join him at bedtime, scantily clad and ready for "prayer." This double ascription of desire unfolds into two different masochistic trajectories.First, George's desire for the book hails him into an identificatory relation with the Christian martyrs; and second, George's "readiness for prayer" figures Equiano as the object of George's desire. The first textual hailing is aimed at George's conversion, whereas the second contextual ascription of desire is aimed at Equiano's abasement. Through this latter gesture, Equiano has moved beyond political identification with the represented martyrs in Foxe.He is now enacting his sexual degradation.The two masochistic scenarios, the persecution of the invisible church and the abasement of Equiano, are tied together by George's name. Since he has been named after the sovereign, George can figure simultaneously as the Other and as the King. In this light, George plays a perverse yet constitutive role in Equiano's oppositional relation to the ungodly "little world" of shipboard society.[17] The textual and contextual trajectories of masochism are joined by the spectral presence of the sovereign who acts as the apex or pivot in both triangular scenarios.

  16. Significantly, these two masochistic trajectories are set in conflict with one another. If George achieves a full identification with the burning bodies represented in The Book of Martyrs, he accedes to his conversion and begins to imagine himself as a persecuted member of the invisible church. In other words, conversion will push George towards the same masochistic practice enacted by Equiano, and thereby deprive Equiano of his necessary tormentor.[18] It is not surprising, therefore, when Equiano tells us that the process of George's conversion is not only slow, but ultimately unsuccessful:

    I was in full hope of seeing daily every appearance of that change which I could wish; not knowing the devices of Satan, who had many of his emissaries to sow his tares as fast as I sowed the good seed, and pull down as fast as I built up. Thus we went on nearly four-fifths of our passage, when Satan at last got the upper hand. (203)

    Despite Equiano's desire for George's conversion, the fact that the whole process unfolds slowly fits a crucial element of masochistic practice. According to Reik, the moral masochist develops a series of strategies to "prolong preparatory detail and ritual at the expense of climax or consummation. . . . this implies the endless postponement of the moment at which suffering yields to reward" (Silverman 199). Silverman specifies the relationship between suspense and reward in Christian masochism by focusing on its temporal aspects:

    The Christian...lives his or her life in perpetual anticipation of the second coming. The figural meaning which this anticipation implants in present sufferings makes it possible for them to be savored as future pleasures, with time folding over itself in such a way as to permit that retroactivity to be already experienced now, in a moment prior to its effectivity. Such is the fundamentally perverse nature of Christian suspense and the pain it sanctifies and irradiates. . . .(200)

    In other words, Equiano's pleasure in George is actually displaced pleasure that will be experienced in the future when he is rewarded by God. Through George's unachieved "conversion," Equiano is able to savour his future status in a post-revolutionary state, in a post-imperial cultural order.

  17. But Equiano's oppositionality at this stage in the narrative is contingent on his continuing relationship with George. That which separates them directly interferes with Equiano's heterocosmic fantasies. As long as Satan "sows his tares as fast as [Equiano] sows the good seed" the engagement with George seems capable of infinite extension—a kind of interminable conversion (203). In a sense, the steady pace of Satan's obstruction works to Equiano's advantage because it provides the suspense which is so crucial to the maximization of pleasure in the masochistic subject. However, when the white sailors intervene in George's conversion they instantiate a fundamental shift in Equiano's masochistic fantasies, not because they impede George's identification with the invisible church—that only suspends Equiano's reward—but because their actions physically, psychically and politically separate George and Equiano. This separation pushes Equiano's masochistic practice into more extreme manifestations whose specific details allow us to clarify the libidinal economy which undergirds his political resistance to ship-board society.

    Rape and Liberation

  18. The subtle and seemingly innocent account of George's attempt to pray is linked to a much more violent masochistic scenario when the white crew members of the Morning Star are introduced into the scene:

    Some of Satan's messengers, seeing this poor heathen much advanced in piety, began to ask him whether I had converted him to Christianity, laughed and made their jest at him, for which I rebuked them as much as I could; but this treatment caused the prince to halt between two opinions. Some of the true sons of Belial, who did not believe that there was any hereafter, told him never to fear the devil, for there was none existing. . . .(203-4)

    This passage introduces a remarkable subtext which re-orients much of the heterocosmic desire we have encountered thus far. The subtext is coded into Equiano's attack on the white sailors as "the true sons of Belial" for the appellation involves the threat of sodomitical rape. Like many of Equiano's presentations of evil, he is alluding to Paradise Lost:

                                                . . .when night

    Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons

    Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

    Witness the streets of Sodom, and that night

    In Gibeah, when the hospitable door

    Exposed a matron to avoid worse rape.(I. 500-5)

    Lurking behind both Equiano's and Milton's invocation of the "sons of Belial" lies the combined story of sexual violence and national election in Judges 19-21, whose implications for not only the represented scene of reading, but also the act of reading Equiano's text are profound. The shift from The Book of Martyrs to the book of Judges occasions a reversal in the flow of sexual violence that subtends the emergence of a specifically national fantasy.

  19. Adam Potkay's reading of The Interesting Narrative persuasively argues that Equiano consistently relates presumably historical events in the Old Testament to occurrences in his own spiritual life (Potkay, "Olaudah," 681). This tropological strategy was far from unusual in Evangelical self-fashionings, but Potkay demonstrates that

    unlike other Puritan spiritual autobiographies, Equiano's "progress" is not just the tropological freeing of the soul from the symbolic Egypt of carnality; rather, his journey proceeds on a literal as well as an allegorical level. According to Equiano's telling of his life, he literally retraces the course of the Bible from patriarchal mores . . . to captivity in a strange land; and from deliverance to repratriation in a Beulah land of the spirit. In short, Equiano literally reenacts the basic narrative pattern of the books of Genesis and Exodus, as well as learning, by his conversion or Christian re-birth, to read Israelite history along with his own experience as an allegory of spiritual deliverance (681).[19]

    This narrativization of personal experience in terms of Israelite history blurs the line between spiritual and political deliverance. This blurring was especially evident in the early Methodist teachings of George Whitefield. Equiano attests to having seen Whitefield speak, and as Potkay argues, "Whitefield's message of spiritual liberation from the bondage of 'these depraved natures of ours' sounded to some like a call for liberation, pure and simple" (Potkay and Burr 9).[20] As Whitefield states,

    Let us consider ourselves . . . as persons travelling to a long eternity; as rescued by the free grace of God, in some measure, from our natural Egyptian bondage, and marching under the conduct of our spiritual Joshua, through the wilderness of this world, to the land of our heavenly Canaan. (Quoted in Potkay and Burr, 10)

    Potkay's account of the tropological gestures in The Interesting Narrative focuses primarily on how Equiano links Igbo society to the pastoral state of the Patriarchs in Genesis, and on how he figures his enslavement, auto-manumission and conversion as an enactment of the Israelites' escape from captivity in Exodus.[21] The Genesis/Exodus allegory animates much anti-slavery discourse, but Equiano strays to other sections of the Old Testament. The "sons of Belial" episode under consideration in this essay rehearses an infamous passage later in the history of the Israelites which is much more difficult to understand in terms of liberation, but which has everything to do with the consolidation of power in what can only be described as a national corpus.

  20. The prime factor in the growing national unity was the religion of Yahweh. The various national and tribal lists, and the tribal relationships themselves [that recur throughout Judges], show the Israelites were a heterogeneous group held together only by a more or less common experience and by their devotion to Yahweh." (684-5)

    Judges therefore is an account of national consolidation based on shared religious belief. In this context, Equiano understands his struggle with the sailors on board the Morning Star as a tropological rehearsal of the war between the tribes of Israel and the renegade Benjaminites that points to an allegorical unification not only of Christian believers, but also of ethnically distinct peoples in the emergent British nation.

  21. Equiano integrates the Book of Judges into his narrative first, by declaring the sailors "true Sons of Belial," and second, by staging multiple scenes of hospitality. The sailors taunt George by telling "him never to fear the devil, for there was none existing; and if ever he came to the prince, they desired he may be sent to them" (204). This taunt obliquely rehearses Judges 19 in which the Benjaminites, figured by Milton as the sons of Belial, demand that an old man from Gibeah break the laws of hospitality and give up his Levite guest to the lustful mob. The Benjaminites "beset the house round about, beating on the door, and they said to . . . the master of the house, 'Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him'" (19:22). The threat of sodomitical rape unfolds into a horrifying narrative of sexual violence and national vengeance which ultimately recoils on Equiano's political resistance to the institutions and practices which enslaved him. However, before exploring this problematic I want to establish the strange way in which the sailors' taunt impinges on Equiano's interpellation of George into his masochistic reading of Foxe.

  22. The sailors short circuit Equiano's masochistic practice by simply telling George that if the Devil comes to you, send him to us and we'll take care of him. In other words, the sailors are offering to protect George from precisely the martyrdom which drives identification with the invisible church. However, the sailors' taunt contains a double sign which fully entraps George. The "sons of Belial" stand as a figure for Satan in 2 Corinthians 6:15. The sailors' promise, therefore, forms a loop: if the Devil comes to you, send him to those who stand in for the Devil. In this paradoxical scenario George is shunted from the masochistic scene and hence denied access to the salvation of the invisible church which Equiano has linked to freedom from the bonds of colonial domination. George's acceptance of the sailors places him in a similar position to those who accepted the protection of the state during the reign of Queen Mary, for in Foxe's narrative they too misrecognized the power of the ungodly state. Equiano's response is perfectly apposite, for he argues that "if he and these people went to hell together, their pains would not make his any lighter" (204). By refusing to seek pleasure through pain in his lifetime, George is promised not only political subjugation in this world, but also an eternity of torment in the next.

  23. Because Equiano's identification with the martyred figures in Fox is guaranteed by his deployment of George in the position of the King, the sailors' taunt effectively destroys Equiano's masochistic identification by depriving him of his tormentor—of his "sovereign" George. At this point, Equiano's text takes a deeply unsettling turn for the masochistic scene which revolves around the reading of The Book of Martyrs shifts textual loci. In an extremely subtle manner, Equiano re-stages his engagement with George using narrative structures derived from Judges 19-21. This means three things. First, that the agent of abasement shifts from George the indigene sovereign to the "Sons of Belial." Second, that Equiano's phantasmatic abasement becomes more explicitly sexualized and more overtly violent. And third, that Equiano's invocation of revenge becomes at once more pointed and more ambivalent. In order to understand this latter point we need to return to the moment of hospitality from the earlier masochistic scene and examine how it is restructured to allow the Judges narrative to become tropologically active.

  24. At the core of Equiano's attempt to convert George one finds a moment of hospitality very similar both to that of Judges 19 and to that of the sailors' taunt, for it is George who comes to Equiano's cabin in the middle of the night full of the desire to "pray." I have already suggested that Equiano's self-construction as the object of George's desire constitutes the abasement necessary for Equiano's masochistic identification with the invisible church. But the allusion to Judges allows us to be much more specific about that abasement. In Judges 19 the master of the house offers his daughter and the Levite's wife as a way of saving his guest from sodomitical rape. When the wife is cast out, she is raped to the point of death and dumped on the threshold of the house. In response, the Levite cuts the body of his wife into twelve pieces and sends a piece to each of the tribes of Israel as a call to arms against the Benjaminites. Mieke Bal emphasizes that the text is ambiguous about the raped wife's condition upon her return. As she states, the text "refrains from stating whether the woman is dead or alive" (218). This detail is crucial because it suggests that the Levite may have killed his wife in order to elicit vengeance. As we will see this ambiguity has significant ramifications for Equiano's text.

  25. When George comes to Equiano's door, the narrative immediately establishes a visitor-host relation in which the shelter Equiano offers is that of the invisible church posited in The Book of Martyrs. Significantly, both The Book of Martyrs and the Book of Judges emphasize that loyalty to God is necessary to success as a nation. By referring to the sailors as the "Sons of Belial," Equiano subtly figures the sailor's threat to George's conversion as the threat of sodomitical rape. The resolution of that threat, however, is extremely complex and requires that one recognize some important constitutive elements of shipboard society. First, since the ship is an all male zone, women exist only as "ideas" of alterity—their bodily difference is nowhere in evidence. What this means is that the primary corporeal encoding of difference on the ship is that of race. In the terms set forth in Judges 19, there is no sexual other to be offered to the rapacious "Sons of Belial." In light of the earlier masochistic scenario, could we not argue that Equiano re-casts himself simultaneously as the Levite and the Levite's wife in this phantasmatic scene? After all, he has already figured himself as the object of George's desire.

  26. At this point Equiano's Christian masochism reveals itself to be integrally connected to a certain feminization. As Silverman emphasizes,

    the exemplary Christian masochist also seeks to remake him or herself according to the model of the suffering Christ, the very picture of earthly divestiture and loss. Insofar as such an identification implies the complete and utter negation of all phallic values, Christian masochism has radically emasculating implications, and is in its purest forms intrinsically imcompatible with pretensions of masculinity. And since its primary exemplar is a male rather than a female subject, those implications would seem impossible to ignore. (198)

    What I would argue is that the hole left by the collapse of Equiano's Christian masochism is filled by newly active feminine masochism. The shift from the scene derived from Foxe to one defined by Judges 19-21 reveals not only the sexual dynamics which drive Christian martyrdom, but also the close relation between femininity and commodification.

  27. Equiano's ability to phantasmatically align himself with both the Levite and his mutilated wife is deeply connected to Equiano's experience of slavery, for the Levite owns his wife as property in much the same way that Equiano owns himself. As Sonia Hofkosh states,

    in the moment that he buys his freedom, Equiano's history might also be seen to literalize the ethos of possessive individualism, exposing as it does so the double edge that defines the paradigm of the entrepeneurial subject: the self as owner depends on the principle that selves can be owned, freedom on the possibility of alienation, identity on difference. (336-7)

    What this implies is that auto-manumission is structurally similar to feminine masochism. If we look closely at Equiano's account of his manumission this link between feminization and commodification is already operative. In his attempt to register the extent of his "unutterable" bliss at buying his freedom, Equiano offers a list of comparable moments of joy:

    Heavens, who could do justice to my feelings at this moment? Not conquering heroes themselves in the midst of triumph—Not the tender mother who has just regained her long-lost infant, and presses it to her heart . . . Not the lover, when he once more embraces his beloved mistress after she had been ravished from his arms!—All within my breast was tumult, wildness, and delirium! (136)

    The resting place of this sublime cascade offers a sexual allegory for the experience of slavery and self-purchase that resonates with the narrative of Judges 19. The figure compares the relationship between purchasing subject and object purchased to the relationship between male lover and his raped wife. The comparison is grounded on the double meaning of the word "ravish" for it signifies the act of rape as well as the act of violently seizing and carrying away someone or something. If the passivity inscribed in femininity can be understood as parallel to commodification, as Laura Brown suggests, then the act of commodification hollows out the subject in a fashion that makes it susceptible to feminization.[22] The double identification with the Levite and his wife, therefore, is intimately connected to the experience of double subjectivity instantiated by the commodification of bodies.[23]

  28. At one level, this feminization reverses one of the key metaphorics of abolitionist discourse—i.e. that the sexual commodification of women in marriage is akin to the commodification of Africans in the institution of slavery.[24] It reverses it by aligning femininity with what is required to extricate oneself from the institution of slavery.[25] In this particularly condensed form, Equiano's textual gesture critiques the fantasy of docility which underwrites much of the discourse of Christian abolitionism. But in the context of the Judges tropology, it also suggests that this same feminization/commodification will elicit cataclysmic acts of vengeance aimed at those who install relations of hierarchy based on gender and/or commodification. Here Equiano feminizes himself in a fashion that not only re-establishes his masochistic abasement, but also marks a crucial similarity between Foxe's, the Levite's and his own practice of writing. Peggy Kamuf has argued that the Levite's butchering of the raped wife is an act of writing, for the severed fragments of her body are used as letters calling forth vengeance.[26] Similarly, Acts and Monuments is a collection of writings, often by the martyrs themselves, that testifies to persecution in such a way as to demand revenge in the after life. Equiano's body of writing, in turn, can be equated with these accounts of butchering and burning, for in rendering his own life he has textualized his pain in a fashion aimed at unleashing a higher vengeance against not only the white sailors who interrupt his relation with George, but also against the state which sanctions the institution of plantation slavery. There is, however, a complex ambivalence embedded in this tropological revenge. As noted earlier, the Levite's call for vengeance via bodily dissection may rely on killing his wife. In terms of our argument thus far, this suggests that in producing The Interesting Narrative Equiano's call for vengeance turns on the annihilation of his enslaved self. There is a self-mutilation, a lopping off of historical experience, at the core of Equiano's textualization of bodily suffering. The resolution of this problematic requires that we attend more closely to two distinct moments where revenge enters into the account of the journey to the Musquito shore.

    Things as They Are

  29. The first and most visible moment of vengeance, like the vengeance of the invisible church in Foxe, suddenly enters Equiano's text as a direct action of God:

    one morning we had a brisk gale of wind, and, carrying too much sail, the main mast went over the side. Many people were then all about the deck, and the yard, masts and rigging, came tumbling about us, yet there was not one of us in the least hurt, although some were within a hair's breadth of being killed. . . .(204)

    The fact that this intervention occurs immediately following George's decision to withdraw not only from Equiano's masochistic designs, but also from shipboard society altogether, points to a significant rupture in Equiano's text. Without George, Equiano's abasement is without an agent, and therefore his connection to the invisible church reverts from one of masochistic practice to one of readerly identification. The gap between practice and representation is filled in by God's direct intervention in the social life of the ship in the shape of a "brisk gale of wind." However, in contrast to Acts and Monuments the violence of the gale does not kill anyone. Rather, it marks the capacity for destruction almost as if a sign of God's existence was necessary to condemn the sailors' lack of belief. This resolution of a temporary breakdown in Equiano's masochistic practice answers the worldly will to power of the sailors with power of a different order.[27] But behind and following this invocation of Godly vengeance lies a more troubling tropological reading based not on The Book of Martyrs but rather on the Book of Judges.

  30. The demonstration of the providential hand of God does not negate Equiano's complex negotiation with George or with the vengeance narrative in Judges. Equiano's relation to George from this point on in The Interesting Narrative can only be fully understood by considering the full import of revenge in the Judges narrative. The body of the Levite's dismembered wife calls forth vengeance on the Benjaminites, but it also instantiates a series of repeated sexual crimes. In the war against the Benjaminites, the tribes of Israel almost wipe out one of their constituent members. When the tribes realize that the tribe of Benjamin is on the verge of extinction, they repeat the Benjaminite's rapes on a heightened scale. First they kill the male inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead, ravish four hundred daughters of the town and present them to Benjamin so that the tribe can re-populate itself. And second, the tribes make it possible for the Benjaminites to steal and rape two hundred more women from Shiloh. Peggy Kamuf's analysis of the biblical text focuses directly on the relationship between revenge and repetition:

    From this outline of the legend, it is easy to see the strange turn taken by this vengeance of brother against brother. When Israel stops short of annihilating Benjamin, when the extinction of one of its members by the whole is at last understood as a form of self-mutilation, it achieves resolution by twice repeating Benjamin's crime. In the first repetition, the Israelites act as Benjamin's agents, stealing the virgins of Jabesh Gilead;[28] in the second repetition, the Benjaminites are authorized to steal their wives for themselves and promised immunity from retribution. Israel thus averts the threat to its unity and continuity as a whole by prescribing the crime that it had to avenge in the first place, by legislating and enacting in an exceptional manner the contrary of the law as the law. (193)

    This repetition and reversal is resonant for The Interesting Narrative because Equiano performs precisely this identification with his oppressors in his final interaction with George.

  31. Following the cessation of George's conversion, Equiano emphasizes that "[George] became ever after, during the passage, fond of being alone" (204). With George living in exile at the edge of shipboard society, no longer involved in a process of perverse conversion, Equiano's primary interest in George becomes inextricably tied to the circulation of commodities. Equiano narrates one more pedagogical scene which concretizes much of our discussion thus far:

    One Sunday . . . I took the Musquito prince George, to church, where he saw the sacrament administered. When we came out we saw all kinds of people, almost from the church door for the space of half a mile down to the water-side, buying and selling all kinds of commodities: and these acts afforded me great matter of exhortation to this youth, who was much astonished. Our vessel being ready to sail for the Musquito Shore, I went with the Doctor on board a Guinea-man, to purchase some slaves . . . and I chose them all of my own countrymen some of whom came from Lybia. (204-5)

    Before analyzing Equiano's exhortations on the marketplace, it is important to recognize that Equiano completes the tropological relation to Judges 19-21 by entering into the slave trade. With Equiano's masochistic strategies in abeyance, he shifts from object of abasement to subject of punishment, from bonded chattle to bondsman. His capacity for this kind of transition is as Susan Marren has argued the defining quality of his specific historical situation.On the face of it this shift appears to be a reversal in political strategy for Equiano, but I would like to suggest otherwise. The earlier negotiation with George was aimed at eliciting vengeance for Equiano's commodification. The new strategy is aimed less at compensatory violence than it is at generating a re-constituted social body. The radical gesture embedded in Equiano's Christian masochist deployment of the Judges allegory is his suggestion that these seemingly opposed strategies—the calling forth of God's vengeance on those who enslaved him, and his purchasing of slaves like himself—are in fact politically continuous. What Kamuf says of Judges is equally applicable to this segment of The Interesting Narrative:

    The Levite's avengers, after punishing Benjamin, find themselves forced to identify with the criminals they have punished and to refuse any demand for vengeance....The solution requires, in other words, that the victim—or the victim's representatives—exchange places with the victimizer, and that the new 'crimes' be exceptionally exempted from any right to vengeance. (193-4)

    This obviation of vengeance in Judges is prompted by a sudden recognition that the entire narrative constitutes a self-mutilation which threatens the unity and continuity of the tribes of Israel. Taking the tropology to its conclusion therefore suggests that Equiano's actions not only bring his self-mutilation to close, but do so in order to effect a corresponding national consolidation based on Christian belief and capitalist expansion that surfaces more explicitly elsewhere in the narrative in his advocacy of the Sierra Leone project.[29]

  32. If we return to Equiano's mediation between the church and the marketplace, we find that his temporary reticence at the outset of this episode regarding the corrupt deployment of George's anti-slavery position for ends defined by the Albera Poyer scheme breaks down when he attempts to give George a double lesson in protestant election and capitalist exchange.[30] These two moments of exchange—the sacrifice of Christ's body and the purchasing of slaves— buttressed against one another, are not only the suture point of everything we have seen thus far, but also the textual moment when the historical nature of George's activities for the Albera Poyer project impinge on Equiano's narrative. In making the anti-slavery arguments needed to impeach Hodgson, George furthers the interests of his family as participants in the sale of land, but it is precisely this move that will guarantee his family's disappropriation and potential enslavement at the moment of future colonization. George is caught in a loop, for his arguments against the commodification of natives in the region facilitate the commodification of native land. I would argue that Equiano casts his critique of this complicitous loop within the discussion of the sailors' taunt, for that taunt offers temporary protection in this world that opens onto eternal damnation in the next. The sailors, like the members of the Albera Poyer project, deploy George in a scheme that he does not understand. What is remarkable about this encrypted critique of George's relation to the "selfish English traders" is the degree to which Equiano replicates George's "error." From the site of commodity exchange Equiano turns and specifically purchases Africans like himself. If George and his family have sold out for short term gains in the scene of colonial conflict, then Equiano is attempting to generate a reconstituted social body—a kind of human portfolio, which will accede to its full surplus value in the longest term imaginable—eternity.

  33. I would like to close by considering this entry into the slave trade in the terms of the masochistic fantasies which drive this portion of The Interesting Narrative. If we read Equiano's representation of ship-board events as an allegory for George's involvement with the project, then George's acceptance of the sailors' deceptive offer registers his status as an unwitting tool of the Albera Poyer scheme. George is deceived by the sailors because, unlike Equiano, he does not yet read like a member of the invisible church. Similarly, he is deceived by the English planters because he has not yet internalized the workings of capital and specifically the logic of the commodity. As Robert Naylor argues, it is the non-comprehension of property in the Western sense that allows George and his family to become tools in a scheme that eventually will disappropriate them. In this light, Equiano's attempts to convert George focus on this double miscomprehension. Just as George does not understand prayer in a conventional sense, neither does he comprehend the theological economy in which he is being manipulated. The sailors, like the Albera Poyer project, manage to disable George's oppositional impulses by concealing the fact that they are his worst enemies. The exchange they are offering will gaurantee his damnation and the servitude of his people. It is not surprising therefore that Equiano's exhortations should pass from the church to the marketplace, for George needs a lesson in commodification no less than in protestant election.

  34. But how does Equiano's role in purchasing Africans like himself fit into such a lesson? As mentioned above, the Musquito were directly engaged in the enslavement of their tribal enemies. In contrast, Equiano emphasizes that he explicitly goes about enslaving those most like himself. It is a rare assertion of racial community in Equiano's text, one which he highlights with a footnote that identifies himself with the biblical followers of "Apher...who were called Africans" (293). Could it be that in light of his failure with George he is now building a community of martyrs more like himself than the Marian martyrs? If we are willing to think through this possibility in light of Equiano's religious resistance to the ship-state, then I think what emerges from this encounter with the Musquito prince is a politics based not on freedom, but on slavery—a politics from the ground of the commodity, rather than the subject of capitalist exchange. The apocalyptic politics that Equiano advocates operates through the body of the commodified being. Equiano signals as much when he states at the outset that his purpose is to bring "some poor sinner to my well-beloved master, Jesus Christ" (202). This apparent acceptance of abasement, of commodification, of pain and persecution is predicated on a future act of vengeance which will establish Equiano and those racially like him as the exclusive property of God. What remains is the harsh judgement of unlegitimated and unsublimated complicity, for George is ultimately not granted access to such an imagined community in Equiano's narrative.

  35. George is consigned to textual oblivion when the text shifts its attention from the social dynamics of ship-board society to the economic problems associated with plantation management. The transition from sea to land marks a crucial discursive transition in The Interesting Narrative. The intense presentation of affective relations between Equiano and George gives way to the conventional Enlightenment description of life among a generalized category of native Indians. This discursive shift enacts a textual repression in which physical and quasi-anthropological observations are used to regulate the power of emotion elicited by rememorative passages that are too volatile to handle. If we understand the elimination of George in this way then it is difficult not to read the ensuing interactions with the Musquito population as revisions of the political entanglements of ship-board life.

  36. As Equiano, Dr. Irving and their cohort establish a plantation in the Black River region, the indigenous population become fundamental props in fantasies of community consolidation that eerily continue the Judges allegory. In the realm of plantation society, Equiano constructs himself as the locus of almost omnipotent power. At one level, this consolidation is a fundamental premise of the quasi-ethnographic gaze which now mediates all of Equiano's observations on the Musquito and the Woolwaw. But his descriptive authority is superseded by two remarkable demonstrations of power that we tend to associate with the dominant fantasies of white supremacy, whether exercised in the realm of plantation slavery or the history of European imperial expansion. After describing the Indians' simplicity, Equiano recounts the failure of Dr. Irving to mediate between the "Governor"—again, the descriptor transplants notions of English governance to a context where governance means another thing entirely—and one of the local Chiefs who ensure the economic stability of the Irving plantation. As the conflict deepens, the Doctor literally disappears and Equiano emerges as the representative of colonial power. The conjunction of Equiano's expressed desires at this moment in the text should give any reader pause:

    I was so enraged with the governor, that I could have wished to have seen him tied fast to a tree, and flogged for his behaviour; but I had not people enough to cope with his party. I therefore thought of a strategem to appease the riot. Recollecting a passage I had read in the life of Columbus, when he was amongst the Indians in Jamaica, where, on some occasion he frightened them, by telling them of certain events in the heavens, I had recourse to the same expedient, and it succeeded beyond my most sanguine expectations.(208)

    We have already seen Equiano buying slaves, but here we find him overcome with the master's desire to beat the subaltern not simply for reasons of exemplarity, but for reasons directly related to maintaining the easy flow of commodities between the settlers and the neighbouring native populations. In light of our earlier discussion, it is far too reductive to suggest that Equiano has simply been seduced by the two-fold power of capital and imperial expansion, or that he is simply identifying with his former oppressors. In terms of the Judges allegory, Equiano exchanges places with the victimizer to enact the contrary of the law as the law. And he is doing so in part because the masochistic nationalism which characterized his ship-board praxis has transformed into a form of national imagination grounded not on heterocosmic fantasies, but rather on fantasies of immanent plenitude. The desire to avenge the horrors of slavery by remaking the world in an altogether different image is replaced by a phantasmatic accession to absolute sovereignty. Like the sudden shift in Judges from assailing the Benjaminites to folding them into a fantasy of national similitude, Equiano's practice shifts from one of self-mutilation to a performance of imperial self-consolidation.

  37. Equiano himself emphasizes that his desires and actions in this scene of colonial conflict are strategic, but he is forced to choose between two related strategies. The first is a primary tactic in subordinating fractious slaves in the plantation economy. Equiano certainly witnessed and may have experienced precisely this deployment of bodily pain for the management of slave populations, yet he decides against this method of violent subordination in spite of his desire for its enactment. The second strategy is drawn from the history of imperial expansion and constitutes a form of symbolic or cultural violence that does not, in the first instance, have recourse to bodily pain. It has instead recourse to books.

  38. The resonant detail for our discussion is that Equiano ends the dispute by simply using a bible as a visual icon of power:

    When I had formed my determination, I went in the midst of them, and taking hold of the governor, I pointed up to the heavens. I menaced him and the rest: I told them God lived there, and that he was angry with them, and they must not quarrel so; that they were all brothers, and if they did not leave off, and go away quietly, I would take the book (pointing to the bible), read, and tell God to make them dead. This was something like magic. The clamour immediately ceased . . . after which they went away peaceably. (208)

    The definition of reading has substantially transformed since the exchange with George over Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Instead of teaching letters and words to his indigenous companion, Equiano opts for a kind of theatrical practice learned ostensibly from accounts of Columbus's voyages, but perhaps equally derived from Equiano's own childhood understanding of the talking book.[31] Perhaps this is why Equiano no longer talks about being "an instrument under God, of bringing some poor sinner to my well-beloved master, Jesus Christ," but focuses instead on his apparently magical ability to direct God's actions through successfully talking to the bible. Unlike Equiano's childhood attempts to talk to books, this particular scene is not one of alienation, nor is it one of heterocosmic desire. Instead the bible acts unequivocally as the disciplinary tool of colonial domination. The masochistic praxis attendant upon the earlier engagement with both the text and the illustrations of Foxe's Book of Martyrs is here occluded by Equiano's phallic deployment of the bible as a prop in colonial performance. The experiment in masochistic nationalism on board the Morning Star has transformed into a phantasmatic consolidation whose force is not that of narrative but rather of visual signification. Significantly, Equiano's gesture is not grounded on territorial claims—the English have yet to colonize the region—but rather on a phantasmatic form of Christian territoriality which traverses most late eighteenth-century fantasies of nationhood.

  39. However, the resilience of Equiano's earlier perverse strategies is evident in his final account of social exchange between the Musquito and the settlers. As Equiano progressively accedes to positions of colonial power, the question of sexual exchange between indigenous and settler peoples, which formerly defined his masochistic nationalism, becomes a site of intense anxiety. The anxiety is registered in two different ways in the following description of a grand feast or drykbot:

    The mirth had begun before we came; and they were dancing with music: and the musical instruments were nearly the same as those of any other sable people; but, as I thought, much less melodious than any other nation I ever knew. They had many curious gestures in dancing, and a variety of motions and postures of their bodies, which to me were in no wise attracting. The males danced by themselves, and the females also by themselves, as with us. The Doctor shewed his people the example, by immediately joining the women's party, though not by their choice. On perceiving the women disgusted, he joined the males. At night there were great illuminations, by setting fire to many pine-trees, while the drykbot went round merrily by calabashes or gourds. . . .(209)

    This curious passage is worthy of much discussion in part because it seems to refute point by point the sexual overtones of the ship-board encounter with George. Equiano asserts explicitly, in a remarkably distant voice, that he finds none of the native dancers desirable, and then seems to evaporate at precisely the moment that Dr. Irving, in a gesture of exemplarity, enters the realm of sexual exchange. Equiano carefully marks both his own repulsion from the bodies of the Musquito before him, and indicates that the Musquito women share a similar "disgust" with Dr. Irving's contravention of supposed ethnic and racial barriers. However, through the assertion of his own repulsion, Equiano partakes of the Musquito women's rejection of interracial sexual practices.[32] Equiano's earlier self-feminizations are subtly rehearsed in this identification with the women who reject Dr. Irving's attempt "to shew his people the example." The fact that Irving has to lead his people into relation with the indigenous women can be read as a tacit assertion of the ethnocentric fear of miscegenation among his white crew. But such a reading ignores the fact that interracial sexual relations were fundamental to both colonial encounter and the plantation economy—and it neglects the degree to which Irving's action both asserts and undercuts the naturalness of heterosexual desire, as does Irving's subsequent shift from the women's group to the men's. It is this latter event which prompts a sudden turning away in the discourse from descriptions of relations between native and settler people to less affect-generating descriptions of the physical environment. It would seem that object choice for Equiano—whether considered in terms of gender or ethnicity or both—is by this point a discursively volatile problematic. The sudden jump away from the intersubjective altogether may be necessary for Equiano to contain the earlier heterocosmic desires and to finally assert that "this merry-making at last ended without the least discord in any person in the company, although it was made up of different nations and complexions" (210).

 

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Kamuf, Peggy. "Author of a Crime." The Feminist Companion to the Bible. Vol. 4. Ed. Athalya Brenner. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.

Madan, Martin. Thelyphtora; or, A Treatise on Female Ruin, in its Causes, Effects, preventions, and Remedy; Considered on the Basis of Divine Law: Under the following heads, viz. Marriage, Whoredom and Fornication, Adultery, Polygamy, Divorce. London: J. Dodsley, 1780.

Marren, Susan. "Between Slavery and Freedom: The Transgressive Self in Olaudah Equiano's Autobiography" PMLA 108.1 Jan (1993): 94-105.

Mellor, Ann K. "'Am I Not A Woman, and a Sister': Slavery, Romanticism, and Gender." Romanticism, Race and Imperial Culture, 1780-1834. Eds. Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.

Myers, Jacob M. "Introduction to the Book of Judges." The Interpreter's Bible. Vol. 2. Ed. George Arthur Buttrick. New York: Abingdon Press, 1953.

Naylor, Robert. Penny Ante Imperialism: The Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras, 1600-1914. London: Associated University Press, 1989.

Nussbaum, Felicity. The Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race, and Gender in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003.

Obianuju Acholonu, Catherine. The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano. Owerri, Nigeria: AFA Publications, 1989. 

Orban, Katalin. "Dominant and Submerged Discourses in The Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa." African American Review 27.4 (1993): 655-64.

Potkay, Adam. "History, Oratory, and God in Equiano's Interesting Narrative." Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001): 601-14.

---. "Olaudah Equiano and the Art of Spiritual Autobiography" Eighteenth-Century Studies 27.4 (Summer 1994): 677-92.

  ---. Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1668-1804. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. 

--- and Sandra Burr, eds. Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1996.

Samuels, Wilfred D. "Disguised Voice in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African." Black American Literature Forum 19 (1985).

Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education and Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1995.

Thomas, Helen. Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000.

Wheeler, Roxann. The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Whitefield, George. "The Necessity and Benefits of Religious Society," in Sermons on Important Subjects. London: William Tegg, n.d. [no date].

Notes

1 All references to Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings will be included in the text. For an account of the success of the book and the fame of its author see Carretta ix-xxviii. Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr have provided a bibliography of editions and printings of the text in Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas, 162-4. Sonia Hofkosh provides a summary of Equiano's political career in "Tradition and The Interesting Narrative: Capitalism, Abolition, and the Romantic Individual" in Romanticism, Race and Imperial Culture, 1780-1834, 333.
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2 For related discussions of the complex substitutions which mediate between the production of affect and political action see Ann Cvetkovich's compelling readings of the problem of exemplarity in AIDS activism and in Marx's novelistic gestures in Capital in Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism, 1-6 and 165-97 respectively.
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3 This is from Edmund Burke's famous definition of sympathy in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our idieas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 41.
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4 In this regard, this essay obliquely engages with Ann Laura Stoler's Race and the Education and Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1995) in that it attempts to bring questions of sexuality and coloniality into constant reiteration through the reading of a single passage.
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5 See Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. In this regard, I concur with David M. Halperin's recent admonition in How to Do the History of Homosexuality, 24-47, that Foucault has been poorly served by many scholars who work in his name. This is especially evident when one recognizes that Foucault's engagement with questions of sexuality are deeply entwined with his attempt to offer a thorough account of the emergence of the middle classes that runs tangentially to Marx's account of cooperation in the first volume of Capital. Clearly articulated in Discipline and Punish, this project traveled through the analysis of sexuality and eventually culminated in the startling genealogy of biological state racism articulated in Society Must Be Defended. This complex historical assemblage of class stylization, sexual regulation and racial specification remains largely unexplored, and its future analysis arguably constitutes Foucault's "forgotten" legacy.
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6 The term circum-Atlantic is derived from Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, 4-5.
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7 Equiano's deployment of Christian discourse and his complex relationship to Methodism have been the subject of controversy in recent discussions of The Interesting Narrative.Adam Potkay offers an illuminating account of the secularization of Equiano's text while defending his own tropological reading of the narrative in "History, Oratory, and God in Equiano's Interesting Narrative." It is my implicit contention that attending to the erotic substrate of Equiano's Christianity not only allows one to develop a coherent account of the strangeness of his politics, but also allows one to recognize precisely how Equiano's practice diverges from the political desires of recent criticism.
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8 See for example Helen Thomas, Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies.
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9 Equiano, like most followers of Whitefield and Wesley, refers to himself as a member of the Church of England.It is important to remember Henry Abelove's persuasive account of the erotic substrate of Methodist practice in The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists.
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. 10 Keeping the scheme out of the public eye was crucial for the success of the land monopoly.
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11 What I am describing here is not that distant from the notion of "traumatic nationalism" recently articulated by Lauren Berlant in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, 1-4.
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12 Martin Madan was also the author of an extremely controversial critique of The Marriage Actwhich argued that polygamy was in accordance with Mosaic and Christian law—entitled Thelyphtora; or, A Treatise on Female Ruin, in its Causes, Effects, preventions, and Remedy; Considered on the Basis of Divine Law: Under the following heads, viz. Marriage, Whoredom and Fornication, Adultery, Polygamy, Divorce. Madan's close reading of the Bible opened him to charges of blasphemy, but his critical strategy of testing contemporary statutes and practices regarding marriage via typological readings of the Bible is not at all distinct from Equiano's own strategy of configuring his life in terms of the Old Testament. See Adam Potkay's analysis of this rhetorical strategy in "Olaudah Equiano and the Art of Spiritual Autobiography."
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13 As Silverman argues, Reik's examples suggest that "his attention may be focused upon a different variety of moral masochism than that spotlighted by Freud—that his concern may ultimately be with Christian masochism, even when he is discussing more secular instances" (197).
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14In "History. . .", Potkay argues that Equiano's rhetorical strategies are very similar to the oratorical tactics of Whitefield: "Behind all of these [gestures] lies the promise of divine vengeance.In this context, the question "might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God" signals not so much the perspective of a cultural outsider as a confirmation that the Christian universe knows no outside; it is all inclusive, and is itself the surety of eventual justice" (605).For an illuminating account of the oratorical qualities of Equiano's text see William Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865.
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15 See Reik, 304.
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16 What true prayer might mean in this instance may be impossible to define. Equiano may be distinguishing George's actions from the rules for personal conduct laid out by Wesley, or he may be referring to more traditional Protestant definitions of prayer. Equiano may be referring to specific doctrinal exercises, although the context does not explicitly support this view. I would like to thank Kim Michasiw for suggesting this possiblility.
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17 Equiano refers to ships as "little worlds."
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18 For a discussion of the ambiguous role played by the masochist's tormentor see Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty.
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19 Starting from Equiano's profession of similarity between the laws of the Pentateuch and the laws of Igbo society, Potkay's essay works through the progression from Genesis through Exodus in The Interesting Narrative. Potkay's reading however trails off after Equiano's conversion for reasons that are partially articulated in Srinivas Aravamudan's critique of Potkay's reading in Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1668-1804, 239-46. Aravamudan suggests that Potkay's decision to focus only on the tropological leaves the question of the anagogical unaddressed, but, as Potkay has recently argued in "History. . .", 608-9, Aravamudan's reading of Equiano's Christianity is neither persuasive in itself, nor sufficient for dealing with the complex relationship between rhetorical performance and political incitement in The Interesting Narrative. As I hope my unraveling of the Judges allusion indicates, Equiano's deployment of the Bible cannot be contained in any straightforward fashion, for even at the tropological level the text works against itself.
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20Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr, "Introduction" Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century, ed. Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), 9. Potkay and Burr also draw attention to an inaccuracy in Equiano's claim to have seen Whitefield, see p.9.
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21 See Potkay, "Olaudah," 682-685.
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22 See Laura Brown, The Ends of Empire, 85. Brown's link between femininity and commodification is succinctly stated as follows:

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23 See Hofkosh, 337.
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24 See Moira Ferguson, Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1838, Deirdre Coleman, "Conspicuous Consumption: White Abolitionism and English Women's Protest Writing in the 1790's," and Ann K. Mellor, "Am I Not A Woman, and a Sister": Slavery, Romanticism, and Gender."
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25 Felicity Nussbaum broaches the question of Equiano's gender identity in The Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race, and Gender in the Long Eighteenth Century, 191-206, but like much of the prior criticism regarding Equiano's unstable masculinity overlooks the possibility of strategic feminization as a figural and textual strategy of violent revenge. Nussbaum, like numerous other critics, assumes a disconnection between feminization and violent revenge that renders Equiano's deployment of Judges all but unreadable. Equiano's "femininity" has been a topic of some concern in Wilfred D. Samuels "Disguised Voice in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African," and in Catherine Obianuju Acholonu, The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano. However, much of this discussion not only diverges from Equiano's text, but also fails to adequately historicize gender and sexuality in both 18th century British and Igbo society. Katalin Orban raises a related question in "Dominant and Submerged Discourses in The Life of Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa)."Attempts to excavate the roots of Equiano's femininity from his Igbo past may have been rendered moot by Vincent Carretta's recent suggestion that Equiano was a native of South Carolina in "Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on an Eighteenth-Century Question of Identity." The problems posed by Equiano's gender identity demonstrates the complexity of thinking historically about sexuality in a trans-cultural context.
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26 See Peggy Kamuf, "Author of a Crime" in The Feminist Companion to the Bible, 20.
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27 The invocation of God's power is simply the corollary declaration of the oppositional relation between the invisible church and the visible state previously exercised through the masochistic scene.
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28 Mieke Bal, in "A Body of Writing: Judges 19" in The Feminist Companion to the Bible, objects to the use of virgin in this instance in a fashion that underlines precarious task of paraphrasing or troping this passage in Judges (217).
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29 The most important element in Equiano's romance with capital is his advocation for the Sierra Leone company.For an illuminating discussion of his relation to the project see Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804, 234-88.
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30 In "Word between Worlds: The Economy of Equiano's Narrative," Joseph Fichtelberg has persuasively argued that Equiano's piety and his economic fantasies are thoroughly intertwined.
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31 Aravamudan emphasizes the generic quality of this recourse to the bible (271). See Henry Louis Gates, "The Trope of the Talking Book," in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, for the canonical reading of the talking books episode.
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32 At one level, this would seem to be at odds with Equiano's advocacy of intermarriage in an article published in The Public Advertiser in 1788. However, Equiano's refutation of James Tobin's pro-slavery writings focuses exclusively on ameliorating the exploitation of black women by white men in the plantation economy and thus stabilizes the scene of sexual exchange by eliminating not only other ethnicities, but also non-heterosexual sexual practices and identities. The problem posed by the drykbot is that its intensely hybrid form of sociability does not allow for easy discursive stabilization and thus Equiano's text opts for temporary containment. For a discussion of Equiano's writing on intermarriage see Roxann Wheeler, The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture, 284-5.
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January 2006

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