Captivity narratives were popular with readers in both America and the European continent. Captivity narratives of Americans relate the experiences of whites enslaved by Native Americans and Africans enslaved by Americans. Such narratives were often used as propaganda: as a result, Europeans often stereotyped Native Americans as cruel and whites began to see slavery of African-Americans as evil. Two widely read captivity narratives are A Narrative of Captivity by Mary Rowlandson and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano, which, respectively, relate the experiences of an adult white woman captured by Indians and an eleven-year-old Black male captured for the American slave market. Examining these two narratives reveals interesting similarities and differences in the purposes of the narratives as well as in the experiences and reactions of these two captives.
Like other Puritans of her day, Mary Rowlandson wrote to discover God’s purpose in her life. Consequently, Rowlandson makes numerous allusions to Bible comparing her situation to that of Biblical characters and interprets her treatment by her captors as punishment or reward from God. Olaudah Equiano, on the other hand, wrote to decry the evils of slavery. He refers to the Bible to admonish Christians to follow Golden Rule (65) and abolish slavery. Both tales had political outcomes: Equiano’s tale was written as anti-slavery proganda while Rowlandson’s story and its “mass of imitations” (42) resulted in a bias against Native Americans by the British (“Captivity Narratives” 42).
The narratives reveal some interesting similarities and differences. Both Rowlandson and Equiano were captured for the financial gain of the captors: the Native Americans held Rowlandson for ransom to be able to obtain much-need food and supplies (“Mary Rowlandson” 38) while Equiano was sold as a slave for financial gain by his captors and owners. Both captives were separated from their families; interestingly, both had a female relative (a daughter for Mary Rowlandson and a sister for Olaudah Equiano) who was also a captive and with whom they were reunited at least for a time. Both were sold to a series of owners: Mary Rowlandson to various “husbands” and Olaudah Equiano through a chain of owners taking him from his home to the West Indies. Both captives suffered from shortages of food: Rowlandon’s situation seem to be the result of the hardships suffered by her captors, but Equiano’s seem to be the result of cruelty as when his captors on the ship threw food overboard rather than share it with the slaves ( ). Rowlandson’s situation and her attitude toward her captors improve as she becomes better acquainted with the women in the Native American tribe and as she realizes that the Indians do not have food to share. On the other hand, Equino’s situation and attitude deteriorate as he is moved into ever stranger and more dehumanizing circumstances. Both captives were allowed to earn money: in fact, Equiano eventually earned enough to buy his freedom. Mary, too, was eventually freed when her ransom was paid.
Thus, we can see how the stories shared by two captives in two different sets of circumstances reveal the emotional and physical turmoils of captivity. Both stories played an important role in influencing the attitudes of their readers and in changing the course of history.
Elements of Literature: Fifth Course. New York:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2000.
Equiano, Olaudah. “From The Interesting Narrative
of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.” Elements of Literature: Fifth Course. 57-65. Print.
Rowlandson, Mary. “From A Narrative of Captivity.”