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Milton Now pp 215-245 | Cite as

Equiano, Satanism, and Slavery

  • Mary Nyquist
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Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)

Abstract

My interest in the Romantic Satan began when puzzling over the quotations from Paradise Lost in The Interesting Narrative (1789) by Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, a freed African-Briton. The passages Equiano selects are all from Books 1 and 2, the books that frequently furnish phrases, lines, or passages embellishing eighteenth-century notions of the sublime.1 In their new contexts, each of the four citations has reference to the rebel angels’ subjection to divine punishment, which, in turn, is associated with violence Equiano either experiences himself or protests against on behalf of others. Equiano’s conversion to Christianity not only features prominently in his autobiography but also often informs his generally circumspect protest against the transatlantic trafficking and enslaving of Africans. The representation of divine justice implicit in his citations from Paradise Lost therefore struck me as nothing less than astonishing. In what follows I attempt to understand Equiano’s appropriation of Milton’s hell by exploring its connections with contemporaneous literary and philosophical texts, both English and French. Equiano’s citational practice, I propose, participates in profound changes to cultural encodings of “slavery” that occurred in the latter part of the eighteenth-century and resulted in the readings of Paradise Lost known as “Satanism.” Equiano’s Interesting Narrative does not merely testify to these changes, however, but intervenes in their frequently racialized presuppositions by directly opposing transatlantic slavery.

Keywords

Social Contract Direct Address Disciplinary Power Arbitrary Rule Political Resistance 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    On the emergence and development of these associations, see Arthur Barker, “And on his Crest Saw Horror’: Eighteenth-Century Interpretations of Milton’s Sublimity and his Satan,” 1942; rpt. Milton and Questions of History: Essays by Canadians Past and Present, ed. Feisal G. Mohamed and Mary Nyquist (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 139–56.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1995), 89.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Vincent Carretta, “Equiano’s Paradise Lost: The Limits of Allusion in Chapter Five of The Interesting Narrative.” In Imagining Transatlantic Slavery, ed. Cora Kaplan and J. R. Oldfield (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 79–95.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    See Mark Stein, “Who’s Afraid of Cannibals? Some Uses of the Cannibalism Trope in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative,” Discourses of Slavery and Abolition: Britain and Its Colonies, 1760–1838, ed. Brycchan Carey, Markman Ellis, and Sara Salih (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 96–107.Google Scholar
  5. 13.
    Percy B. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry. In Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Neil Fraistat and Donald Reiman, 2nd ed. Norton Critical Edition (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2002), 508.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    Jonathon Shears, The Romantic Legacy of Paradise Lost: Reading against the Grain (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009);Google Scholar
  7. Joseph Crawford, Raising Milton’s Ghost: John Milton and the Sublime of Terror in the Early Romantic Period (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 15.
    Peter A. Shock situates features of Blake’s demonology in the Johnson circle’s intellectual and artistic milieu, where Satanism joins the desacralization of Christianity’s Satan and the polemical demonization of English Radicals. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Blake’s Myth of Satan and Its Cultural Matrix,” ELH 60.2 (1993): 441–70.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In Political Writings, ed. Janet Todd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 90–91.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. Isaac Kramnick (London: Penguin Classics, 1985), Bk. 4, Ch. 5, Appendix, 309. Subsequent references to this edition will appear parenthetically.Google Scholar
  11. 21.
    On Milton’s exegetical practice in the divorce tracts and his disposition of the two Genesis creation accounts in Paradise Lost, see “The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity,” Re-membering Milton, ed. Mary Nyquist and Margaret Ferguson (New York and London: Methuen, 1987).Google Scholar
  12. 23.
    On this complex intertextual history, see Linda M. Lewis, The Promethean Politics of Milton, Blake, and Shelley (Columbia: University of Mssouri Press, 1991). In “The Political Prometheus,” Stuart Curran argues that in Britain’s romantic period Prometheus “is an avatar of revolution against specific oppressions: civil, racial, sexual, and religious. He stands for a humanity bound to an undeserved state and no longer acquiescent in its degradation, a humanity with the will to be free and the power to dictate the terms of that freedom,” Studies in Romanticism 25.3 (Fall, 1986): 455.Google Scholar
  13. 24.
    William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hellin Selected Poetry, ed. Mchael Mason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 75.Google Scholar
  14. 27.
    Mary Nyquist, Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny, and the Power of Life and Death (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 28.
    Thomas Paine, Common Sense and Other Writings, ed. Joyce Appleby (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005), 38.Google Scholar
  16. 29.
    Appealing to God’s justice can also, of course, rationalize racism and inaction, as it does for Thomas Jefferson. See Gary B. Nash, “Sparks from the Altar of ‘76: International Repercussions and Reconsiderations of the American Revolution,” in The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, C 1760–1840, ed. David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Houndmills and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 1–19; 15.Google Scholar
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  18. 32.
    This phrase is often rendered differently. A separate study of Diderot’s various antislavery additions together with their English translations would be very helpful. On the history of contributions relevant to this study, see Jean-Claude Bonnet, Diderot (Paris: Librairie générale française, 1984), 193–225.Google Scholar
  19. 33.
    Louis-Sébastien Mercier, cited in Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789–1804: A Brief History with Documents, ed. Laurent Dubois and John D. Garrigus (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006), 54–55.Google Scholar
  20. 40.
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 41.Google Scholar
  21. 43.
    Michel-Rolph Trouillot observes that in the famous French version the two colonies of fugitive slaves mentioned are in any case Jamaica and Guyana, not Saint-Domingue. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 84–85.Google Scholar
  22. 44.
    See Sankar Mufhu, Enlightenment against Empire (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003), 104–21.Google Scholar
  23. 47.
    Paradise Lost, 1.106, 108. Complete Poems and Major Poems, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 211. Further references to the poem will be to this edition, cited internally by book and line number.Google Scholar
  24. 49.
    An important exception appears in John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 119–27.Google Scholar
  25. 51.
    John Milton. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates in Political Writings, ed. Martin Dzelzainis. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 30.Google Scholar
  26. 53.
    An excellent discussion of Early Modern racial formations can be found in Ania Loomba, Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 22–74. For a more detailed discussion of this passage and its disposition, see Arbitrary Rule, 137–47.Google Scholar
  27. 58.
    Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 132.Google Scholar
  28. 62.
    Crucial issues relating to free-market capitalism, transatlantic slavery, and Equiano’s positionality are debated in Joseph Fichtelberg, “Word between Worlds: The Economy of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative,” American Literary History 5.3 (1993): 459–80;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds, “The Spirit of Trade: Olaudah Equiano’s Conversion, Legalism, and the Merchant’s Life,” African American Review 32.4 (1998): 635–47 andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Matthew J. Pethers, “Talking Books, Selling Selves: Rereading the Politics of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Interesting Narrative” Mid-America American Studies Association 48.1 (2007): 101–34.Google Scholar

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© Catharine Gray and Erin Murphy 2014

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  • Mary Nyquist

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