Milton Now pp 215-245 | Cite as

Equiano, Satanism, and Slavery

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


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.


Social Contract Direct Address Disciplinary Power Arbitrary Rule Political Resistance 
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  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
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© Catharine Gray and Erin Murphy 2014

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  • Mary Nyquist

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