Mammon Over Man
Olaudah Equiano experienced the misery of slavery, but not because all human slaves have been treated like dogs or even worse by their masters throughout the history of humanity (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African). Rather, the European slave trade did not take ethics into account. The fact that America had to fight battles within itself to abolish slavery reveals that the European slave trade was based on the formula of oppression. ‘Man cannot serve two masters, both God and Mammon,’ said Jesus Christ. In the case of the European slave trade, it is clear that Mammon was made to rule man in a way that dehumanized the latter to the extent that he lost everything except the spirit within. Christians would refer to this spirit as the Christ himself. Regardless of its name, it is the human soul that speaks for the freedom of slaves, at least the slaves of Europeans at the time the book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, was written. Another name for the human soul or spirit is Equiano, for he left his narrative for us to frown upon the oppression of human beings at the hands of Mammon.
Equiano informs the reader that Africans were also responsible for making slaves out of fellow Africans. The narrator is intelligent enough to see European influence through the jungle war between African masters and slaves. Describing the bloody battles between Africans, he writes:
Perhaps they were incited to this by those traders who brought the European goods I
mentioned amongst us. Such a mode of obtaining slaves in Africa is common, and I believe
more are procured this way and by kidnapping than any other. When a trader wants slaves he
applies to a chief for them and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary if on this
occasion he yields to the temptation with as little firmness, and accepts the price of his fellow
creature’s liberty with as little reluctance as the enlightened merchant. Accordingly he falls on
his neighbours and a desperate battle ensues. If he prevails and takes prisoners, he gratifies his
avarice by selling them; but if his party be vanquished and he falls into the hands of the
enemy, he is put to death: for as he has been known to foment their quarrels it is thought
dangerous to let him survive, and no ransom can save him, though all other prisoners may be
redeemed (The Interesting Narrative).
Equiano also makes it clear that the Europeans are very violent toward slaves. On the slave ship, Equiano is depressed and does not wish to eat. But, he is forced to consume food for the sake of his white masters, and severely flogged in the process. Of course, this is not the first and the last time that he experiences oppression. He was kidnapped, too, for the sake of money (The Interesting Narrative). Nowadays, organizational theorists continuously stress the importance of ethics in business. At the time that Equiano wrote his book, however, only jungle laws prevailed between European masters and their African slaves. Because they had abundant resources to purchase countless African slaves to help with their business and industry, the Europeans were admired by the African slave masters. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the African masters also oppressed their slaves. The European slave masters were their models, after all.
Roughly one hundred years before Equiano wrote his narrative, Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth century philosopher, had written about the Mammon seeking man who does not differ very much from an untrained animal. According to Hobbes, human beings lead their lives based on their passions or lusts, desires as well as aversions. This materialistic understanding of human nature does not hold that human beings are essentially innocent, as does John Locke’s conception of man. Hobbes considers man a cunning living thing that merely seeks to gain more of everything for himself, and possibly his loved ones, regardless of the feelings, thoughts or rights of others. Self-interest is the main driving force of man’s life, according to Hobbes. Man wants to please himself while preserving his life, and at the same time, he wants to avoid all forms of pain (Hobbes). What is more, man has no sense of right and wrong, according to Hobbes.
It is easy for oppressed individuals such as Equiano to complain about cruelty and express their innocence in the process. In point of fact, Equiano’s experiences are very painful, regardless of where he goes carrying his tormented past as baggage. Being human, the European slave master must have experienced pain too, as suffering is a fact of life, whether it is due to a broken tooth or dying friend. Yet, for European slave masters of the time, business was business, regardless of whether they were dealing in human beings or cardboard boxes. Slaves were oppressed because cruelty was believed to train them to perfectly obey their masters. It is only now that organizational theorists are working to train managers to behave ethically or be threatened with lawsuits for discrimination, etc.
Thanks to complainers such as Equiano, there are laws against oppression today. At the time his narrative was written, however, the European slave trade was robust, and the virtue of mercy that the Christ had propounded seemed to have been almost totally forgotten. According to David Brion Davis, a noted scholar of global slavery, prejudice and racism did not play a crucial role in determining the nature of the slave trade. Rather, the trade was based on local and practical choices besides historical precedents (Northrup, 2002). The African slave of Equiano’s time may be compared to a modern day organizational strategy that is used across borders because there is nothing better that the international organization has so far come up with. The African slave was an economic instrument in the development of the nations where slavery was established. Hence, Eric Williams argues forcefully that the industrial revolution in late 18th century Britain was directly attributable to the nation’s participation in the slave trade and the investment of profits in newly emerging industries (Northrup).
Of course, this explanation does not help to alleviate the suffering of Equiano. His was the life of an intelligent individual destroyed by the cruelty of Mammon that does not recognize the supremacy of the human soul over Mammon. Equiano must have surely reasoned that man has the power to earn money, it is not the other way around. Regardless of his sufferings at the time, the oppressed people of modern times should be grateful to him because he expressed his pain, allowing his readers to seek ways and make laws to end all forms of oppression in the world. Nowadays, there are innumerable voices speaking for human rights. If Equiano had not written his book in English – especially for the cruel English slave masters to peruse – oppressed people would also know of fewer resources to rid themselves of oppression. Indeed, Equiano’s narrative is a tool in the fight against oppression. It teaches people to complain about their oppressors in writing if no other fight is possible. Equiano is a hero for the oppressed people that came after him, even if he did not have the power to fight against oppression at the time he was treated as a dog. ‘Mammon over man’ is the real name of the oppressor. The human spirit is enough for an answer.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Richard Tuck (ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Peter Laslett (ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 2005.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African. 1789.
23 Oct 2008. ;http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=174579;.
Northrup, David. “Free and Unfree Labor Migration, 1600–1900: An Introduction.” Journal of
World History. Jun 2003.