For as long as the eyes of history have looked upon man, religion has played an integral part in shaping our civilizations and our culture as a whole. From the early Greek civilizations, who used religion as a means to cope with nature and explain its randomness, to our modern world, where religion is practiced to give our culture a moral backbone, a belief in a higher being or beings has served a number of purposes. Across the board, though, it seems that religion has served one uniform purpose in all these civilizations and cultures: the need to dilute responsibility.
The weight of the world has always been too great for man, and so religion provides a way to place the blame, whether positive or negative, on someone or something else. Oluadah Equiano and the Aztecs are both evidence of this statement, as their religious beliefs freed them both from the need to think for themselves. This decision to place themselves in the hands of their respective god led to two vastly different outcomes. This paper will discuss the role of religion in the rise of Oluadah Equiano and the fall of the Aztec Empire.
Oluadah Equianos kidnapping from his native Africa set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in his eventual baptism and belief in predestination. After the initial kidnapping, the first major event for Equiano was his separation and the subsequent reseparation from his sister. This is the first event that he fully deals with emotionally. Even when he is originally taken, Equiano doesnt emotionally deal with the situation and in fact thinks that he [has]some hopes of being delivered . When his sister is taken from him, though, Equiano is forced to ask himself why this has happened to him.
When he finally reaches the coast, he faces another major event with the introduction to Europeans and the dreaded slave ship. The slave ship introduces many new hardships to Equiano and plays a major part in his need for an explanation as to why all this is happening to him. He constantly shuffles between fearing death from the white men and begging for it to escape them. It is this constant indecision between death being a penalty and a salvation that creates Equianos need for an explanation, and more specifically, a reason to continue on.
Over the next three years, he learns of Christianity, God and the idea of predestination, and in 1759 he is baptized in St. Margarets church. Christianity offers Equiano a way to deal with his life as a slave by telling him that he is part of a greater whole and that all that has happened to him and will happen to him is predetermined. This is the dilution of responsibility that I talked about earlier. With all the decisions in his life left up to the creator, Oluadah no longer has to fear death or welcome it. He also comes to the conclusion that his freedom, whether eventual or not, is out of his hands.
The first evidence of this in the book comes during the confrontation between Admiral Boscawen and Monsieur Le Clue in August of 1759. During the battle with the lead French ship, the Ocean, Equiano is stationed in the middle deck as a gun-mate. As a gun-mate, his job was to travel across the entire length of the ship to get gunpowder for the gun he was assigned to. At one point in the battle, as many of his shipmates are being killed all around him, Equiano fears he to will be killed and begins to take caution when going for the powder.
This thought, though, is quickly overpowered by his belief in predestination. But immediately afterwards I thought this caution was fruitless; and, cheering myself with the reflection that there was a time allotted for me to die as well as to be born, I instantly cast off all fear or thought whatever of death. Throughout the book Broken Spears, ideas of religious providence are evident in the Aztec culture, although in a much different sense. The Aztecs did not believe that everything was predestined and written in stone.
They believed, at least in some way, that their actions had an effect on the course of events and that according to their actions, Quetzalcoatl and the other deities would assist them or punish them. The Aztecs did accept, however, that these gods would come back to Mexico City and reclaim the throne from Montecuhzoma regardless of their actions, and that this event was predestined. Montecuhzomas belief in this event was so strong that when the Spaniards first arrived, he announced that the gods had returned and could see no other explanation for the existence of a mountain range or small mountain floating in the midst of the water .
With this perception of the Spaniards cemented firmly in Montecuhzomas head, it didnt take long for the idea to filter down to the entire Aztec population. Thus the Aztec empire entered into a self-fulfilling prophecy, so that by the time the Aztecs saw the Spaniards for who they really were, it was too late. This idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy translates well to the story of Oluadah Equiano. Just as the Spaniards saw their own conquering as imminent, Equiano saw his demise as set in stone, but this had the opposite effect on him.
With his death out of his hands, he was free to live his life without boundaries, with the obvious exception of the commandments and the bible. Despite not knowing how to swim, he lived more than half of his post-African life on the ocean. His many brushes with death by drowning did not deter him from life at sea, even though he had ample opportunities and friends if he chose to live his life out on land. Despite Equianos blind faith, there are many times in the story when his thoughts and actions are contrary to his belief in providence.
He is constantly aware of even the slightest sin committed on his own part, and surprisingly he is just as aware of the sins of others around him. His thinking is such that even if someone in his vicinity sins, then he too has sinned and may face Gods wrath. Despite his belief that his life and death are predetermined, he begs for the mercy of God to spare him from death on many occasions. A great example of this is the instance where the ship he is on, the Nancy, is wrecked on the Bahama Banks in 1767.
At one point during their voyage, he is tired from pumping water from the ship all day, and he exclaims, Damn the vessels bottom out. The next day when the ship crashes into the rocks, he remembers this comment and thinks that he has damned everyone on board. Not only does he think that God has crashed the ship just to punish him, but he also thinks that if anyone is to die, their blood will be on his hands and he will go to hell! Equiano ends up saving everyones life onboard the ship, including the slaves below deck, out of shear guilt.
Throughout both The Broken Spears and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Oluadah Equiano, the role of religion is one that allows dilution of responsibility in the form of predestination. The subjects in both books use religion as a way to explain what has and what will happen to them. In the case of the Aztecs, religion bred a self-fulfilling prophecy that led to their demise, while in the case of Oluadah Equiano, unquestioned religious faith led to a life that far exceeded the opportunities given. In both cases, though, religion served a purpose as a way of dealing with things that could not be dealt with rationally.