The Domains of Neptune:
Seawater Purification in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano
Joanna D. ENGL 2130, Spring ’11
By purifying sea water Equiano is symbolically cleansing himself and becoming innocent of the paganism, dirty language and slave trade that the sea has come to represent for him. In the same way that sea water contains impurities, Eqiuano finds his soul contaminated by his contact with the sea. He attempts to purify himself by purifying water. He writes, “My old and good master, Dr. Irving…made me an offer of his service again. Being now tired of the sea I gladly accepted it…We were daily employed in reducing old Neptune’s domains by purifying the briny element and making it fresh” (162). The sea is the source of evil for the associations it has with paganism, foul language, and slave trade. Equiano describes the sea as the domain of Neptune, the pagan god of the sea, in an age when Christianity was dominant (Spielvogel 532-543). In effect, he is defying Neptune by decreasing his domain and approving of others who do the same, as when he calls Dr. Irving “good.” Even the word he uses to describes sea, “briny,” has evil connotations. “Briny ” means salty, which describes his shipmates’ and his own dirty language (169, 175) as well as the sea’s salinity. In addition to this, the sea represents the slave trade, as he has been assisted slavers (125-126). In contrast to the wickedness of sea and its denizens, the distillation process is a source of redemption. When Dr. Irving makes Equiano an “offer of his service” he is offering Olaudah a position of servitude: a daily job at which to work apart from the sea and perhaps earn his salvation as he attempts later (167), as well as a way to imitate Christ who took “the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7). Dr. Irving is also doing Equiano a service by employing him in this occupation; he is allowing him to purify himself. Indeed, the word Equiano chooses to describe the product of distillation—“fresh”—not only applies to freshwater, but to cleanliness and lack of experience—innocence. Thus, by purifying the sea, Equiano purifies himself of the unholiness of the sea.
Equiano, Olaudah, Allison, Robert J., ed. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Written by Himself with Related Documents. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.
Spielvogel, Jackson J., Western Civilization: Volume II: Since 1500. 7th ed. Bedford: Cengage, 2009.
Thinline Bible, New International Version. The Committee on Bible Translation, eds. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.