J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

The New Discussion of Olaudah Equiano

Tonight I’m quoting from Douglas B. Chambers’s review for H-Net of Vincent Carretta’s Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. I read this review a while back, but then it appeared two years after the book was published, so I don’t think I’ve been dilatory.

Olaudah Equiano (1745?-97), who for much of his adult life used the name Gustavus Vassa (apparently taken from an English play about a Swedish king), was an interesting man to begin with: at various times slave, world traveler, missionary, political activist, and autobiographer. But Carretta’s research has made him even more interesting by arguing that he wasn’t what he said he was. Chambers explains:
In fourteen chapters, and reflecting meticulous research following the 1995 edition [of the autobiography] he so ably edited, Carretta follows Equiano through his story of enslavement, transportation, maritime slavery in a time of European war (and Christian baptism), kidnapping a second time into slavery (from London to Montserrat), his travels, and his freedom, winding up back in London in 1767, when he was about twenty-two years old.

Carretta then discusses his adventures at sea through the 1773 Arctic Expedition on the royal navy ship the Racehorse, and his rebirth as an ardent Anglican, which ironically was followed by participating in a scheme to create a slave-based plantation on the Miskito Coast (Caribbean Central America).

In the end, Equiano (universally still known as Vassa) turned to anti-slave trade agitation, living as he did in England in the mid-1780s, which led to his official service in the 1786-87 effort to “repatriate” (perhaps better thought of as to deport) Africans in Britain to Sierra Leone, a royal service that made him a controversial public figure. Equiano clearly was inspired by his activism to write and publish and popularize the “interesting narrative” of his life. . . .

The problem, however, is that Carretta thinks (or at least strongly suspects) that Equiano was actually a liar, and one perhaps rising to being a notable fraud. In his archival research, Carretta discovered two separate documents: Equiano’s 1759 London baptismal record and the 1773 royal navy’s ship muster list for the famed Racehorse, both of which state that Vassa was born in (South) Carolina. And on the basis of these two documents, albeit two as interesting and problematic as these are for complicating an already busy life, Carretta has called into question Equiano’s putative African origins, and therefore the credibility, reliability, and authenticity of Equiano as an enslaved African.

Based on these two documents, Carretta goes so far as to judge that Equiano’s accounts of his early life—and all the interpretive weight they are now given as a kind of substitute for ethnographic-historical material on what he called “Eboan Africa,” as well as his wrenching description of being enslaved and transported across the Atlantic, his extended and harrowing Middle Passage—are all “probably fictitious” (p. xvi). As one might expect, Carretta’s use of these two anomalous sources, and his consequent contention of Equiano’s possible birth not in Africa but in North America, have garnered the most notice and disputation. . . .

Carretta’s biography represents an important opening in Atlantic history, and the case of Equiano’s ultimate origins is far from closed. But whereas Carretta would have us see Equiano primarily as Gustavus Vassa, that is, as an “Atlantic creole” and “almost an Englishman,” Vassa himself demanded that we remember him as Olaudah Equiano, that is, as “the African” and “a native of Eboe.” Though reasonable people can reasonably differ, I choose to believe Vassa's Equiano over Carretta's Equiano.
Chambers eventually concludes that Carretta, while having written a very important and interesting book about Equiano, hasn’t fully made the case that the man was born in North America and later claimed birth in Africa to strengthen his authority to speak against the transatlantic slave trade.

I think it’s significant that even before Carretta’s archival discoveries some scholars had raised questions about the authenticity of Equiano’s written memories of Africa. Paul Edwards’s 1988 edition of the autobiography for Longman, for example, notes similarities between Equiano’s descriptions of West Africa and other Abolitionist books. Until recently, people assumed those similarities arose from Equiano supplementing his childhood memories. Now we must consider that his first glimpse of Africa might have come from a ship’s rail.


Monica Edinger said...

I've been teaching an adaptation of the Interesting Narrative by Ann Cameron (The Kidnapped Prince) to my 4th graders for years and have been very interested in these debates. I found the following page useful:

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link. Carey’s website does a good job summing up the arguments while reaching no conclusion.

Chambers’s review for H-Net offers a valuable suggestion about where we might find more evidence: the records of other ships that Equiano/Vassa sailed on. Like the Racehorse’s documents, they may include a statement about where he was born.