Equiano, The African

Vincent Carretta’s Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man has all the ingredients of a sensational exposé. However, the author, who through exhaustive scholarly research presents his case, has done all in his power to avoid the sensational. When he first began to question the veracity of some elements in Olaudah Equiano’s renowned and supposedly autobiographical slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), he accelerated his research efforts, which yielded interesting results and suggested that Equiano had never made the Middle Passage about which he wrote so dramatically and with such apparent authority.

Carretta first became aware of Equiano’s narrative through reading Classic Slave Narratives (1987), edited by Louis Henry Gates, Jr., director of Harvard University’s African and African-American Studies Department. Because there was little extant writing by African Americans in eighteenth century Britain, Carretta decided to include Equiano’s narrative in his course in eighteenth century British literature.

When the book elicited an encouraging response among his students, Carretta decided to edit The Interesting Narrative himself for Penguin Books. In preparing this edition, he expanded his research and, in so doing, found evidence suggesting that Equiano was not born in Africa, as Equiano had contended, but had been born in South Carolina in 1745.

Given the authority that had traditionally been ascribed to Equiano’s narrative by those teaching African American literature and history throughout the United States and Canada, Carretta’s suspicions were nothing short of revolutionary. Carretta, however, did not come forth with these suspicions in any spectacular way. Rather, he buried them in the footnotes of his edition and awaited the outcome. In actuality, readers failed to respond to his contentions, presumably because they read the narrative but skipped the footnotes. He described his startling revelation as a depth charge submerged in footnotes.

There was no doubt that Equiano had been a slave who, upon buying his freedom, had opted to settle in London, which he had previously visited while working as a seaman for his owner, Michael Henry Pascal, a British naval lieutenant who was also his friend. Equiano assumed that in time Pascal would emancipate him, but he was mistaken in his expectation that this would happen. After he had served his master as a seaman in the Seven Years’ War, Pascal in 1763 sold Equiano in the West Indies, where he used his skills of self-promotion and business acumen to save the money he needed to buy his freedom, which he did in 1766 when he was twenty-one years old and still had much of his life before him. Although he settled in England after he gained his freedom, Equiano continued to work as a seaman, venturing to many Atlantic ports as well as into the Arctic Ocean.

Knowing what he did about the background of the former slave, Carretta began to dig for further information about him and was dismayed to find that no previous scholar had sought to verify the seemingly factual information Equiano presented in The Interesting Narrative. Carretta eventually secured the muster list of the HMS Racehorse, on which Equiano was known to have sailed. On this list, Equiano’s birthplace is given as South Carolina. This information shocked Carretta, who now sought additional intelligence about Equiano’s origins. In England, he obtained a baptismal record which, like the ship’s muster list, indicated that Equiano’s birthplace was South Carolina.

Equiano’s tale of how at age eleven he was kidnapped by Africans from his idyllic home in an area called Essaka, in what is now southeastern Nigeria, is thoroughly engrossing. According to The Interesting Narrative, Equiano was turned over to white slave traders on Africa’s west coast, shackled, and put aboard an overcrowded ship on which many people died during the voyage west. He offered convincing and heartrending details about the ship’s squalid conditions and about the moaning and shrieking of the shackled Africans who, if they survived the arduous ocean voyage,...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)