Olaudah Equiano

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If Olaudah Equiano was born in South Carolina instead of Africa, does this change our perception of his memoir's reliability on slavery and the slave trade?

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If it is true that Olaudah Equiano was not born in Africa and abducted with his sister when he was eleven years old, then his narrative should not be read as strictly autobiographical. It would not then be a viable primary-source historical document. But it would still serve a purpose, in the time he wrote it, now, and in the future.

Regardless of whether it is a factual account of his abduction, enslavement, and freedom, it captures the zeitgeist of the slave trade. Whether Equiano and his sister were abducted and separated or not, other Africans suffered in that way. Whether or not he was passed between Africans participating in the trafficking of other Africans, the fact remains that others were. Whether or not he traveled on a slave ship and endured the horrors of flogging, starvation, witnessing murder, and unbearable conditions below decks, others did endure those journeys. And whether or not he was actually sold at auction and then later resold, others were. So if not the actual facts of his own life, what Equiano wrote captured the barbarity of the slave trade. And in presenting his narrative to white society in England and America, his work served a purpose; it was a compelling argument for the abolition of slavery.

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Another way to look at this narrative is that the details of Equiano’s birth are irrelevant to his lived experience as a slave. Regardless of Equiano’s ethnicity or national origin, he was still an emancipated slave. This means he certainly had experienced what it was like to be treated as sub-human property rather than as a human being.

If Equiano did indeed lie about being from Nigeria, then one can not assume his motive for doing so. Perhaps Equiano wanted to protect something from his past. Perhaps he had limited memories from his childhood, and thought it was more believable to make them up. All of this is, of course, pure speculation.

Equiano’s true account of his treatment is still impactful even without the portions detailing his backstory. Therefore, if Equiano was a South Carolina native, it’s quite possible that his narrative would still have had a similar impact on the abolitionist movement of which he was a part in Britain.

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This question points to a significant difference between how we read fiction and nonfiction. Much of the interest in this narrative is due to its being an "authentic" account of the life a member of an African tribe sold into slavery and then eventually freed. The initial reception of the work and its contribution to the abolitionist movement are based on the premise of a reliable narrator. The problem here is that if the narrator proves unreliable in one factual detail, we begin to doubt his credibility on other details. 

While Equiano's work would still be worth reading as a semi-fictional portrait of slavery even if the details of the narrator's life are fictional, just as Black Beauty is a fictional but moving portrait of cruelty to animals, as readers we tend to distrust writers who claim to be telling a true story but alter crucial details. If the story of Equiano's birth is a deliberate fiction to engage the reader's sympathy, we begin to suspect him of being more of a con man and less of a victim. 

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