Sunday, 15 January 2012

Olaudah Equiano: African or South Carolinian?

I just finished reading Vincent Carretta's Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man, a wonderful account of an evangelical who was instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. Many students of English literature are familiar with Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative (1789), which chronicles the life of a slave in Africa who is eventually freed, becoming a celebrity in the English-speaking world in the last decade of his life. But unknown to most is that Equiano might have embellished key sections in his autobiography.

According to Equiano, he was born in 1745 in present-day Nigeria, where he claimed to have been abducted at age eleven and sold to English slavers. Forced aboard a ship to the West Indies, he makes his way to the West Indies where he is sold to a Virginia planter who quickly resells Equiano to a British Royal Navy officer named Michael Henry Pascal. His new owner renames Equiano "Gustavus Vassa" before taking his new prize back with him to London, probably in 1754. Between August 1755 and December 1762, most of Equiano's time was spent aboard Royal Navy vessels during the Seven Years' War. Equiano enjoys his time at sea, experiencing a certain equality among his shipmates that would have been unknown had he been a plantation slave. After serving Pascal faithfully for a number of years, Equiano expects to be set free in 1762, but instead is sold to James Doran, captain of a merchant ship headed to Montserrat. In the West Indies, Equiano is sold once more to a Quaker merchant named Robert King.

Through shrewd business ventures of his own, Equiano saves enough money to buy his freedom from King in 1766. The newly freed man makes his living over the next decade as a hairdresser and sailor for hire. Over the course of that time he travels to Italy, modern-day Turkey, and the West Indies. In May 1772 he joins an expedition to the Arctic led by Constantine John Phipps who hopes to find a shorter route to India. Reeling from a near-death experience on the Arctic voyage, Equiano returns to London in late 1773 seeking spiritual guidance. He attends St. James's Anglican parish church several times and explores Quakerism, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism. At one point he considers moving to Turkey, believing that Muslims are more sincere in their beliefs and practices than the Christians he has met.

During his spiritual distress, he meets a couple of silk weavers in Holborn who introduce him to Methodism. He is told that he needs to experience a "new birth" whereby God pardons a person on the basis of the merits of Christ's death on the cross. While aboard a ship headed to Cadiz, Spain, Equiano picks up his Bible and begins reading Acts 4:12, later writing that "the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with his bright beams of heavenly light; and in an instant, as it were, removing the veil, and letting light into a dark place... I saw the Lord Jesus Christ in his humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, sin, and shame. I then clearly perceived, that by the deed of the law no flesh living could be justified. I was then convinced, that by the first Adam sin came, and by the second Adam (the Lord Jesus Christ) all that are saved must be made alive" (174). He had experienced conversion, the kind of spiritual rebirth that he had been told was necessary for salvation.

In the spring of 1775, Equiano agrees to help a former employer establish a plantation off the Mosquito Coast in Central America. At the time, he suffers no scruples when purchasing slaves to work the fields. Becoming disillusioned with the project, Equiano makes his way back to England at the beginning of 1777. He considers becoming a missionary to Africa, but when his request is denied by the bishop of London, he returns to the sea as a hired sailor once again.

It is not known exactly when Equiano changed his mind about the slave trade--it appears to be a gradual development--but in the mid-1780s he becomes involved in the plans to found Sierra Leone, a colony where free blacks could settle and form their own community. Hired as a commissioner for the project, and later dismissed due to his criticism of the project, Equiano spends the remainder of his life supporting the abolitionist movement. He joins Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, and others in trying to convince Britons of the evils of the Atlantic slave trade. Equiano's most significant contribution in this regard is his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789. The book went through eleven editions in the eighteenth century, making Equiano wealthy in the process and catapulting him to literary stardom. When he died on March 31, 1797, he was arguably the best known and affluent person of African descent in the Atlantic world.

One of the most interesting aspects of Carretta's biography is his procative thesis that Equiano fabricated part of his narrative in order to bolster the abolitionist movement. Through his research Carretta finds birth and baptismal records describing Equiano as a native of South Carolina, not Africa. Carretta writes, "Equiano certainly knew that to do well financially by doing good for the abolitionist cause he needed to establish and maintain his credibility as an eyewitness to the evils of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in its various eighteenth-century forms. He also knew what parts of his story could be corroborated by others" (xvi-xvii). In order to oppose slavery, abolitionists needed a credible witness who had experienced the horrors of slavery and the Middle Passage. Carretta believes that Equiano's Interesting Narrative filled this void by providing the kind of proof that abolitionists were keen to exploit.

Carretta's monograph is an excellent biography of the truly interesting life of Olaudah Equiano. But if given the choice, I would first recommend reading his recent book on Phillis Wheatley, which I blogged about earlier. The Phillis Wheatley biography is more concise and cuts down on the number of block quotations that is prevalent throught his book on Equiano. Without diminishing the importance of Carretta's work on Equiano, the new book on Wheatley is the work of a craftsman who has perfected his trade.

Jonathan Yeager

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