His own man

By John T. Gilmore

Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man,
by Vincent Carretta
(University of Georgia Press, ISBN 0820-325-716, 436 pp)

The rediscovery of one of the most significant writers of the African diaspora, largely forgotten for a century and a half, began in 1969, when the late Paul Edwards published a facsimile of the first edition of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. This had originally appeared in 1789, and was, as stated prominently on the title page, “Written by himself”. Since that republication by Edwards, who included a new scholarly introduction of more than seventy pages, the author now almost universally known as Equiano (though Gustavus Vassa was the name he actually used for most of his life) has become a publishing phenomenon which has dwarfed the very considerable success he achieved in his own lifetime. There are at least half a dozen complete editions of the Interesting Narrative currently available, as well as abridgements, adaptations, and reworkings intended for the schools market, mainly in the United States. Extracts have appeared in anthologies of African literature, African-American literature, Caribbean literature, and Black British literature. In addition, Equiano has been the subject of innumerable articles in both scholarly and popular periodicals.

A large part of this response is due to one particular aspect of the Interesting Narrative. Of all the many millions of victims of the transatlantic slave trade, Equiano would appear to be the only one who has left us a detailed account of the Middle Passage from the point of view of one who had been on the receiving end of its horrors. By contrast, when Equiano’s contemporary and friend Ottobah Cugoano published his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Human Species in 1787, the largest part of his work was devoted to religious and moral arguments. Cugoano gives less than five pages to his life in Africa before he was enslaved. He mentions briefly that some of the slaves on the ship on which he was transported put together a plan to burn and blow up the vessel rather than continue in slavery, since “death was more preferable to life” under the circumstances, but that they had been unable to put it into execution, since they were betrayed by some of their fellow slaves. Apart from this, all he says of the Middle Passage is “it would be needless to give a description of all the horrible scenes which we saw, and the base treatment which we met with in this dreadful captive situation, as the similar scenes of thousands, which suffer by this infernal traffic, are well known.” It is the much longer, detailed, and vivid description by Equiano which has been quoted again and again by both academic historians and popular writers on the slave trade. Equiano himself has become an iconic figure whose words are taken to represent the sufferings of millions, to be part of the experience and history of the entire African diaspora.

It is not surprising, therefore, that much of the considerable interest aroused by Vincent Carretta’s new book on Equiano should have focused on his drawing attention to two pieces of evidence which suggest that Equiano might have invented his account of his childhood in Africa, and that the much-quoted first-hand account of the horrors of the Middle Passage may be a work of fiction. Writers in popular newspapers have denounced Carretta for insulting a black hero, and even some academic historians seem to feel that the awkward evidence can or should be ignored or wished away. But this is to oversimplify what Carretta actually says, and his thoroughly researched and carefully written book deserves to be read with attention in its entirety.

Olaudah EquianoOlaudah Equiano.
Image courtesy University of Georgia Press

Carretta has been working on Equiano for many years, and is the editor of the Penguin Classics edition of the Interesting Narrative, first published in 1995 and issued in a revised form in 2003. This includes not only the text of the previously little-known ninth edition of the Interesting Narrative (the last published in the author’s lifetime, and with his final revisions) but also a considerable number of other documents by or relating to Equiano. The two controversial documents in Equiano the African (to both of which Carretta had already drawn attention in his 2003 edition of the Interesting Narrative) are the record of Equiano’s baptism, and the records of one of the Royal Navy ships on which he served. Equiano was baptised in London, in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, on 9 February, 1759, with the record describing him as “Gustavus Vassa a Black born in Carolina 12 years old.” When he was on the Royal Navy’s Arctic expedition in 1773, which he describes in some detail in the Interesting Narrative, an entry in one of the muster-books of HMS Racehorse lists him as “Gust[avu]s Weston” (one of several variations of his name in naval records, but it is clear that it is him), and gives his “Place and Country where born” as “So. Carolina.”

It is true that records, including official ones, can be misleading, but anyone who writes about Equiano’s life or his book from now on will have to take these into consideration. As Carretta points out, it is difficult to see why whoever was responsible for these documents should have put down Carolina as Equiano’s birthplace if it were not in fact so. As a sailor, Equiano would have gained no advantage from concealing that he was born in Africa, if such were the case. Notwithstanding the authoritarianism of its officers, the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century was a surprisingly egalitarian and meritocratic organisation in which Equiano’s skills and experience had earned him the rank of able seaman. Carretta shows that there were two other able seamen on the Racehorse at the same time identified as being from Africa, one born in Madagascar, the other in Guinea. The records also show that Equiano received higher pay than several white able seaman of similar age.

While Carretta is the one who has produced this new evidence, others have had doubts about Equiano’s story before. In his own lifetime, an opponent claimed that he was in fact born in the Danish Caribbean colony of Santa Cruz (now St Croix in the United States Virgin Islands), something which Equiano denied in print. More recently, African scholars have been divided over Equiano’s account of his childhood in Africa, some seeing it as a precious description of Igbo society in the eighteenth century, all the more valuable for its uniqueness, while others have criticised it for inconsistencies and improbabilities. Carretta points out the contrast between what Equiano says of his life after his arrival in the Caribbean, which is full of specific detail, large parts of which can be corroborated from other sources, and the account of his childhood, which is so vague that he appears unclear as to whether his homeland was to the east or west of the River Niger, and he does not give the names of his parents or of the beloved sister whose separation from him by those who had enslaved them both he describes in an affecting manner. There seems to be nothing in this part of the Interesting Narrative which Equiano could not have got secondhand from Africans he met in Britain or the Americas, or, indeed, from published works on Africa by white writers. Carretta is careful not to overstate his case, saying, “reasonable doubt inclines me to believe that Equiano’s accounts of Africa and the Middle Passage were imaginary rather than real. But we must keep in mind that reasonable doubt is not the same as conclusive proof. We will probably never know the truth about Equiano’s birth and upbringing.”

Whatever his earliest life had been, as a young boy Equiano became the slave of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who generally treated him well for several years before sending him off to be sold in the Caribbean. By then he had acquired a number of skills, including literacy in English and numeracy. His new master, a Quaker merchant in Montserrat, employed him in a position of trust, and in 1766 Equiano was able to buy his freedom, using money he had earned trading on his own behalf in different Caribbean islands and in North America while also furthering his master’s interests. Over the next twenty years or so, he served in a succession of Royal Navy and merchant vessels, travelling to the Arctic, around the Mediterranean as far as Turkey, and on repeated voyages to the Caribbean and the Americas. Only in the second half of the 1780s did he settle permanently in England.

He was appointed as the government’s representative on a proposed expedition to establish a settlement of free Black British people in Sierra Leone, but quarrelled with the organisers and was dismissed before the expedition set sail. He became known as a spokesman for the black community in Britain. The publication of the successive editions of his Interesting Narrative and the tours he undertook to promote it, visiting every large town in Britain and Ireland over a period of five years, made him both a celebrity and a fairly wealthy man. In 1792 he married an Englishwoman by whom he had two daughters before she died in 1796. Equiano himself died the following year, and so did not live to see the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, but the Interesting Narrative had certainly played a significant part in the campaign which eventually convinced the British public and legislature that abolition was a moral imperative.

Carretta has tracked down the records of ships in which Equiano sailed, references to him in contemporary newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, and even in papers of obscure private individuals in provincial archives, such as those of John Audley, the executor of Equiano’s will, who in 1816 paid the then very considerable sum of £950 from her father’s estate to Equiano’s surviving daughter Joanna on her twenty-first birthday. Two examples may serve to show both how far Carretta’s thoroughness is an example for all biographers and how it helps to shed new light on our understanding of Equiano. According to the Interesting Narrative, Equiano first arrived in England, at the port of Falmouth in the county of Cornwall, “about the beginning of spring 1757 . . . and I was near twelve years of age at that time.” This was also when Equiano was astonished by his first sight of snow. Carretta uses contemporary newspapers to show that the ship on which Equiano travelled, the Industrious Bee, commanded by his new master, Lieutenant Pascal, in fact arrived in Falmouth in December 1754. Snow is not common in that part of England, but Carretta has found the observations of a contemporary amateur meteorologist which show “that the winter of 1754–55 was one of the two snowiest seasons in southern Cornwall between 1753 and 1772.” Furthermore, Carretta uses official naval records to show that Equiano was listed as part of the crew of HMS Roebuck by August 1755. In other words, Equiano not only arrived in England some two and a half years earlier than he says he did, but he was probably significantly younger than he claimed.

Another case where Carretta shows that Equiano’s account is broadly true, but inaccurate in its details, is where Equiano describes hearing the famous Methodist preacher George Whitefield in Philadelphia, implying that this was in 1766 or thereabouts. Carretta shows that this is impossible, since Whitefield was in Britain for the whole of the years 1766 and 1767, but he demonstrates that the incident must have taken place in Savannah, Georgia, in February 1765 — the local newspaper, the Georgia Gazette, shows that Whitefield was in the city at the time, and so was the ship on which Equiano was then a crew member.

Carretta is particularly illuminating on the cultural and historical contexts of Equiano’s life as a sailor, his involvement in the scheme for the Sierra Leone settlement, and the publishing history of the Interesting Narrative and its relationship to the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. He uses the subscription lists of the successive editions of the Interesting Narrative, notices of it in contemporary periodicals, and related correspondence to show how Equiano’s story appealed to readers of different social classes and of different — sometimes, indeed, opposing — political and religious beliefs. He gives due weight to the element of spiritual autobiography in the book. Even in the late eighteenth century Mary Wollstonecraft could dismiss this as “rather tiresome,” and modern secularised readers are likely to find it the least appealing aspect of the Interesting Narrative. Nevertheless, we miss a great deal if we fail to recognise the importance to Equiano of his search for religious truth and his eventual acceptance of evangelical Christianity.

This is part of the fact, well brought out by Carretta, that Equiano’s personality and attitudes changed over time. As a slave, Equiano passionately desired freedom for himself, but this did not mean that he was an opponent of slavery as an institution. As late as 1775–76, Equiano was willing to take part in an expedition to the Mosquito Coast of Central America, where he was employed as manager of a plantation worked by slave labour. Only in the 1780s did he develop into a dedicated and influential opponent of the slave trade, and the fact that he turned this into a financially successful career is no grounds for believing that this change of attitude was any less sincere than his religious conversion. Carretta’s research offers a much more detailed picture of Equiano as a complex and even more fascinating personality than is available to us if we read the Interesting Narrative in isolation and take it entirely at face value.

And what about the controversy over his place of birth? Was Equiano “really” an African or not? Carretta’s book is not a simplistic debunking exercise or a denigration of a hero. Whatever the precise circumstances of his birth, Equiano was certainly an African by descent, but this did not stop him from seeing himself as, in a phrase he himself uses, a “citizen of the world.” “Gustavus Vassa, the African” was an identity he deliberately adopted because it helped what he had come to see as his calling as an advocate of the rights of black people in Britain and as an opponent of the slave trade.

Whether we believe that Equiano was a native of the African continent or of South Carolina, we should recognise that what he did with his own life in the service of a noble cause was to turn it into a literary construct of a high order. Recognition of the artistic skill with which he did so, and of his ability to manipulate the expectations of the British and American reading public, can only serve to increase our admiration for him. Everyone with an interest in the history of the African diaspora should be grateful to Carretta for showing us the extent to which Equiano was indeed, in the words of the biography’s sub-title, a “self-made man.”


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2006

John T. Gilmore is a lecturer at the University of Warwick, where he teaches at the Centre for Caribbean Studies and the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies. He is a former lecturer at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Barbados, and former managing editor of Caribbean Week.