Celebrity slave with a credible tale to spin

Equiano the African

November 17, 2006

Next year, Birmingham Art Gallery will host a major exhibition devoted to the life and times of Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa.) Today, Equiano has acquired an extraordinary iconic status on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet his fame is recent. In 1967, when I found a first edition of his autobiography, his Narrative (1789), in a York bookshop, I had no idea who he was. Today, that book is a costly collector's item.

Equiano has gone from obscurity to international celebrity in a single generation. His words are among the most quoted and anthologised of anyone involved in the Atlantic slave system. His Narrative , often republished (the best version by far being the Penguin edited by Vincent Carretta) is a stunning tale and speaks for millions of Africans who had no voice.

It tells of African enslavement, the hell of Atlantic transportation, the life of a slave in the Americas and finally self-bought freedom, political and literary prominence in the 1780s and, perhaps the main point of his book, spiritual salvation in the bosom of Christianity. His was a morality tale that appealed to late-18th century men and women of sensibility. It denounced slavery, praised the virtues of freedom, spoke of African attainment in a world that consigned millions to the level of property - and proclaimed the power of redemption. It was, and is, hard not to be affected by Equiano's story.

Not surprisingly, he is now lionised. He offers something for everyone. Some view him as a proto-African nationalist, others see him as a founder of African-American literature. In the UK he is considered, quite rightly, as a persuasive spokesman for black people long denied a voice or a history, a key personality in the important struggle to redefine British history. Yet all this, and more, has emerged in the past generation. In fact, his prominence, and his bestselling Narrative , are a direct result of the massive social and political transformations in African and black diasporic politics and life in that period.

Equiano took (or reverted to) the name we know him by late in life. Like slaves everywhere, he was renamed many times by his owners - part of that deracination of Africans from their cultures that was basic to Atlantic slavery. In the final ten years of his life, by which time his self-published book had brought modest prosperity, he called himself Equiano "the African", but his wife took his other name, Vassa, on marrying him in 1792. Their two daughters were named Vassa, and he signed his will under that name. There is, then, a curiosity about his identity, and that curiosity has increased dramatically by the archival scholarship of Carretta and by his new biography.

Literary scholars, led by that great pioneer Paul Edwards, have long teased apart Equiano's text, looking for sources, origins and influence, and seeking to locate Equiano's words in a literary tradition. Historians have, by and large, tended simply to acknowledge Equiano's text as it stands and to accept the authenticity of what he wrote. But what happens if the Narrative is shown to be flawed, or wrong, or misleading at a number of points?

For some years past Carretta, a remarkable literary and archival detective, has been doing just that. The end result is a book that is not only the definitive (although certainly not the last) biography of Equiano but, despite all the author's proper caution and qualifications, offers an unsettling revisionary argument.

The critical issue is simple, yet it threatens a scholarly upheaval. Carretta has found archival material that suggests Equiano was born not in Africa but in North America. Assuming that is true, what does this do to the most quoted and universally accepted account of Equiano's African home, enslavement and Atlantic crossing? Clearly, he could have gleaned all that from African parents, kinsfolk and friends and spliced it with existing published accounts we know he had read.

But the significance of Carretta's evidence is profound. It is true the historical data contains uncertainties, and the whole issue remains debatable. But what no one - historian or literary scholar - can do henceforth is to ignore what Carretta has revealed. His argument commands attention.

Equiano published his autobiography in 1789, on the first wave of abolitionist sentiment and on the back of his own prominence as a key figure in the recent ill-fated campaign to persuade British blacks to resettle in Sierra Leone.

The book was a remarkable success, published by Equiano himself and promoted and sold, throughout Britain, by the author through a series of promotional tours. He clearly developed national networks of friends and sympathisers - men and women of sensibility, clerics, Quakers, radicals, abolitionists and others - many of whom accommodated and supported him.

Contemporaries who wrote or spoke about him accepted he was African, although doubts about his birthplace surfaced in the press and were fiercely denied by Equiano himself.

Did Equiano deceive all these people about his origins? Or had the concept of being "African" developed a new, distinctive meaning that embraced diasporic as well as African-born peoples? There is no doubt, however, that at the time, and since, Equiano's account of Africa and the Atlantic crossing made a profound impression. Here, for the first time, was an African account of the nightmare endured by millions. Is its power and persuasiveness diminished to learn that it was fashioned not from personal experience but from other sources? And would that undermine the broader credibility of Equiano's work?

Carretta's findings - prefaced for some years in scholarly articles and lectures - are naturally couched in cautious terms, and he develops a clever line of argument that seeks to bend his findings to the older orthodoxies.

Two simple facts are striking. The book's title, Equiano the African , and the use of the portrait scholars now generally accept as not being of Equiano, both speak to Carretta's caution and his ability to roll with the academic punches. But what lies at the core of this important book is some remarkable research.

Carretta has done what no other person has tried: to authenticate the minutiae of Equiano's account against other contemporary evidence. The overall result is a persuasive and closely argued text that confirms the great bulk of Equiano's memory as reflected in his autobiography.

But Carretta's major discovery, in naval records, of a possible different birthplace threatens nothing less than an upheaval. Many do not like, approve of or accept what he has found, but no one can ignore or set aside Carretta's findings.

Equiano the African is an impressive work of historical reconstruction. Like many other good books it will puzzle and irritate as much as it persuades. Those who might find Carretta's argument unpersuasive, or even unacceptable, need to come up with an equally credible (and archivally rooted) alternative.

James Walvin is emeritus professor of history, York University.

Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man

Author - Vincent Carretta
Publisher - University of Georgia Press
Pages - 464
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 0 8203 25716

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