Olaudah Equiano may have been born in South Carolina, not in Africa as he claims. While others question these assertions, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over Equiano's narrative. Are there justifiable reasons why Equiano might have fabricated the opening of his autobiography? To what extent does it matter whether his or any other slave narrative is true or false?
Olaudah Equiano (later known as Gustavus Vassa) was born in 1745 in Eboe, which is present-day Nigeria. Equiano was abducted when he was around 11 years of age and later sold to slave traders traveling to the West Indies. Equiano spent much of his time in slavery serving the captains of British navy vessels and slave ships. He also lived briefly in the state of Virginia. Equiano was given the name Gustavus Vassa by Henry Pascal, one of his masters, and a British trading vessel captain. The name was inspired by a 16th-century Swedish king. Equiano would use this name for the rest of his life. However, he would come to publish his autobiography under his African name; “Olaudah Equiano” (Williamson).
Equiano traveled a lot while serving his merchant masters including Captain Pascal. Some of the places he traveled include; Nova Scotia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, the Caribbean, Gibraltar, Holland, Georgia, and England. A Quaker merchant by the name Robert King bought Equiano in 1763 and took him to his place in Philadelphia where Equiano would serve as a clerk and also work in his trading sloops. Fortunately, Equiano was also allowed to participate in small trade exchanges. He saved enough funds to buy his freedom in 1766.Equiano moved to England in 1767 and settled there. He would attend school while serving a scientist by the name Dr. Charles Irving as an assistant. However, this did not mark the end of his traveling. He continued to make voyages on trading vessels to Grenada, Portugal, Jamaica, Turkey, North America, Jamaica, and Italy. He would follow Irving on a polar expedition in quest of a northeast passageway from Europe to Asia in 1773. He wrote and published his two-volume autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African’ in 1789. Throughout his lifetime, this memoir went through eight British editions and one American edition. After this publication, he traveled across Great Britain as an author and abolitionist. He married his wife Susannah Cullen in 1792 and bore two daughters with her. He passed away in London in 1797 (Williamson).
Controversy about his memoir
In volume 1 of his autobiography, Equiano opens up with a description of native African culture (of the Eboe people in Igboland) where he was born. He outlines the customs associated with religious practices, food, and clothing. It is not certain whether this description is accurate or not were it not for the written records by Equiano himself. Everything else Equiano describes in his memoir seems to be accurate and verifiable except for the uncertainty in his early years.
In 1999, Vincent Carretta, a skilled professor in the University of Maryland shed light on some evidence suggesting that Mr. Equiano was born in South Carolina in the United States as a slave and not in Africa as he wrote in his autobiography. South Carolina was one of the thirteen British colonies in North America at that time. Carretta also argues that the early sections of Equiano’s memoir indicate that he was writing information from books he had read about Africa and other oral stories that he was told from other slaves rather than recording his first-hand experience. Carretta has compelling evidence in the form of two British documents he discovered; a 1759 baptismal record and a 1773 muster roll (Wiltz).
Both of these documents indicate Equiano’s birthplace as South Carolina. The evidence suggests that the young Equiano often told people that he was born in South Carolina (Washington). However, some critics and historians have not bought this story and claim the evidence is not concrete enough to settle the matter. There is a wide rift dividing the proponents and opponents of Carretta’s argument, and either side has their arguments as listed below.
Evidence that he was born in Carolina
Equiano gets the dates wrong about the ships that took him from the USA to England thus indicate that he made the story up. His account of his life is accurate when looked up against other sources but his first ten years are questionable. Furthermore, before Equiano published his autobiography, no one knew him by that name. Everyone knew him by the name "Gustavus Vassa.” Some historians have reasons to believe that Equiano made up the name "Olaudah Equiano" as part of a well-orchestrated agenda to brand himself as an African slave and get an African persona from then. Historians also claim that since Equiano’s motive was to abolish slave trade, he was willing to write anything to achieve his aim even if that included lying. In his memoir he seems to describe Africa and middle passage in a similar (mythological) way that other American and European writers including Anthony Benezet do, thus indicating a possible lifting of ideas from other sources (Carey).
Evidence that he was born in Africa
Historians who believe that Equiano was born in Africa indicate that he might have gotten the dates wrong about the dates of the voyage from America to England since he was very young at that time and was suffering a serious trauma hence the inaccuracy in dates. Other than that, the rest of the details about him are accurate thus suggesting that Equiano was a truthful fellow. The idea that Equiano made up an African name could be thwarted by the fact that few slaves used their African names. Equiano was also keen to protect his motivation which was to end slave trade and therefore could not jeopardize that by telling lies. There is also a possibility that he might have consulted other authors to recall details of a distant childhood (Carey).
It’s not yet clear whether Equiano was born in South Carolina or Africa. The above are just a few of the many arguments for and against his alteration. However, one thing is for sure; Olaudah Equiano is still one of the most celebrated and prominent figures when we talk about popular Abolitionists in history.
Carey, Brycchan. "Where Was Olaudah Equiano Born?". Brycchancarey.Com, 2013, http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/nativity.htm. Accessed 6 Mar 2018.
Williamson, Jenn. "Summary Of The Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written By Himself. Vol. I.". Docsouth.Unc.Edu, 2018, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/equiano1/summary.html. Accessed 6 Mar 2018.
Wiltz, Teresa. "For Slave's Biographer, Truth Contains A Bit Of Fiction". Washingtonpost.Com, 2005, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/09/AR2005090902079.html. Accessed 6 Mar 2018.
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