Equiano the African:
Biography of a Self-Made Man
Reviewed by Rebecca Hussey
Olaudah Equiano, an eighteenth-century slave who bought his own freedom, was a traveler, an activist, a sailor, a trader, and a writer. He has been a great interest to critics in recent years, partly because of new research suggesting that Equiano was not born in Africa, as he claims, but was instead born in South Carolina. This research is controversial because of its challenge to the veracity of Equiano’s autobiographical work, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself and because it necessitates a new way of approaching the text.
Vincent Carretta, in his book Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man considers what this evidence means, and persuasively argues that it should enhance our appreciation of Equiano’s text, not detract from it. For if the claim of American birth is true (Carretta argues that this is likely, although we will never know for sure), Equiano is doing something different in his narrative than originally thought: the narrative becomes less a straightforward autobiography and more a carefully-crafted, rhetorically-powerful abolitionist argument. Equiano had become involved in the abolitionist movement in England in the 1780s, and he knew that what the movement needed was a writer who could describe the horrors of kidnapping, enslavement, and the middle passage from first-hand experience. The narrative, published in 1789 and immediately successful, fills this role.
Carretta also emphasizes Equiano’s ‘Atlantic creole’ status, borrowing a term from Ira Berlin. Not fully African, American, or British, Equiano belonged to all of these cultures, and none of them. He is, as Carretta states, “ideally positioned to construct an identity for himself. He defined himself as much by movement as by place.” In fact, Equiano had little choice but to craft a new identity for himself, as did many other slaves removed from their home cultures: “No autobiographer has faced a greater opportunity for redefinition than has a manumitted (freed) slave. Manumission necessitated redefinition.”
Whether born in Africa or South Carolina, Equiano experienced a life without a settled home, a life of travel and disruption and danger. Carretta traces his life from his early years in Africa (reminding readers occasionally that this part of the narrative may be fictionalized) to his experiences as a slave, working briefly on a plantation, soon being bought by Michael Henry Pascal, an officer in the navy, and participating in the Seven Years War. Equiano’s years in slavery were not typical; he experienced a degree of independence on navy ships that few slaves were allowed. After buying his freedom from money earned by trading commodities from port to port, Equiano continued to travel, participating in a voyage of exploration to the North Pole among other ventures. Attracted by Methodism, he converted to Christianity, and he became involved in politics and the abolitionist movement.
Since little is known about Equiano outside of his narrative, especially in his early years, and since we have only a few articles and letters Equiano wrote in addition to the narrative, much of Carretta’s biography is devoted to explaining the material in Equiano’s text and to charting the narrative’s historical and cultural background. His chapters on the abolitionist movement, on the circumstances surrounding the publication of the narrative, and on the narrative itself are among the strongest. The narrative is unique in its combination of autobiography, a genre only beginning to coalesce in the eighteenth century; spiritual autobiography, in the tradition of Bunyan; travel narrative; political and economic tract; and sentimental narrative. Carretta usefully points to ways modern-day readers have misunderstood the text, tending to see it as “the progenitor of later, more secular African American slave narratives,” rather than “a relatively late example of a spiritual autobiography.” As a travel writer, Equiano explores the dangers of movement for a free black man; even when he can document that he had gained his freedom, he is still subject to abuse and exploitation and in danger of re-enslavement since he had no voice in the legal system.
Carretta emphasizes the rhetorical triumph of the narrative. Equiano needed to convince his readers of the evils of the slave trade without alienating them with strident language. Carretta claims that “the greatest challenge Equiano faced as an author was demonstrating that while he wrote with an authoritative African voice, he also was as British as his readers. He needed to show that exotic Africans and familiar Britons were equally human.” He succeeded in meeting these challenges brilliantly, and was rewarded with strong sales and public acclaim, although he also found himself the subject of racist attacks in magazines and newspapers. At the time of his death, he was most likely the wealthiest man of African descent in Britain. He did not live to see the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, but his work helped further the cause.
Carretta’s biography is well-written and engaging, useful for the general reader or critic who would like to know more about Equiano’s life and narrative and the context in which he lived. Carretta handles the question of Equiano’s birthplace sensibly, offering his sense that Equiano was born in America but recognizing the impossibility of knowing for certain.
Vincent Carretta, Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man,
Georgia: University of George Press, 2005. ISBN 0820325716. $29.95.