Over the years, numerous autobiographies have been written, but The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano happens to be one that has become most unforgettable. Equiano’s autobiography did not only play an integral role in getting the British slave trade abolished, it is also universally recognized as the cardinal text in the slave narrative genre. The early chapters in which Equiano describes his life in Africa and his experience on a slave ship while journeying between Africa and America on the Middle Passage is one of the most prominent sections of this autobiographical book. Any account of the history of the notorious Middle Passage would not be complete without Equiano’s own personal account of the Middle Passage’s horrors.
In recent years, this high valuable autography has been mercilessly criticized. Apparently, some scholars are claiming that Equiano’s African childhood was fictional, that he actually recreated his African heritage. According to records, Equiano’s date of birth was somewhere in 1747, he was baptized in South Carolina, and later he served in the Royal Navy. However, his autobiography, Equiano explicitly claims that he was born in “in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka” (Equiano 3) in Africa. If according to these records, Equiano was not born in Africa, this could perhaps alter the entire context and significance his revered autobiography.
Even though Equiano, who is also known as Gustavus Vassa, intensely claims his African heritage, his claim is contradicted by a document, which is a record of his baptism. According to this document which dates back to 1979, “Gustavus Vassa a black [was] born in Carolina 12 years old” (Lovejoy). Thus, this document not only contradicts where Equiano was, but also makes the time he spent as a slave and his age when in England arguable and disputable. In The Interesting Narrative, Equiano also states that he was aboard the Racehorse, a naval ship. Although the ship’s muster book does not contain the name Gustavus Vassa, however, the name Gustavus Weston is listed in the book. According to the record, Gustavus Weston, was about 28 years old and born in South Carolina. According to critics, Equiano’s other full name, i.e. Gustavus Evans Vassa may have been incorrectly entered in the book as Gustavus Weston. This second document also contradicts Equiano’s claim to an African heritage.
However, scholars who are not able to deny that Equiano was enslaved speculate that his owner Pascal was a cousin of his godparents, and therefore, the details on Equiano’s baptismal record were their good intentions. Perhaps, it is likely that Equiano’s godparents and his owner wanted people to think that he was born in Creole because of their higher status in society, unlike African slaves, and since Equiano had already mastered English quite well by the time he was baptized. In was back in 1794 when doubts arose regarding where Equiano was actually born. In The Interesting Narrative, Equiano responds to these doubts by appealing to the “respectable” people he met when he first arrived in England to testify on his behalf that he “could speak no language but that of Africa” (Equiano 5). Those with these doubts were surprised when Equiano’s godmother, testified that he indeed only knew how to speak Igbo, an African language, when he had met her, thus confirming his African birth.
As for the Racehorse muster book, Equiano himself had made jotted down those entries. Paul Lovejoy asserts that the reason Equiano claimed that he was born in South Carolina to lie that he was a freeman, assistant to the renowned Dr. Irving, and because he believed that at that point in his life, an American birth would allow him to earn more respect than an African birth (Lovejoy 336). At that time, Equiano wanted to earn the respect of the British and he may have considered his African birth a hindrance to his goal. Nonetheless, by the time Equiano published his autobiography; his truth about his identity had already been revealed and thus, in The Interesting Narrative, he proudly recollects his true origins.
However, other critics are still doubtful that Equiano was born in Africa. For starters, it was not a coincidence that Equiano published his autobiography in 1789. Ever since the 1780s when slavery was abolished, the topic had created a lot of buzz, and once the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in London was formed, the topic become even more popular (Carretta 2). Since the public had become really interested in abolishment, a law was passed by the Parliament that regulated certain conditions in over congested slave ships. Africans needed to make arguments in order to get the slave trade completely abolished. Since there no African non-fictional published works prior to 1789, Equiano decided to take up the role of an African. Apparently, Gustavus Vassa’s African birth and real name, Olaudah Equiano, was revealed in 1789 in a published work so that slavery could be abolished (Carretta 3).
Equiano had merely intended to testify to Parliament whatever he had experienced in West Indies. However, as a result of the Parliament’s lack of interest in his testimony, Equiano wrote a letter addressed to the Parliament in which he invented a memory of being in Africa, of having an “estate in Elese” (Carretta, 4). Of course, there is no mention of this estate, or the claims that Equiano made in that letter, in The Interesting Narrative. Perhaps Equiano was quite aware that he would only be able to draw in attention of legislators if he managed to paint a very personal picture of life in Africa. He was also aware that only a detailed account of Africa and the slave trade would convince legislators, and that is what he provided in his autobiography.
If Equiano had actually invented his account of Africa, then how did know such intricate details about Africa and the slave trade? Apparently, “Equiano’s narrative is to a large extent fictional, based on the popular eighteenth century literary form: the voyage” (Ogude). It is plausible that Equiano used already published works on Africa to gain detailed information about Africa. There are numerous published European documents that contain stories and traditions from slaves and former slaves (Lovejoy 332). It can be assumed that the information for the narrative in his autobiography “was directly derived from the eighteenth century geography of Africa as was then conceived by European writers” (Ogude).
After thoroughly going through The Interesting Narrative, scholars have also discovered that Equiano shies away from using detail whenever it comes to verifying particular accounts. Moreover, often there are no footnotes to details that Equiano mentions about Africa. For instance, the opening sentence in which he describes Africa is the same as the passage from Some Historical Account of Guinea, in which Anthony Benezet presents a similar description of Africa (Carretta, 313). This proves that Equiano did not verify his accounts, just rephrased what he learned from European sources, and in the modern sense, this would constitute as plagiarism.
Perhaps these scholars would not have questioned Equiano’s honesty so eagerly if his Narrative was not so misleading. It is well-known that Equiano valued his relationship with Dr. Irving, yet in his autobiography, he states that Dr. Irving’s died to sometime in 1776 or 1777 after he ate poisoned fish in Jamaica. However, the truth is that Dr. Irving had actually died in 1797. Scholars are still not able to understand how Equiano could not have known when Dr. Irving had died or could have misstated the occurrence of such tragic event, considering their relationship. Moreover, what is even more perplexing is that Equiano never changed this detail of when Dr. Irving had truly died even in the later editions of The Interesting Narrative, as claimed by Alexander Blair, Dr. Irving’s partner (Lovejoy 327).
Regardless of whether Equiano’s autobiographical narrative is fictional or not, it successfully contributed to the abolishment of slavery. Moreover, even if it is fictitious, no one can deny that Equiano had splendid writing talent. Readers found the story of his African heritage quite appealing and they felt emphatic and sad about Equiano’s struggles, which strengthened the revolt against slave trade. For now, we will most likely never know whether Equiano completely made up his autobiographical account in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, and where he truly originated from. Although scholars continue to be doubtful, maybe it does not even matter where Equiano was born, because his book successfully played a major role in freeing slaves, and is overall an interesting piece of literature, whether fictitious or not.
Benezet, Anthony. Some historical account of Guinea. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library, 1788. Print.
Annotation: This book was among Anthony Benezet’s most influential works in which he explores the history of Guinea, and presents an account of the transatlantic slave trade.
Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-made Man. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2005. Print.
Annotation: In this biography of Olaudah Equiano, Vincent Carretta uses university study to reinvigorate not only Equiano’s text but also his history as well, presenting them from a fresh perspective.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (Norton Critical Editions). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print.
Annotation: In his narrative, which is indeed interesting, Olaudah Equiano recounts his own story starting from his birth in Africa to being kidnapped, and then being sold into slavery.
Lovejoy, Paul E. "Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African." Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies. 27.3 (2006): 317-347. Print.
Annotation: In his journal article, Paul E. Lovejoy sets out to prove the fact that Olaudah Equiano was indeed born in Africa, as Equiano claims he was, and in the process refutes scholars who claim Equiano made up his heritage and history.
Ogude, S. E. "Facts into Fiction: Equiano's Narrative Reconsidered." Research in African Literatures. 13.1 (1982): 31-43. Print.
Annotation: In his article, S. E. Ogude doubts the reliability and truthfulness of the memories that Equiano's recalls in his book, and refutes his Equiano's African ethnicity.