The True Story of Equiano

The True Story of Equiano

Vincent Carretta’s Equiano, the African is the complex narrative of a Carolina slave who bought his freedom, married an English woman and published a memoir on his life as a seafarer and gentleman.


In 1999 the readers of Slavery and Abolition, a scholarly historical journal, were startled to learn that according to a respected editor, one of the foundational “slave narratives” might not be all that it purported to be. The text in question was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vincent Carretta, the diligent editor of a new edition of the work for Penguin Classics, had come to doubt whether Gustavus Vassa, who went by the name Equiano, had really been born in Africa, captured as a boy and transported to the New World, as he claimed in the Narrative. In his Slavery and Abolition article, Carretta explained that his research had led him to believe Equiano had probably been born in South Carolina, and that his account of an African childhood was a vivid piece of imaginative reconstruction, a reconstruction that perfectly suited the needs of an abolitionist movement then principally focused on the evils of the Atlantic slave trade.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano first appeared in London in 1789 and went through nine editions, one of them in New York, over the next six years. The stark account given by Equiano of the horrifying conditions on board the slave ship could be corroborated from many other sources, notably the rueful memoirs of slave trading captains who had come to repent their former profession. But abolitionists and, more recently, historians were pleased to be able to cite someone who was a victim as well as an eyewitness. The first modern edition of the Narrative appeared in 1969, and it was subsequently much reprinted and excerpted. Henry Louis Gates Jr. included it in his collection The Classic Slave Narratives, and filmmakers have based reconstructions on its account.

Carretta, who has written a full-dress biography of Olaudah Equiano, confesses that he “never expected, indeed, never wanted” to debunk his subject’s account of his origins. Of course, Carretta–a professor of English at the University of Maryland who has written extensively on slave narratives–still sees extraordinary literary and historical value in Equiano’s writings. The man formerly known as Gustavus Vassa was indeed a slave for many years–longer than was previously thought, if Carretta is right. He eventually purchased his own freedom, and his account of an extraordinary series of experiences and adventures can be independently corroborated at many points.

Carretta does not doubt that Equiano wrote authoritatively on slavery and the slave trade, or that he fully deserved his prominent role in the antislavery movement. As the editor of the Penguin edition, he was impressed by how accurate the Narrative was, even when the author was recalling events after a lapse of twenty or thirty years. As both a slave and a freeman, Equiano had sailed on dozens of ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean. He served on Royal Navy warships that fought crucial engagements in the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63, served as an assistant to a famous naval inventor and sailed on a major Arctic expedition to find a Northwest Passage. Sold as a slave to a Caribbean merchant, he eventually persuaded his owner to honor a pledge to let him purchase his freedom. Equiano then traveled to Italy and Turkey, helped supervise slaves in Central America and met with General James Wolfe and the preacher George Whitefield. Equiano later established contact with such leading abolitionists as Granville Sharp and James Ramsay. Carretta was able to check out Equiano’s story by combing through logbooks, muster rolls and baptismal registers. He could, in other words, confirm almost every step in the story–except, crucially, the circumstances of Equiano’s birth and enslavement.

The muster roll for the Arctic voyage and the record of Equiano’s baptism both described him as born in Carolina. Though the entries were not directly made by Equiano, they are likely to have reflected information he had supplied. Other black seamen signing on for the Arctic trip were described as African-born, suggesting that such origins were not a problem. Carretta also notes that a few short passages in the long book had been lifted from other sources. In his warm evocation of the Igbo society in which he claimed to have been raised in Africa, Equiano explicitly relied on secondary sources, pleading his need to supplement his own “imperfect” memory of events that occurred when he was 7 or 8 years old. Carretta also finds that Equiano’s first visit to England was two years earlier than he recounts in the Narrative, perhaps in an effort to raise his age at capture from 8 to 10.

Carretta does not believe that he has assembled a conclusive case; still less does he believe that Equiano’s possible American birth undermines the importance of the Narrative. If Equiano embroidered his tale he would scarcely be the first memoirist to have done so. Indeed, Carretta insists that all autobiography requires great selectivity and skillful self-presentation. Frederick Douglass, at different periods of his life, famously gave different versions of his fight with the ruthless overseer Covey. Every text used by historians contains (or conceals) purposes other than the neutral disclosure of truth. To imagine that guile and deception were of no use to slaves and former slaves would be ridiculous, as the Brer Rabbit stories show.

While the question of Equiano’s birthplace is not an insignificant detail, his testimony remains indispensable. Carretta does not dispute that Equiano must have been, as he described himself, a “son of Africa.” Even if he was American-born, he is still likely to have been raised by African parents and to have imbibed African lore and oral history. In fact, his account gives a generally more positive image of Igbo society than he would have found by consulting the secondary sources. When a proslavery writer claimed that Equiano was not African but had been born in the Danish West Indies, he replied that there were, still living, highly respectable people who had known him as a boy–such as his former master’s cousin–who could attest that at first he scarcely spoke any English. It is certainly striking that Equiano’s story was universally accepted by those who knew him, including his African friends. It is possible that he spoke with a trace of an African accent, and that this made an African origin plausible to so many. Carretta anticipates such an objection by claiming that a childhood in Carolina might have left Equiano speaking an African language and little or no English. But while a boy raised in Carolina would have spoken Gullah, a Creole patois, would this have left him with an African accent?

Carretta quotes the great antislavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson imagining himself in conversation with a captive African in an essay published in 1786: “We shall throw a considerable part of our information on this head into the form of a narrative: we shall suppose ourselves, in short, on the continent of Africa, and relate a scene, which, from its agreement with unquestionable facts, might not unreasonably be presumed to have been presented to our view, had we really been there.” This passage, almost certainly known to Equiano, might have offered encouragement to his own reconstruction. However, Carretta writes that in 1779, Equiano first claimed to have been born in Africa, long before the campaign against the slave trade, in a letter to the bishop of London seeking employment in Africa.

Carretta suggests that we will never know for sure where Equiano was born. He has obviously done a great service in documenting the discrepancies in the record and in setting out his own doubts. But he might have assembled all his evidence and arguments together in one place in this book instead of scattering relevant information throughout the text. And in telling the story he sticks to Equiano’s account, with initial chapters on Africa and the Middle Passage. He does not suggest how a boy born in Carolina would have been available for purchase in Virginia at the age of 8 or 9.

Still, Carretta has written a fascinating book. He is at pains to point out that the Narrative is a very accomplished work and an essential document, as readers of the time were quick to recognize. Equiano’s Narrative made him known to a wide public in the English-speaking world (translations of the book also appeared in several other languages). Equiano retained copyright to the book and supervised every aspect of its publication. He organized its printing, commissioned a handsome portrait to serve as a frontispiece and sold the finished product both to booksellers and to the audiences who attended his tireless speaking tours. As Carretta has it, Equiano was in every sense a “self-made man.” He married an Englishwoman, with whom he had two daughters. His legacy to his surviving daughter, who married a Congregational minister, was the considerable sum of £950.

The Narrative is also by far the most comprehensive firsthand account of a black seafarer in the eighteenth century. Equiano spent about seven years as a youngster aboard ships of the Royal Navy, as the slave-servant of Michael Henry Pascal, his owner, who was the descendant of Huguenots. He made friends among the English boys who helped form their crews and, like them, had the opportunity to learn how to read, write and do sums. By the end of 1762 Equiano, though technically still a slave, was promoted to the rank of able seaman. He was terribly shocked when his master, whom he regarded as a father figure, sent him to the West Indies to be sold to James Doran, captain of a merchant ship. Doran, in turn, sold the young man to another merchant, a Quaker named Robert King. Appreciative of Equiano’s skill, King entrusted him with responsible missions and hired him out as a sailor on merchant vessels. He also promised him that if he could raise the sum of £40, he could buy his freedom. With bonuses and skillful trading on his own account, Equiano soon accumulated the necessary sum. His master was shamed into keeping the bargain only when Equiano brought along another captain to witness his formal request that his master keep to his word.

Equiano spent a few years as a free black in the West Indies, occasionally visiting North American ports. While he seems to have usually gotten along with white shipmates, he often sparred with white traders ashore who tried to chisel and shortchange him. His work sometimes involved crewing on ships that were transporting small numbers of slaves in the local trade. On one occasion it fell to him to take command of a ship in a storm when the captain proved incompetent. The ship had to be beached, and this brush with death induced a spiritual crisis. Equiano secured the services of a leading illustrator to supply a picture of this episode in his Narrative.

Equiano was, among his many accomplishments, a good horn player, which may account for his acquaintance with the very musical abolitionist pioneer Granville Sharp. It seems to have been Equiano who alerted Sharp to the notorious Zong case, in which a captain threw sick and dying slaves overboard in order to claim the insurance on them. Equiano was also friendly with senior figures in the Admiralty, several of whom were strongly opposed to the slave trade, both on general principle and because it was a graveyard of British sailors. Connections such as this led to Equiano’s appointment as the British government’s official commissary in 1786 in a scheme to resettle poor blacks in Sierra Leone. However, Equiano was soon accused of stirring up discontent among blacks and dismissed from his post. Interestingly, this affair did not sour his relations with prominent abolitionists like James Ramsay, who believed that he had been the target of prejudice.

Equiano invoked a well-chosen array of Bible quotes in his battles with slavery apologists prior to the publication of the Narrative. His professions of faith no doubt pleased his abolitionist sponsors, but his polemics were often more adventurous than those of his mentors. When a planter’s representative urged a ban on marriage between white and black, Equiano riposted:

Why not establish intermarriages at home, and in our Colonies? and encourage open, free, and generous love upon Nature’s own wide and extensive plan, subservient only to moral rectitude, without distinction of the colour of a skin?…That ancient, most wise, and inspired politician, Moses…established marriage with strangers by his own example…. Away then with your narrow impolitic notion of preventing by law what will be a national honour, national strength, and productive of national virtue–Intermarriages!

Equiano persuaded an impressive bevy of aristocrats to subscribe to his Narrative, many of them linked to the Prince of Wales. But he also shared a house with Thomas Hardy, one of the leaders of the very radical London Corresponding Society. In a letter to Hardy sent while he was away on one of his book tours, he suggests men who might be recruited to the democratic cause. The abolitionist campaign had very respectable backing but also strong support from many radical artisans.

One of the first writers to review Equiano’s Narrative was Mary Wollstonecraft, whose reaction was mixed. She wrote that “the whole account of his unwearied endeavours to obtain his freedom is very interesting.” But she found his “long account of his religious sentiments” to be “rather tiresome” and was not impressed by the stories of his “insignificant cares” as a free black. Indeed, it is a little disappointing that Wollstonecraft considers it a defect that the Narrative placed Equiano “on a par with the general mass of men, who fill the subordinate stations.”

Carretta, for his part, stresses Equiano’s self-presentation as a “gentleman,” a term referring to education and culture rather than birth. Yet the Narrative also gives us many glimpses of life below decks and of the entertainments and dances of those Equiano calls “my people,” as they played the “catguts” under the palm trees. He is not so concerned to project a pious and God-fearing profile that he neglects to mention he became more interesting to the “sable females” once he had won his freedom. While he cultivated the style and dignity of a gentleman who could quote Milton and Shakespeare as well as the Bible, he did not shy away from verbal brawls. The man evoked by Carretta the biographer had a fervent self-regard that does not entirely fit the scheme suspected by the author of the article in Slavery and Abolition. Still, Carretta paints a portrait of a proud, assertive man of stubborn intensity that is richer and more rounded than the hero of the Narrative.

As for the ethical questions raised by Equiano’s apparent fabrications, any consideration must start from the fact that black people were in a state of open or latent war against a massive institutional attempt to deny them their rights. A powerful instrument of the abolitionist cause in the 1790s, Equiano’s Narrative would have had much less of an impact if its author had been American-born. The British journalist Claud Cockburn liked to boast about inventing a report from Civil War Spain on an “uprising in Tetuan,” a bastion of Franco’s rebellion. News of the uprising was timed to head off an imminent diplomatic capitulation by the Western democracies. The moral was that in a life-and-death struggle with fascism a little journalistic subterfuge was sometimes essential. There was no lack of motive in Equiano’s case.

But as Carretta concedes, there was a great risk, if the author was really born in the Carolinas, that this particular “Tetuan incident” would be unmasked before it had served its purpose. Equiano must have known that there were powerful people out to discredit him. Had he never mentioned to anyone he was born in Carolina? Were no friends or descendants of the Virginia planter who had sold him still alive? Carretta believes that the great success of the “African” sections of the Narrative shows that if the author was not born in Africa, then he must have spoken with so many who were that he convincingly absorbed and reproduced their outlook. Carretta has done some very skillful sleuthing and presents evidence that can be interpreted in different ways. Ultimately, readers will have to decide for themselves.

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