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.