An interview with Vincent Carretta

Read more about Equiano the African

Q: For those who are unfamiliar with him, can you briefly describe who Equiano was?

A: No one has a greater claim to being a self-made man than the writer now best known as Olaudah Equiano. According to his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (London, 1789), Equiano was born in 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria. There, he says, he was enslaved at the age of eleven, and sold to English slave traders who took him on the Middle Passage to the West Indies. Within a few days, he tells us, he was taken to Virginia and sold to a local planter. After about a month in Virginia, he was bought by Michael Henry Pascal, an officer in the British Royal Navy. With Pascal, Equiano saw military action during the Seven Years’ War. In 1762, at the end of the conflict, Pascal shocked Equiano by refusing to free him, selling him instead into the horrors of West Indian slavery. A clever businessman, Equiano managed to save enough money to buy his own freedom in 1766. Once free, Equiano set off on voyages of commerce and adventure to North America, the Mediterranean, the West Indies, and the North Pole. In Central America, he helped purchase and supervised slaves on a plantation. Returning to London in 1777, he became concerned with spiritual and social reform. He converted to Methodism and later became an outspoken opponent of the slave trade, first in his letters to newspapers and then in his autobiography. He married an Englishwoman in 1792, with whom he had two daughters. Thanks largely to profits from his publications, when Equiano died on March 31, 1797, he was probably the wealthiest, and certainly the most famous, person of African descent in the English-speaking world.

Q: Can you explain the importance of his Interesting Narrative?

A: Over the past thirty-five years, historians, literary critics, and the general public have come to recognize the author of The Interesting Narrative as one of the most accomplished English-speaking writers of African descent. Several modern editions are now available. The literary status of The Interesting Narrative has been acknowledged by its inclusion in the Penguin Classics series. It is universally accepted as the fundamental text in the genre of the slave narrative. Excerpts from the book now appear in every anthology covering American, African-American, British, and Caribbean history and literature of the eighteenth century. The most frequently excerpted sections are the early chapters on his life in Africa and his experience on the Middle Passage. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any historical account of the Middle Passage that does not quote his description of its horrors as primary eyewitness evidence. Interest in Equiano has not been restricted to academia. He has been the subject of television shows, films, comic books, and books written for children. The story of Equiano’s life is part of African, African-American, and Anglo-American, African-British, and African-Caribbean popular culture.

Q: What were your initial feelings when you made the discovery that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina and not in Africa?

A: I wasn’t pleased. I found the baptismal and naval records that say Equiano was born in South Carolina while I was doing the research for the 1995 Penguin edition of his writings. The discovery complicated the story of his life in ways I did not expect and in ways I knew that others would not want to hear about. But as a scholar, I am obligated to share the find with my readers, which I cited in my notes. No one, however, seemed to notice the discovery until I published a separate article in 1999 on the records and their biographical implications.

Q: People in Africa seem to have a famous son to lose because of your work. Have you seen a resistance there to your discovery? And have you seen any interest—or reluctance—from people in South Carolina to claim Equiano as their own?

A: I have encountered understandable resistance from some Nigerians, especially Igbos, for whom Equiano is a national hero. Some academics have questioned my motives in making the information public. One American literary critic publicly denounced me for not having suppressed the troubling records. But the vast majority of people acknowledge that the records, disturbing as they may be, must be taken into account. Invitations to speak at history conferences in South Carolina demonstrate the growing local interest in Equiano as an American son.

Q: This book is a departure from your previous scholarly work. What about Equiano inspired you to write his biography?

A: My first two books were studies of transatlantic verbal and visual political satire during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. In one sense, I don’t see working on Equiano as a great departure from my previous interests in the history and literature of the period, particularly rhetorical art, that is, verbal or visual art designed to move its audience. My scholarly interest in Equiano grew directly out of my pedagogical interest in him. I first read him when I was looking for writings by people of African descent to teach in my courses on eighteenth-century literature. I was hooked by the first page of his Interesting Narrative, which led to my desire to produce a reliable edition of all his writings, which in turn prompted my need to know as much as I could about his life. Attempting to write his biography became inevitable, I suppose.

Q: Now that we know that some of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative is invented, how do you suggest people approach the work? Is it any less valuable in your view as a primary source?

A: As a primary historical source, I think that it is most productively approached as a carefully crafted work of art intended in part to motivate its readers to oppose the transatlantic slave trade. Its initial success tells us much about the eighteenth century abolitionist movement. Equiano knew that to do well financially by doing some good for the abolitionist cause he needed to establish and maintain his credibility as an eyewitness to the evils of the trade and slavery in its various eighteenth century forms. He also knew what parts of his story could be corroborated by others, and more importantly if he was combining fiction with fact, what parts could not easily be contradicted. The Interesting Narrative is also a primary literary source, universally recognized as the fundamental text of the African-American slave narrative genre. Beyond being a literary and historical source, it is simply a great read, whether one approaches it as a slave narrative, spiritual autobiography, economic treatise, account of a self-made man, or adventure tale.

Q: You use many sections of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative to tell his life story in this book. How did you decide on this approach?

A: Because Equiano’s autobiography in the sole source for many of the details of his life, I decided to let him speak for himself as much as possible. His is a more powerful voice than mine, so why paraphrase him any more often than necessary?

Q: Equiano’s life story gives the reader a very complex view of slavery. What is one of the most surprising aspects of slavery a lay reader might learn from his story? Are there surprises in store for scholars, as well?

A: I think that many readers will be surprised by the range of varieties of chattel slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude that existed during the eighteenth century. Equiano’s autobiography is in part a comparative study of slavery in Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. Readers will probably also be surprised to discover that slavery was so pervasive and economically significant during the period that Equiano was at different stages of his life both a slave and a slave owner. Scholars, too, may be surprised by how skillfully Equiano combines historical fiction with personal history. He knew that to continue its increasing momentum the anti-slave-trade movement needed precisely the kind of account of Africa and the Middle Passage that he, and perhaps only he, could supply. An African, not an African American, voice was what the abolitionist cause required. He gave a voice to millions of people forcibly taken from Africa and brought to the Americas as slaves. Equiano recognized a way to do very well financially by doing a great deal of good in supplying that voice. All readers will be surprised to discover how difficult it is to define transatlantic figures like Equiano in narrowly national terms. Calling himself “a citizen of the world,” Equiano epitomized what the eminent historian Ira Berlin has called the “Atlantic Creole,” a person who had overlapping identities and who was defined as much by movement around and across the Atlantic as by location.

Q: Are you still researching Equiano, and do you hope to discover more about his exact place of birth?

A: I am indeed, though I’m not very hopeful about finding Equiano’s exact place of birth. No written records exist in Africa, especially in the region called “Igboland” in the eighteenth century, when the term “Igbo” was often a pejorative label that coastal African peoples and Europeans used to refer to the unfamiliar inland peoples. In South Carolina, records certainly exist of the births of male slaves, but how would we know which if any of them would later become the person known as Gustavus Vassa or Olaudah Equiano? I’ve had more luck tracing Equiano’s daughter Joanna, who on her twenty-first birthday in 1816 inherited from his estate £950, equivalent in today’s money to about £80,000, or $160,000. In October 2004, my wife, Pat, and I found her gravesite in London, so we now know where and when she died, and that her husband was a Congregationalist minister. I’m continuing to investigate her life. The hunt continues.