Evidence that a Famous Slave's Narrative of the Middle Passage Was Fake
Olaudah Equiano's famous first-person account of the Middle Passage in his 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, has become the definitive version of the harrowing journey endured by slaves transported across the ocean. But what if Equiano did not make the journey?Vincent Carretta did not set out to question Equiano's tale, but in the process of his research, he uncovered evidence in public records that Equiano actually was born in South Carolina.
Equiano's account of the Middle Passage in his 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, is considered definitive."The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate," he wrote,"added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. ... The wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable. ... The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable."
Equiano says he was born in 1745 in"a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka," in an Igbo-speaking region on the west coast of Africa in what is now southeastern Nigeria. But in a forthcoming biography of Equiano, Mr. Carretta presents evidence he found in public records that Equiano was born in South Carolina.
Mr. Carretta's conclusions threaten a pillar of scholarship on slave narratives and the African diaspora. Questioning Equiano's origins calls into doubt some fundamental assumptions made in departments of African-American studies and among historians and literary critics who study the British Atlantic world. Scholars have also relied on Equiano for his account of 18th-century life in West Africa.
Mr. Carretta's findings have not won him friends in certain circles.
"I've gotten quite negative reactions from some people in African-American studies, and some very negative reactions from Nigerians, particularly Igbos," he says."He's a national hero, particularly in Igboland, what would have become Biafra."
The Chronicle of Higher Education is holding a debate on the subject this week. Click here.
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Dennis W Johnson - 9/7/2005
My copy of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, included cultural information by Ibo writer Chinua Achebe. It seems strange an Ibo wouldn’t see him as a fake Ibo. Anything is possible, but I am skeptical and would like to see Dr. Carretta’s methodology. Genealogy is tedious work; you have to look through hard to read hand-written documents with misspellings or alternate spellings. Also people can have the same name. African-American genealogy is even more problematical.
Did the author study genealogy at the National Institute on Genealogical Research or the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research? Is he a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists (FASG)?