Carretta.Does-Equiano-Still-Matter

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Unformatted text preview: Lending String: EMU,*RRR,JHE,JHE,DGU Call #: D'l .H53 Patron: MiLLER, Joseph Location: FRR Journal Title: Historically speaking. Date: 03—24-08 Volume: 7 Issue: 3 MonthIYear: 2006 _ Pages; Arlel ODYSSEY ENABLED Article Author: Historical Society (Boston, Mass.) Borrower VA@ Article Tifle: Vincent Carrelta; éDoes Equiano . , - — Shipping Address: Still Matteflo . . . . . UniverSIty of Virginia Alderman LibraryllLL - . - - - 160 N. McCormick Road t: . Impnn Boston, Mass , Hustorical Seeiety, [199 Charlottesvme‘ VA 22904 Fax: 804 982—2307 Ariel: 128.143.166.41 ILL Number: 41032844 Ema": |llllilllllll|||||l||l|lllllllllllllllllllllll University of Rochester ILL ‘ lLLiad m: 453929 lllllllllllllfllllllllllllllllllllllllll If you need to request a resend, please do so within five (5) business days. INDICATE PROBLEM: —m___...._..______________p________ University of Rochester Library (RRR) Rochester, NY 14627 Phone: (585) 275-4454 Ariel: 128.151.189.155 Odyssey: 123.151.2445 Jan/Feb 2006 Historically Speaking - HISTORICALLY SPEAKING Vol. VII No. 3 CONTENTS Olaudah Equiano, the South Carolinian? A Forum Does Equiano Stilt Matter? \t‘lnoenl Carrefla Constmction oilde ‘ :Olauo‘ah Equrano or Gustavus assa? Faul'E Lovejoy Gondbye, Equiano, the African Trevor Bumard Beyond Equiano Jon SensbaCh Response to Lovejoy, Barnard. and Sensbach \vlnoent Carretta PosMan An interview with Tony Judi Conduded by Donald A Yams Racing the Enemy:A Critical Look Mimael Kol‘t The Future of War: A Forum Been Them! Done That! Blood in the Crystal Ball Colin St Gray Comment on Gray Peter Patel TheC lBalllsBlood but savor??? y T, X Home Comment on Gm y Viclar Davis Hanson History and the Future of War ,Anmlio J, 5mm n Comment on Gray Mulran Baoavich With Clausem'tz to Etemity Colin S. Gray Historical Thinhiri is Unnami, and Immense lm ntIAn interview Mth Sam nebury Concluded by Joseph 5. Lucas Histont over the Water Derek \Mlson What Have l-fistorians Been Reading? Book Exhibit intonnation for the Historical Society's 2006 Conference Pralimin ngigam torthe Historical I Socrety’s 006 nferenqe: Globalization. Empire, and impenalism in Historical Perspective JanuaryiFebruary 2006 OLAUDAH EQUIANo, THE SOUTH CAROLINIAN? A FORUM OLA UDAH EQUIANO ’3 THE TNTERESTING NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF OLAUDAH Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African is widely used in college classrooms to acquaint stu- dents with the horrors of the transatlantic voyage on slave ships as well as with life in 18th- century West Afiica. As Vincent Carretta notes below, "it is dtfiicult to think of any historical I account ofthe Middle Passage that does not quote... [Equiano ’5] eyewitness description ofits horrors as primary evidence. " But what this definitive account was created by an ex-slave _ horn in South Carolina, not Afiica? In the newly published Equiano the African: Biography of a 1' Self-Made Man ( University of Georgia Press. 2005). Cornelia, who has also edited the Penguin I: edition oquuiano's Interesting Narrative, argues that Equiano may have fitbricated his African identity. That said Carretta maintains that Equiano is still extremely valuable to historians because of his constructed identity as an “Atlantic creole. " " Carrettafv thesis is grist for a very lively florum. He begins by laying out the contours of his argument developed in Equiano the African. Paul Lovejoy, Trevor Barnard. and Jon Sensliach respond. The forum concludes with Carrettas rejoinder .i l _ DOES EQUIANO STILL MATTER? Vincent Carretta have been invited to address the question of whether—despite the possibility that be fabricated his personal and African identi- ties—tho man best known today as Olaudah Equiano remains a central figure in the recon~ struction of Atlantic history, and to our under- standing of the Atlantic world. Before I do so, let me briefly summarize his life, as he recounts it in his autobiography, and touch on the significant role he has played in historical and literary studies. According to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Eqniano. or Gustavus Vassar, the African. Written by Himself (London, 1'789), 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. Alter about a month in Virginia he was purchased by Michael Henry Pascal, an officer in the British Royal Navy who brought him to London. Pascal ironically renamed him Gustavns Vassa after the 16th-century Swedish monarch who liber-. 3th his people from Danish tyranny. Darin ' the 18th century slaves were oltcn given iron- . ically inappropriate names of powerful histor— ical figures like Caesar and Pompey to cmpha— size their subjugation to their masters‘ wills. . With Pascal, Equiano saw military action on I both sides of the Atlantic Ocean during the Seven Years’ War. In 1762, at the end of the conflict, Pascal shocked Equiano by refusing to free him, selling him instead in the West ‘; Indies. Escaping the horrors of slavery in the f sugar islands, Equiano managed to save , enough money to buy his own freedom in 1766. in Central America he helped purchase and supervise slaves on a plantation. He set off on voyages of commerce and adventure to North America, the Mediterranean, the West Indies, and the North Pole. He was now a man of the Atlantic. A close encounter with death during his Arctic vOyage forced him to recog- nize that he might be doomed to eternal T damnation. He resolved his spiritual crisis by i embracing Methodism in l774. Later, he became an outSpoken opponent of the slave .g—nnds I ' author l 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 3], I797, he was probably the wealthiest, and certainly the most famous, person of African descent in the Atlantic world. 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 accom- plished English—speak— ing writers of his age, and unquestionably the most accomplished of African descent. Several mod- ern editions are now available of his autobi- ography.» The literary status of The Interesting Narrative has been acknowledged by its inclusion in the Penguin Classics series. It is universally accept- ed as the fundamental text in the genre of the slave narrative. Excerpts from the book appear in every anthol- ogy and onany Web site covering American, African-American, British, and Caribbean history and literature of the 18th century. The most frequently . excerpted sections are the early chapters on = his life in Africa and his experience on the Middle Passage crossing the Atlantic to America. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any historical account of the Middle Passage that does not quote his eyewitness descrip- tion of its horrors as primary evidence. Interest in Equiano has not been restricted to academia. He has been the subject of televi- sion shows, films, comic books, and books written for children. The story of Equiano‘s life is part of African, African-American, Anglo-American, African-British, and African-Caribbean popular culture. Equiano is also the subject of a biography published . tin s raver s "ii/AS s a, January/February 2006 - in 1998 by James Waivin, an eminent histo— rian of slavery and the slave trade. These last thirty-five years have wit- messed a renaissance of interest in Equiano’s autobiography and its author. During Equiano’s own lifetime The Interesting Narrative went through an impressive nine fitttrwrflf .i' ,' I {into/w! brim/e / 51.1.14! Kr la... Olaudah Equiano from The interesting Narrative of the Life of Oiauciah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1794. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division. [Digital ID: rbcmisc ody0201]. editions. Most books published during the 18th century never saw a second edition. A few more editions of his book appeared, in altered and often abridged form, during the twenty years after his death in 1797. Thereafier, he was briefly cited and some— times quoted by British and American oppo- nents of slavery throughout the first half of the 19th century. He was still well enough known publicly that he was identified in 1857 as “Gustavus Vassa the African“ on the newly discovered gravestone of his only child who survived to adulthood. But after 1857 Equiano and his Interesting Narrative seem to have been almost completely forgot- Historically Speaking 656 Beacon Street, Mezzanine Boston, MA 02215—2010 ph. 617.358.0260 fX. 6l7.358.025l} [email protected] www.bu.edu/historic PRESIDENT Franklin W. Knight EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Louis A. Ferteger SECRETARYIFREASURER Jeffrey Vanke ASSISTANT DIRECTORS, EDITORS, HISTORICHLL I’SPEIIKING Joseph S. Lucas Donald A. Yerxa ASSOCIATE EDITOR, HIS T ORICALLY SPEAKING Randall J. Stephens EDITOR, THE JOURNAL OF THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY George Huppert MANAGING EDITOR, THE JOURNAL OF THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY Scott Hovey BOARD OF GOVERNORS Pete Banner-Haley Lewis Baternan Martin Burke Peter Coclanis Darryl (1 Hart John Higginson Margaret King Alan Charles Kors Han'iet Lightman James Livingston Pauline Maier Joyce Malcolm Scott Marier Wilfred M. McClay David Moltke-Hansen Paul A. Rahe Joseph Skely Mark Smith Marc Trachtenberg Jon Westiing Sean Wilentz John Wilson John Womack 4 Historically Speaking - ten on both sides of the Atlantic for more than a century. A notable exception was W.E.B. Du Bois, who in 1913 recognized Equiano’s auto— biography as “the beginning of that long series of personal appeals of which Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery is the latest?“ The declining interest in the author and his book is probably explained by the shift in emphasis from the abolition of the British- dominated transatlantic slave trade to the abo- lition of slavery, particularly in the United States. _ The 20th-century recovery of the man and his work began with the publication in 1969 by Paul Edwards of a facsimile edition of The Interesting Narrative. l have been teaching and researching Equiano since the early 1990s. Although I had heard of Equiano before then, I had never seen a copy of his work, and from what I had read about it I assumed that it was a text more appropriate for American literature cours- es than for the British courses I was teaching at the time. Placing Equiano in the tradi— tion of American autobiographical writing exemplified by Benjamin Franklin went unchallenged. They were both seen as self— made men who raised themselves by their own exertions from obScurity and poverty. No one thought to point out that since the publication in London of Equiano‘s autobiography pre— ceded by decades that of Franklin’s in the United States, rather than considering Equiano an African-American Franklin we would more accurately call Franklin an Anglo-American Equiano. Preparing to teach The Interesting Narrative, and later editing the text for Penguin Putnam, I began a series of discover— ies that led to my decision to write a biography of its author. Many of those discoveries were ones I never expected, indeed, never wanted to make because they so profoundly challenged my sense of who Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, was. Recent biog— raphical discoveries cast doubt on Equiano’s story of his birth and early years. The avail- able evidence suggests that the author of The Interesting Narrative may have invented rather than reclaimed anAfrican identity. if so, Equiano’s literary achievements have been vastly underestimated. Baptismal and naval records say that he was born in South Carolina arotmd 1747. If they are accurate, he invented his African childhood and his much quoted account of the Middle Passage on'a slave ship.2 Other newly found evidence proves that Januarthehruary 2006 Equiano first came to England years earlier than he says. He was clearly willing to manip- ulate at least some of the details of his life. Problematic as such evidence may be, any would-be biographer must now take it into account. Reasonable doubt raised by the recent biographical discoveries inclines me to believe that the accounts of Africa and the Middle Passage in The Interesting Narrative were constructedmand carefully so—rather than actually experienced, and that the author probably invented an African identity. But we - must remember that reasonable doubt is not the same as conviction. We will probably never know the truth about the author’s birth and upbringing. The burden of proof, howev- By forging a part of his personal identity and creating an'Igbo national identity avant. la lettre, Equiano became an reflective spokesman for his fellow diaSporan Africans. er, is now on those who believe that The Interesting Narrative is a historically accurate piece of nonfiction. Anyone who still contends that Equiano’s account of the early years of his life is authentic is obligated to account for the powerful conflicting evidence. And we must consequently reasseSs the ways in which we have interpreted and used his autobiography. Equiano was certainly African by descent. The circumstantial evidence that Equiano was also African-American by birth and African— British by choice is compelling but not absolutely conclusive. Supporting Equiano’s claim of an African birth, Adam Hochschild argues, is “the long and fascinating history of autobiographies that distort or exaggerate the truth . . . . But in each of these cases, the lies and inventions pervade the entire book. Seldom is one crucial portion of a memoir totally fabricated and the remainder scrupu- lously accurate; among autobiographers, as with other writers, both dissemblers and truth- tellers tend to be consistent.”3 A writer as skill— ful and careful as Equiano, however, could have been one of the rare exceptions that Hochschild acknowledges exist. Equiano cer- tainly knew that to do well financially by doing good for the abolitionist cause he need» ed to establish and maintain his credibility as an eyewitness to the evils of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in its various 18th-cen- tury forms. He also knew what parts of his story could be corroborated by others, and, more important if he was combining fiction 2 with fact, what parts could not easily be con— tradicted. ‘; Why might Equiano have created an ‘ African nativity and disguised an American birth? The timing of the publication of The Interesting Narrative was no accident, Mainly through the efforts of the philanthropist I Thomas Clarkson, the organized opposition to l the African slave trade gathered and published evidence against the infamous practice from L 1787 on. But before 1789 the evidence and arguments against the slave trade came from 5' white voices alone. The only published black ;. witnesses were clearly fictitious, found, for example, in the poems of Hannah More and "“ William Cowper. in An Essay on the Slaven’ and Commerce of the Human Species (London, 1736}, ii, Equiano’s future subscriber Clarkson acknowledged the victim’s point of view. ‘ Clarkson dramatized the transatlantic slave trade by. placing the trade in “the; clearest, and most conspic ous point of view.” Employing the virtual re ity of fiction to convey factual experience, imagined himself interviewing a “melancho f African.” “We shall,“ he wrote, “throw a co " siderable part of our information on this he into the form of a narrative: we shall suppose, ourselves, in short, on the continent of Africa; and relate a scene, which, from its agreem with unquestionable facts, might not unrea-i sonany be presumed to have been presented to our view, had we really been there} 1 _ Initially, not even black opponents of the trade _ recognized the rhetorical power an authentic - African voice could wield in the struggle. When Equiano’s friend, collaborator, and '. future subscriber Quobna Ottobah Cugoano published Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Trafi‘ic of the Slavery and Commerce ofthe Human Species in London in 1787, he chose not to describe Africa or the i Middle Passage in much detail. A member of the Fante people from the area of present-day ' Ghana who had been kidnapped into slavery around 1770, Cugoano believed that “it would be needless to give a description of all the hor- rible scenes which we saw, and the base treat- ment which we met with in this dreadful cap- tive situation, as the similar cases of thou- sands, which suffer by this infernal traffic, are well known.”5 Equiano knew that what the anti-slave trade movement needed most in 1789 to con- tinue its increasing momentum was the rhetor- desirability of hearing till? i A Him—.H‘. January/February 2006 ' :| (u rut-s Iwntbu w Wflhflid nicer. ' 'i:=éhde‘A'-X=9¥LfiaiTact . .- "N‘swwuflwvu- ical power an authentic African voice could wield in the struggle. His autobiography cor- . roborated and even explicitly drew upon earli« American, voice was what “uni-:14“ 9.”; w -' ' 5 personal identity and creating ' ..became : millions of people forcibly ‘1 taken brought to the Americas as or reports of Africa and the trade by some white observers, and challenged those of oth— ers. His account of Africa is a combination of printed sources, memory, and imagination. Equiano appreciated that “only something so particular as a single life . . . could capture the multiplicity of . . . lives” in the 18th-century Atlantic worlds The aboli- tionist movement required precisely the kind of account of Africa and the Middle Passage that he, and perhaps only he, could supply. An African, not an African- was needed. He spoke for the from Africa and slaves. Equiano recognized a way to do very well financial~ ly by doing a great deal of good in supplying that much needed voice. By forging a part of his an Igbo national identity grant [a iettre, Equiano an effective spokesman for his fellow diasporan Africans. As the Nigerian Nobel laureate Chinua Achebe has observed, the conscious- ness of the Igbo identity that Equiano asserts is a far more recent phenomenon: In my area, historically, {the Igbo peo— ple] did not see themselves as Igbo. They saw themselves as people from this village or that village. In fact in some places “‘lgbo” was a word of abuse; they were the “other” people, down in the bush. And yet, after the experience of the Biafran War, during a period of two years [1967-1970], it became a very powerful conscious— ness. But it was real all the time. They all spoke the same language, called “lgho,” even though they were not using that identity in any way. But the moment came when this identity became very very powerful . . . and over a very short period.7 Contemporary scholars value Equiano’s “unique first-hand account of 18th-century Igboland” so highly because so little other direct information about the mid-lSth-century Igbo exists.E But this same absence of evi- dence gave Equiano the opportunity for inven- tion he needed if he was born in South Carolina rather than Africa. Equiano uses his autobiography to practice nation-formation as well as self-creation. He was a pioneer in the forging of an lgbo national identity. To be sure, an argument has been made that an lgbo national identity was developing African slaves being led by two guards. From L'ittfrique, on Historic, moaurs, usages et coutumes des africains: le Sénégai (Paris, 1814). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University, during the 18th century, but even if such an identity had been established by the time Equiano was writing, it was not the primary identity a native West African would likely have claimed, except possibly to outsiders.9 During the 18th century the now more famil- iar national sense of Igbo identity was the result of the involuntary African diaspora: .“A sense of pan-Igbo identity came only when its people left Igboland—an experience first imposed by the slave trade.”10 Whites used the term “Eboe,” or “lgbo,” in the d’asporan sense throughout the 18th century. Like the terms “Guinea” and “Koromantyn,” “Eboe” was a geographical and supra-ethnic concept Europeans created thatlelided the significant cultural differences among various ethnic groups in West Africa. Equiano speaks with the voice of an Igbo prom—nationalist proud of his homeland, no doubt aware that if he could rehabilitate the reputation of the Igbo in particular, he would rehabilitate the reputation of Africans in gen— eral. _Equiano knew that earlier and contempo— raneous commentators disagreed with his pos- Historically Speaking 5 itive assessment of the peoples Europeans called Igbos, the slaves least desired by planters in the British colonies.“ As one histo- rian points out, “No Chesapeake planter is known to have expressed a preference for laborers originating in the Bight of Biafra, and indeed Ibo . . . slaves were held in particularly low esteem in much of the Caribbean and in South Carolina?"2 Scholars who overempha- size the few times Equiano uses the term “Eboe” often ignore the way he organizes his account of Attica. He moves from recol— lections about Eboe specifi- cally to comments about Africans in general, and he closes his first chapter with a series of rhetorical questions that force his readers to draw conclusions about the univer— sal nature of humankind from the evidence he has presented. Despite claiming to describe distinctively lgbo manners, he conflates accounts of various African ethnic groups to con- struct a kind of pan-African identity. Modern scholars rightly point out that of the surviving brief 18th-century descrip- tions of the kingdom of Benin, Equiano’s account of lgboland is the most fully developed. Equiano’s descrip- tion is certainly the most complete 18th-centu— ry ethnography of Eboe we have from a per- son of African descent,_and the only one not mediated by a white translator or transcriber. But critics and scholars have increasingly come to recognize that his account’s apparent uniqueness does not guarantee its authentici- ty.13 All that we know of Olaudah Equiano’s existence in Africa comes from his own account, and that account was clearly intended to be part of the dialogue about the African slave trade. His representation of lgboland challenged competing images of a land of sav- agery, idolatry, cannibalism, indolence, and social disorder. If Equia'no forged both his per- sonal and national African identities, he risked being exposed as an impostor, thus discredit- ing the abolitionist cause, but the financial and rhetorical success of his book demonstrated that it was a risk well worth taking. Every autobiography is an act of re—cre— ation, and autobiographers are not under oath when they are reconstructing their lives. Furthermore, an autobiography is an act of rhetoric. That is, any autobiography is 3 Historically Speaking : designed to influence the reader’s impression of its author, and often, as in the case of The Interesting Narrative, to affect the reader’s beliefs or actions as well. The most constant quality of Equiano’s self was his ability to transform himself, to redefine and refashion his identity in response to changing circum- stances. A manumitted (freed) slave faced a greater opportunity for redefinition than any other autobiographer. Manumission necessitated redefinition. The profoundest possible trans- formation was the one any slave underwent when freed, moving from the legal status of property to that of person, from commodity to human being. Former slaves were also imme- diately compelled to redefine themselves by choosing a name. Even retention of a slave name was a choice. Choosing not to choose was not an option. With freedom came the obliga- tion to forge a new identity, whether by creating one out of the personal quali- ties and opportunities at ' hand or by counterfeiting one. Equiano may have done both. In one sense, the world lay all before the former slave, who as prop- erty had been a person without a country or a legal personal identity. Equianc’s restlessness and apparent wander- lust once he was free may have been the result of his quest for an identity and a place in the world. In the sense of raising himself from pover- ty and obscurity, Equiano was more of a self; made man than Franklin, and he was as suc- ceSSful during his lifetime as Franklin in mar- keting that image of himself. Through a com- bination of talent, opportunity, and determina- tion, Equiano became the first successful pro- fessional black writer. Franklin rose from poverty to prosperity; Equiano rose from being property in the eyes of the law to being the wealthiest person of African descent in . Britain. Like Franklin, Equiano offered his own life as a model for others to follow. Equiano’s personal conversions and transfor- mations from enslaved to free, pagan to Christian, and proslavery to abolitionist antic— ipated the changes he hoped to make in his readers, as well as the transformation he called for in the relationship between Britain and Africa. Equiano was an even more profoundly self-made man than Franklin if he invented an identity to suit the times. JanuarylFebruary 2006 Whether or not Equiano engaged in self- invention, attempts to classify him as simply an Afi'ican, an American, or a Briton are doomed to failure. Once he was free, Equiano judged parts of North America reasonably nice places to visit, but he never revealed any inter— est in voluntarily living there. By Equiano’s account, the amount of time he spent in North America during his life could be measiired in months, not years. If he spent a few months. as he claims, or several years, as other evidence suggests, living in mainland North America, he spent far more time at sea. He spent at least ten years on the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea during periods of war and peace between 1754 and 1785. The places he considered as a permanent home were Britain, Turkey, and Africa. Ultimately, he chose Equiano’s social and geographical mobility exposed him to all kinds of people and levels of Atlantic society. The convincing account of Africa he oflered to his readers may have been derived from the experiences of others he tells us he listened to during his many travels in the Caribbean, North America, and Britain. Britain, in part because Africa was denied him, despite his several attempts to get there. As we all do, Equiano chose from the var- ious subject positions available to him the one or ones most appropriate for the particular audience or audiences he was addressing. Sometimes he spoke or wrote primarily as a native of Africa, sometimes as a diasporan African, sometimes as an African-Briton, sometimes as a Briton, sometimes as a Christian, and at other times as more than one of the above. Just as we are at the same time parents to our children and children to our par~ ents, our subject position can change while we remain the same. Each of us has overlapping identities, one or more of which dominates in different contexts. Skilled rhetoricians know how to shift their positions, that is, how to emphasize different aspects of their identity to best influence and affect their readers or lis- teners. The private and public letters, book reviews, and petitions Equiano wrote and pub- lished in 1787 and 1788 display a masterful rhetorician honing his skills. On December 15, 1787, using just the name Gustavus Vassa, Equiano co—signed a letter entitled “The Address of Thanks of the Sons of Africa to the Honourable Granville ‘ Sharp, Esq.” Only Cugoano and one other co- signer of the letter they sent to the abolitionist 3 Sharp identified themselves with both African n and slave names. These self-styled “Sons of Africa" referred to themselves as “we, who 7 are a part, or descendants, of the much— “ wronged people of Africa.” Clearly, Equiano r l African without ever having set foot in Africa. 7 By the time Equiano published his autobiogra- i; l l and his colleagues believed that one was as much a “Son of Africa” by descent as by birth. At the end of the 18th century, one could be phy, a diasporan African identity was as authentic as a native one. In writing his autobiography, Equiano transformed a secial defect into a rhetorical j virtue. Having been dislo- ' cated socially and geo— graphically by slavery, he . assumed the identity of i I “citizen of the world,“'a _‘ cosmopolitan status nor- 2, men possessing enough _' wealth and leisure to be able to cultivate tastes that _ transcended narrow nation ' al interests and prejudices. , Denied. a nation, he ' claimed the world. But if The Interesting Narrative .' is indeed partly historical"; fiction, what value does it retain for histcn- _ans? As a self—proclaimed “citizen of the i world,” Equiano epitomized what Ira Berlin _ has called an “Atlantic creole": Along the periphery of the Atlantic— first in Africa, then in Europe, and finally in the Americasi [Anglophone—African] society was a product of the momentous meeting of Africans and Europeans and of their equally fateful encounter with the peo- ples of the Americas. Although the countenances of these new people of the Atlanticfi—Atlantic Creoles—might bear the features of Africa, Europe, or the Americas in whole or in part, their beginnings, strictly speaking, were in none of those places. Instead, by their experiences and sometimes by their persons, they were part of the three worlds that came together along the Atlantic littoral. Familiar with the commerce of the Atlantic, fluent in its new languages, and intimate with its mally reserved for gentle- _' i Hfldfiflufl.fi.mmfi.fiflhdm:‘m 3. mmms‘z‘amm trade and cultures, they were cosmo- politan in. the fullest sense.14 As an “Atlantic creole,” Equiano was idew 1 ally positioned to construct an identity for ihimself. He defined himself as much by i movement as by place. Indeed, he spent as much of his life on the water as in any place on land. Even while he was a slave, the educa- 1 tion and skills he acquired with the Royal i , Navy rendered him too valuable to be used for l the dangerous and backbreaking labor most ? slaves endured. Service at sea on royal naval and commercial vessels gave him an extraor— ' dinary vantage point from which to observe 3 the world around him. His social and geo- ‘ graphical mobility exposed him to all kinds of people and levels of Atlantic society. The con- vincing account of Africa he offered to his readers may have been derived from the expe- . riences of others he tells us he listened to dur- : ing his many travels in the Caribbean, North America, and Britain. His genius lay in his . ability to create and market a voice that. for , over two centuries has Spoken for millions of his fellow diasporan Africans. His value for historians lies in his exemplary status as an Atlantic creole, whose life and writings demonstrate the challenges and opportunities faced by 18th-century citizens of the world. Vincent Carretta is professor of Engl ish at the University of Maryland. He has edited the works of Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano, and Phyllis Wheatley ' WEB. Du Bois, “The Negro in Literature and Art,” Annals ofthe American Academy of Political and Social Science (September 1913), reprinted in WEB. Du Bois, Writings (Library of America, 1986), 863. 2 See my “Questioning the Identity of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” in Felicity Nussbaum, ed. The Global Eighteenth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 226-235. 3 Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free on Empire’s Slaves (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), 372. 4Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (London, 1786), 117-18. 5 Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, ed. Vincent Carretta (Penguin, 1999), 15. Januarthebruary 2006 - 5 Kwame Anthony Appiah, in My Father is House: Afiica in the Philosophy of Culture (Oxford University Press, 1992), 191. 1 have adapted and applied to Equiano words that Appiah uses to describe the significance of his late father’s life: “Only something so particular as a single life—as my father’s life, encapsulated in the complexipat- tern of social and personal relations around his cofiin%ou|d capture the multiplicity of our lives in a postcolonial world." 7 Quoted in Appiah, In My Father Ir House, 177. 3 Elizabeth lsichei, A History ofthe Igbo People (St. Martin’s Press, 1976), 21. John Thornton, Afi-ica andAfi—icans in the Making ofthe Atlantic World, l400-l80‘0 (Cambridge University Press, 1992; rev. ed. 1998), 310, notes that “Almost all we know about the [Igbo] region in the eighteenth century comes from the testimony of Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo who was enslaved as a youth around 1755." The fullest treatment of Equiano’s claim to an Igbo identity is Alexander Byrd, “Eboe, Country, Nation and Gustavus Vassa's interesting Narrative,” William and Mary Quarterly, forthcoming. 9 The most thorough treatment of the effects the transatlantic slave trade had on the conception and development of African identities during the early modern period is Thornton, Africa ondfifricans in the Making qftheArlantic World. On the absence of a pan-Igbo identity in Africa during the 18th century see Sigismund W. Koelle, Polyglotta Afi‘icana (London, 1854), 7-8; Douglas B. Chambers, “My Own Nation‘: Igbo Exiles in the Diaspora,” Slavery and Abolition ill (1997): '11- 97; Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The li'aiisfiirmarion of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (University ofNorth Carolina Press, 1998), 125-26; David Northrup, “lng and Myth Igbo: Culture and Ethnicity in the Atlantic World, l600~1850.” Slavery andAbolition 21 (2000): 1-20; Douglas B. Chambers, “Ethnicity in the Diaspora: The Slave Trade and the Creation of African ‘Nations’ in the Americas," Slavery and Abolition 22 [2001): 25-39; and Douglas B. Chambers, “The Significance of the Igbo in the Bight of Biafra Slave-Trade: A Rejoinder to Northrup’s ‘Myth Igbo,” Slavery and Abolition 23 (2002): 101420. ‘0 lsichei, History ofthe [goo People, 20. ll Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Block ' Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 62—67; Stephen D. Behrendt, “Markets, Transaction Cycles, and Profits: Merchant Decision Making in the British Slave Trade,” The William and Mary Quarteer 58 [2001): 196. ‘1 Lorena S. Walsh, “The Chesapeake Slave Trade: Regir‘mal Patterns, African Origins, and Some Implications," The William and Mary Quarterly 58 (2001): 139-170, 153. 13 In “Facts into Fiction: Equiano‘s Narrative Reconsidered,” Research in Afiican Literature: 13 (1982): 30-43, SE. Ogude argues that because an eleven-year—old was very unlikely to have the Historically Speaking 7 almost total recall Equiano claims, “Equiano relied less on the memory of his experience and more on other sources” (32) in his account of Ali-lea. And in “No Roots Here: On the Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano,” Review of English and Literary Studies 5 (1989), l-lfi, Ogude denies that linguistic evidence supports Equiano‘s account. Despite Ogude’s skepticism about Equiano's veracity, he does not question VassalEquiano’s fundamental identity as an African. 6.1. Jones, “Olaudah Equiano of the Niger Ibo,” in Philip D. Curtin, ed, Afiica Remembered: Narratives by West Afiicons from the Era of the Slave Trade (University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), 60-69, finds Equiano’s account ofliis “home and travels in Nigeria . . . disappointingly brief and confused.“ He believes that “the little he can remember of his travels is naturally muddled and incoherent” because Equiano “was only eleven years old when he was . kidnapped” (61, 69). In her review of Paul Edwards, The Life ofOlaua’ah Equiano and Catherine Obianuju Acholonu, The lgbo Roots of Olaudah Eqriiano, Journal ofAfriwn History 33 (1992): 164—65, Elizabeth lsichei remarks of Equiano’s description of Africa, “1 have come to believe that it is a palimpsest, and that though he I was indeed an Igbo (though even this has been questioned) he fused his own recollections with details obtained from other lgbo into a single ver- sion" (165}. Katherine Faull Eze, “Self- Encounters: Two Eighteenth-Century African Memoirs from Moravian Bethlehem,” in David McBride, LeRoy Hopkins, and C. Aisha Blackshire-Belay, eds., Crosscumznts: African Americans, Africa, and Germany in the liloa'ern World (Camden House, 189%), 29—52, considers “Equiano‘s Igbo past [to be] mostly a reconstruc— tion of European or Colonial American travel nar- ratives, most obviously, Anthony Benezet‘s Some Historical Account oquinea," 33, SOfnZZ. 14 Ira Berlin, “From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America." William and Mary Quarterly 33 (1996): 251-288; quotation from 254. l have substituted “Anglophone- Afi'ican" for Berlin’s “African-American” because his characterization of the “Atlantic creole" can be applied to many English-speaking people of African descent on both sides of the Atlantic dur- ing the 17th and 18th centuries. Berlin uses the term create to refer to a person of mixed cultures and languages. During the 18th century, a creole was someone of African or European descent who had been born in the Americas. ...
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