Lovejoy.Constructing

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Unformatted text preview: Lending String: EMU,*RRR,JHE,JHE,DGU Call#: 0’! .H53 Patron: MILLER, Joseph Loeation: PRR Journal Title: Historicaily speaking. Date: 0324-08 Volume: 7 Issue: 3 MonthIYear: 2006 Pages: Ariel ODYSSEY ENABLED Article Author: Historical Society (Boston, Mass.) Borrower V [email protected] Article Title: Paul E. Lovejoy; éConstruction of Identity; Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa?<'j Shipping Address: University of Virginia Alderman Library/ILL - . - - - 160 N. McCormick Road I : t M . t | S t mpnnt Bee on, ass , HIS once OCle y, [199 Charlottesville, VA 22904 Fax: 804 982-2307 Ariel: 128.143.166.41 ILL Number: 41032858 Emaik llllllllllllllIllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll University of Rochester ILL lLLiad m: 453925 Hllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll If you need to request a resend, please do so within five (5) business days. INDICATE PROBLEM: Wm.— University of Rochester Library (RRR) Rochester, NY 14627 Phone: (585) 275-4454 Ariel: 128.151.189.155 Odyssey: 128.151.2445 8 Historically Speaking - JanuaryiFebruary 2006 CONSTRUCTION OF IDENTITY: OLAUDAH EQUIANO 0R GusrAvus VASSA? Paul E. Lovejoy incent Carretta claims that recently ‘/ discovered documents concerning the baptism of Gustavus Vassa and his subsequent employment in the British navy “cast doubt” on the early life of the person usually recognized as Olaudah Equiano, author of The Interesting Narrative ofrhe Life of Olaudah Equiano. or Gustavus Vassar, the African. Written by Himself.l The two docu- ments in question are his baptismal record at St. Margaret’s Church in London and the muster records from the Arctic expedition of Sir John Phipps (later Lord Mulgrave) in 1773, both of which attest to his birth in South Carolina. Carrctta casts his web of doubt even broader, suggesting that Vassaquuiano was born in 1747, not 1745 as claimed in The Interesting Narrative, and certainly not in 1742, as I argue in an article appearing in Slavery and Abolitirm.2 For Carretta, the author of The Interesting Narrative was a “self-made” man, adopting a public image as Olaudah Equiano, who had been born in Africa, when in fact he was known as Gustavus Vassa and had been born in South Carolina. For Carretta, “self—made” has a dOu- ble meaning, including both his success in achieving his emancipation and becoming famous and the fictionalization of his child— hood to achieve this end. According to Carretta, the recent discover- ies suggest that “the author of The Interesting Narrative may have invented rather than reclaimed an African identity,” and if this is the case, then it follows that “he invented his African childhood and his much quoted account of the Middle Passage on a slave ship.” In short, documentation for a South Carolina birthplace and problems in Vassa’s own chronology of his youth raise sufficient grounds to express “reasonable doubt” about Vassa’s claim to an African birth. Indeed, Carretta considers that “the burden of proof . . . is now on those who believe that The Interesting Narrative is a historically accurate piece of nonfiction.” My response, therefore, is in part a reaction to Catretta’s challenge that “anyone who still contends that Equiano’s account of the early years of his life is authen— tic is obligated to account for the powerful conflicting evidence." The methodological issues here relate to how historians engage oral tradition, memory, and other non—written sources with the written record. If Equiano was an eyewitness to events and practices in Africa, that’s one thing. If his account is a composite of stories and information gathered from others, it’s another matter. Despite some qualifications, Carretta essentially claims that the first part of The Interesting Narrative is a fictionalized account of life in Africa and the horrors of the Middle Passage, whereas I think that there is sufficient internal evidence to conclude that the account is essentially authentic, although certainly informed by later reflection, Vassa’s acquired knowledge of Africa, and memories of others whom he knew to have come from the Bight of Biafra. The reflections and memories used in autobiography are always filtered, but despite this caveat, I would conclude that Vassa was born in Africa and not in South Carolina. The controversy arises from the interpreta- tion of Vassa’s life before the summer of 1754, and here my reconstruction varies consider- ably from Carretta’s. Perhaps we are pursuing historical understanding in different ways. Carrctta pushes the evidence that casts doubts on what Vassa says. While Carretta appears to have uncovered evidence that Vassa was a fraud and that he knowingly lied, I ask: What if he was telling the truth? Then how do we account for evidence that conflicts with what he said? Moreover, when would he have invented his narrative, what evidence is there that helps to explain the construction of the narrative, and why would he deliberately have altered his natal home? How did he sustain the deception, if he constructed an African birth but in fact was born in South Carolina? The fact that he worked for Dr. Charles Irving on the Arctic expedition in 1773, and later was involved with Irving in the abortive plantation scheme on the Mosquito Shore in I776, has not been examined carefully. 0n the Arctic expedition, Vassa registered his birthplace as South Carolina, while Irving hired him for the Mosquito Shore venture because he could speak the language of his “countrymen,” i.e., Igbo. The biggest lacuna in Carretta’s scholar- ship is the answer to the question: Where did Vassa learn his understanding of Igbo cosmol— ogy and society, indeed his knowledge of the Igbo language, as revealed in the vocabulary that he mentions in The Interesting Narrative? Did he learn it in the Carolinas before he was sold to Pascal? This is unlikely, since there were few Igbo in South Carolina, and he was not in Virginia long enough to meet anyone with whom he could speak, according to his own testimony, even though there were tela- 4- tively many Igbo speakers in the tidewater region. He clearly did not speak English, ‘ although by this time if he had come from ,‘ Africa he would probably have begun to team some words. if he had been born in South 5: Carolina, he would have known English in thé ‘ form spoken on plantations, a pidgin but nonetheless English. If he did understand :, Igbo, then, where and when did he learn it? , According to Canada, Vassa’s “account of' '_. Africa is a combination of printed sources, memory, and imagination.” But is it really safe to conclude that because Vassa had great liter; ary skills he made it all up? I think not. Anthony Benezet has been cited as a source, 9; and it is clear that Benezet was an influence on Vassa’s political development, which he dulyr acknowledges in The Interesting Narrative. . But what could Vassa have teamed from him? . A close reading of Benezet’s books and pam- phlets reveals that he had absolutely nothing to say about Igboland or Igbo culture and soci~ ety.J His work, with its noble antislavery polemics, is nothing more than long quotes from different sources to prove his point that slavery is evil and that everything possible should be done to stamp it out. Benezct‘s ide- ological and moral position was an important influence on Vassa’s comprehension of the political and religious aspects of abolition, but i he was not a source of information on 3 lgboland. According to Carretta, “Despite claiming to describe distinctively Igbo manners, he [Vassa] conflatcs accounts of various African ethnic groups to construct a kind of pan- Afiican identity.” Carretta does not make it clear which ethnic groups are conflated, andl would argue, to the contrary, that Vassa pro- vides the earliest information on several - in in b: in tit Cl £7} 1-!- 2* 940009131300 m -u-—w l w ”w pan-w". important Igbo institutions, including some insight into how these institutions operated before the middle of the 18th century. Most important, in my opinion, is Vassa’s descrip— ; tion of the icht' facial markings and their sig- ‘ nificance. Indeed, I would assert that Vassa’s ‘ description of his country and his people is sufficient continuation that he was born where he said he was, and based on when boys received the ichi scarification, that he was about 1] when he was kidnapped, as he claims, which suggests a birth date of ca. 1742, not 1745 or 1747. This shift in the chronology is warranted on the basis of inter- nal evidence in The Interesting Narrative and the fact that Pascal arrived in England in December 1754 with the slave boy he had named Gustavus Vassa. If Carretta is correct about Vassa’s age at the time of baptism, accepting the documen- tary evidence, then he was too young to have created a complex fraud about origins. The fraud must have been perpetrated later, but when? Certainly the baptismal record cannot '- be used as proof that he committed fraud, only that his godparents might have. But why would they. have done so is the question, not what a slave might have said in St. Margaret’s _ Church, where the Members of Parliament met for morning prayers before opening ses- _ sion. Vassa was in the sanctuary of power, one .; of the few slaves ever baptized in ' St.Margaret‘s, and he was given a birthplace of Carolina. Was this a social event, a fraud of another kind, a joke? He was, afier all, none other than Gustavus Vassa, the savior of his 2 people, named after the liberator of Sweden, and seems to have believed that he had been : promised manumission on baptism. The text : itself points to authenticity, not fraud. It is the detail in the baptismal registry that requires explanation. As Carretta observes, Vassa pro— i vides details during and after the Seven Years’ i War, which, when possible to verify, are - remarkably accurate. i Vassa’s description of lgbo culture is not cobbled together from accounts of generic African practices, as Carretta claims. “Moreover, Carretta is not accurate in stating ' that "modern scholars rightly point out that of the surviving brief 13th-century descriptions of the kingdom of Benin, Equiano’s account of 1gboland is the most fiilly developed.” In my opinion, this is inaccurate because Vassa's account has nothing to do with the Kingdom of Benin, which Vassa added to his narrative on the basis of reading Benezet, who specifi- cally did not discuSs Igboland. Vassa was attempting to situate what he knew within the framework of what was known about Africa, January/February 2006 - and similarly he used such terms as “Libyan” and “Ethiopian” to try to achieve the same results. He also contrasted his people with Jews and Muslims, once again to establish similarities and differences with his own memories of his homeland, The relationship with the Kingdom of Benin is in fact plausi~ ble, but only parts of Igholand west of the Niger River were tributary to Benin in the 18th century, and the area that Vassa was from almost certainly was not that part of Igboland, but rather central Igboland, to the east of the Niger River. While Vassa drew on published sources for what he knew about other parts of Africa, there is nothing in any of the known sources that he used that actually has anything to say about lgboland. His information had to have been derived from his own experience and whatever he le-amed in London from some of his “countrymen.” Vassa is one of first to say he was an African, and in accordance with contemporary usage in Europe, to be equated with Ethiopians and Libyans. As Alexander Byrd has demonstrated, Vassa’s use of these con- cepts reflects evolving meanings of nation and citizenship as discussed in the late 18th centu- ry.4 The term “Eboe” as used by Vassa had various meanings. In the 18th century, appar- ently, it was not a term that described a com- mon ethnic identity because its implication was pejorative; it meant “other” people, both neighbors and foreigners, but who presumably spoke a dialect of Igbo, and who in fact would now be recognized as Igbo. Vassa’s use of these various terms, and others such as “coun- trymen” and “nation” are important examples of how Vassa, and by extension, others from Africa and of African descent were grappling with issues of identity and community. Hence, it may appear that Carretta has a good case, much better than that of Vassa’s critics who first challenged his claim of an African birth in 1792. The baptism record states age and place of birth, as does the Arctic muster book (despite differences in the derived date of birthithe baptism record sug- gesting a date of birth in 1747, and the Arctic list indicating 1745). The weakness in Carretta’s argument arises from his mistaken view of the ethnography and history of the interior of the Eight of Biafra. Moreover, Carretta’s chronology for Vassa’s life is not supported by the available evidence, and it is more likely that Vassa was born before he says he was, rather than later. This reconstruction suggests that he was about 12 when he first arrived in England, as he states in The Interesting Narrative, which we know to have been in December E754. lfhe had been born in Historically Speaking 9 1747, as Carretta has concluded, it is unlikely that he cauld have earned his freedom between 1763 and 1766 (in fact earning much more than the cost of his ransom because he suffered from theft and non-payment) which would have meant that he earned his freedom by the time he was 19. If this were the case, he would have been a most unusual young man indeed. If, however, he were born in 1742, he Would have been baptized when he was 17, earning his freedom by the time he was 24, which seems more plausible. Paul E. Lovejoy is Distinguished Research Professor at York University. He is a Fellow oftlie Royal Society of Canada and holds the Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora Studies. He has authored, co-anthored, edited, or cot—edit— ed more than twanty books on African his- tory and African diaspora studies. ‘ Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (Penguin Books, 2003). 2 “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African," Slavery and Abolition, forthcoming 2006. 3 Anthony Benezct, Some Historical Account of Guinea, Its Situation. Produce and the General Disposition ofits inhabitants with an inquiry into the Rise and Progress ofthe Slave Trade, its nature and lamentable efiigcts (Frank Cass, 1968 [1771]). Benezet quoted at length various European observations ofwcstern Africa, but nothing on the interior ofthe Eight of Biafra, skipping from the Kingdom of Benin to Kongo and Angola in his descriptions and reports. He quotes some information on Barbados that pre- sumably Vassa could have used, but not on his homeland. 4 Alexander X. Byrd, “Eboe, Country, Nation and Gustavus Vassa’s Interesting Narrative," William and Mary Quarterly {forthcoming 2006). ...
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