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Where Was Olaudah Equiano Born? And Why Does It Matter?
It is one of the very few texts written in English by a person of African descent during the eighteenth century. It is also one of the first accounts of a journey up from slavery written by one who had personally experienced enslavement. This makes it one of the earliest 'slave narratives'.
But is more than merely an account of what it was like to be a slave. In the book, Equiano gives a long and detailed description of life in an African village - the earliest such description in the English language - as well as offering a first-person account of ' the middle passage ' - the journey from Africa to America in a slave ship.
These were all important parts of a book that appeared in ; the year in which the British parliament first seriously debated abolishing the slave trade. Indeed, we can see The Interesting Narrative as a document of that debate.
Yet they are also significant to this day. Equiano's description of African society is the most important written by an African in the days before European empires severely disrupted African society. And Equiano's description of the middle passage is a reminder of the sufferings of the ancestors of most African American and Black British people alive today.
Inhowever, it was suggested by Vincent Carretta that Equiano may not have been born in Africa but, rather, as a slave in South Carolina. In addition, Carretta argues that the early parts of Equiano's autobiography, rather than recording first-hand experience, may reflect the oral history of other slaves, combined with information Equiano gleaned from books he had read about Africa.
Carretta's evidence, a baptismal record and a muster roll, is compelling. It strongly suggests that the young Equiano told people that his birthplace was South Carolina.
Yet this evidence doesn't seem to be quite enough to settle the matter, and historians and critics are divided on the question. On this page, I offer I hope both sides of the argument, and leave it to you to make your own mind up.
In the column on the left, I have put arguments to suport the view that Equiano was born in Carolina. In the column to the right, I have put arguments to suggest that he was born in Africa. In both cases, the information almost certainly came from Equiano himself Equiano's own autobiography, The Interesting Narrative, tells us that he was born in Africa This information comes from Equiano himself 2.
Circumstantial Biographical Evidence Arguments that Equiano was born in Carolina Arguments that Equiano was born in Africa Equiano gets the dates wrong about the ships in which he was brought from America to England which would be consistent with him having made the story up Equiano's account of his life is usually very accurate when it can be checked against independent sources, making it surprising that his account of his first ten years can be shown to be inaccurate in parts Equiano never used the name "Equiano" before publishing his autobiography.
All his friends and acquaintances knew him by the name "Gustavus Vassa". He probably made up the name "Olaudah Equiano" as part of the careful construction of an African persona he carried out in Although Equiano gets the dates wrong about the ships in which he was brought from America to England, he was a very young child at the time, and suffering a severe trauma, so it is reasonable to assume that his memory might sometimes be at fault Equiano's account of his life is usually very accurate when it can be checked against independent sources, showing that it was his usual practice to tell the truth as far as he could remember Although Equiano never used his birth name beforethis was not unusual.
Few slaves or former slaves used their African names. Equiano's friend Quobna Ottobah Cugoanofor example, used his slave name of John Stuart throughout his life, except on the title page of his book 3.
Close Reading of the Text Arguments that Equiano was born in Carolina Arguments that Equiano was born in Africa Much of the early part of The Interesting Narrative, in which Equiano describes Africa and the middle passage, closely resembles similar accounts made by European or American authors, for example, by Anthony Benezet.
Equiano probably invented his African childhood, and copied information out of books such as these The parts of The Interesting Narrative that describe Africa and the middle passage have a mythological style that makes them unreliable as history Much of the early part of The Interesting Narrative, in which Equiano describes Africa and the middle passage, closely resembles similar accounts made by European or American authors, for example, by Anthony Benezet.
Yet Equiano references many of these works, and consulted them in order to help him remember the details of a distant childhood The parts of The Interesting Narrative that describe Africa and the middle passage are good examples of clear reportage that deserve to be taken seriously 5.
Contemporary Expectations Arguments that Equiano was born in Carolina Arguments that Equiano was born in Africa Readers in the eighteenth century were not fools, and demanded the same high level of honesty and veracity that we would now expect.Introduction.
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