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Where Was Olaudah Equiano Born?

(And Why Does It Matter?)

Equiano's autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789, is important for many reasons. 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 1789; 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. In 1999, however, it was suggested by Vincent Carretta that Equiano may not have been born in Africa but, rather, as a slave in South Carolina. - at that time one of the thirteen British colonies in North America. 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.

 

1. Written Evidence
Arguments that Equiano was born in Carolina
Arguments that Equiano was born in Africa
  • Equiano's baptismal record at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, dated 9 February 1759, records that he was born in 'Carolina'.
  • A Royal Navy muster roll from Constantine Phipp’s Arctic expedition of 1773 says that Equiano was born in 'South Carolina'.
  • 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 1789
  • 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 before 1789, this was not unusual. Few slaves or former slaves used their African names. Equiano's friend Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, for example, used his slave name of John Stuart throughout his life, except on the title page of his book (1787)
3. Equiano's Motivation
Arguments that Equiano was born in Carolina
Arguments that Equiano was born in Africa
  • Equiano's main motivation was to end the slave trade, so he would write or say anything in his published work that he thought he could get away with, as long as it brought the abolition of the slave trade closer
  • Equiano had nothing to hide in his early life, so he told the truth about his birthplace to the church clerk at his baptism and to the naval officer who compiled the muster roll in which he gave his birthplace as South Carolina
  • Equiano's main motivation was to end the slave trade, so he would be very careful to tell the truth in his published work and not write or say anything that might bring him or his campaign into disrepute
  • Equiano had been abducted and enslaved and thus wished to hide his true identity by lying about his birthplace to the church clerk at his baptism and to the naval officer who compiled the muster roll in which he gave his birthplace as South Carolina
4. 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. However, Equiano knew that it would be very difficult for his readers to check the truth, or otherwise, of his account.
  • In the late eighteenth century, there were more poems, plays, and novels written against slavery than there were 'serious' political tracts. Readers would thus have been more interested in hearing general truths about slavery than particular histories, and so wouldn't have cared so much about whether the details of Equiano's story were true
  • Readers in the eighteenth century were not fools, and demanded the same high level of honesty and veracity that we would now expect. Thus, Equiano would not have tried to get away with telling a lie about his African origins - somebody, somewhere, would have known the truth
  • In the late eighteenth century, there were more poems, plays, and novels written against slavery than there were 'serious' political tracts. Equiano would have known that, to be taken seriously, he had to appear as more than just a writer of fiction, but as someone who was telling the whole truth
6. The Realities of Equiano's Life
Arguments that Equiano was born in Carolina
Arguments that Equiano was born in Africa
  • Even though Equiano was born in Carolina, he was a long way from home and, by the 1780s, could get away with saying anything he liked about his past, particularly since communications between England and America had been disrupted in the war of 1775-1783.
  • When Equiano was asked for his place of birth during his childhood baptism, he may not have had at that time a sufficient mastery of the English language to understand the question. (For example, if he had been asked 'where are you from', he may have understood it as 'where have you recently come from'.) However, if this was the case, there is no reason why, as an adult and a fluent English speaker, he would continue to say that he had been born in Carolina, as he later did when joining Constantine Phipp’s Arctic expedition of 1773.
  • Despite the war, links between England and America were still close. Had he been lying, sooner or later someone in America would have detected his falsehood, particularly after his book was published in New York in 1791.
  • Equiano knew that the most intensive search would be made by proslavery campaigners to discredit him. Therefore, he would not have attempted to invent a new identity and birthplace.
  • When Equiano was asked for his place of birth during his childhood baptism, he may not have had at that time a sufficient mastery of the English language to understand the question. (For example, if he had been asked 'where are you from', he may have understood it as 'where have you recently come from'.) Once the mistake was in writing on his baptismal record, he might have chosen to simply accept the error as unimportant.
7. Equiano's Psychological State
Arguments that Equiano was born in Carolina
Arguments that Equiano was born in Africa
  • As a terrified and traumatised child, the young Equiano would have been too afraid to tell anything other than the truth when asked for his place of birth at his baptism ceremony.
  • As a terrified and traumatised child, the young Equiano may have been too afraid to tell the truth when asked for his place of birth at his baptism ceremony.
  • Many children, especially traumatised children, invent stories to explain their origins. Many such people come to terms with their trauma in later life. This might explain why Equiano tells one story when younger, and another when older.
8. The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that we just don't know. As the above table shows, there is evidence on both sides of the debate. Just about the only thing we can say for certain is that, when he was younger, Equiano told people he was from Carolina, but when he was older, he told people he was from Africa. Whether you believe the younger Equiano or the older Equiano is entirely up to you...

 

These are just some of the arguments in favour of, and against, the proposition that Equiano was born in South Carolina and not Africa. I have explored these arguments in more depth in an article published in 2008 in the journal 1650-1850:

You may also like to look in the Equiano Bibliography for further reading. Carretta's original arguments can be found in the academic journal Slavery and Abolition, in the introduction to his second edition of The Interesting Narrative, and in his biography of Equiano. See:
  • Vincent Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self Made Man (University of Georgia Press, 2005).
  • Vincent Carretta, 'Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on an Eighteenth-century Question of Identity', Slavery and Abolition, 20, 3 (December 1999), 96-105
  • Vincent Carretta, 'Introduction' in The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited with an introduction and notes by Vincent Carretta (London and New York: Penguin, 2003), pp. x-xi.

Text © Brycchan Carey 2003-2013


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* This page last updated 14 October 2013 *