Allegedly Olaudah: The Origin of Equiano
Upon its publication in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano dramatically altered society’s outlook on race relations, the slave trade, and the abolitionist movement. Fueled by Equiano’s firsthand accounts of white brutality, the work served as a symbol of black hope amidst white oppression, using enlightened rhetoric and an inspiring story to spur his anti-slavery sentiment. While this famed case for equality still shapes our culture today, the most interesting aspect of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano actually lies in its author’s origins.
According to his narrative, Equiano was born to an upper-class family in the Ebo tribe, found in modern-day Nigeria. At age ten, he was kidnapped by freelance slavers and eventually sold into servitude (Caretta). Equiano relates the “hardship” and “horror” endured during his passage in graphic detail and recounts the frequent whippings suffered “in so savage a manner” that Equiano had never witnessed such “brutal cruelty.” Below deck, he recalls sights and sounds that ultimately left him longing for death:
“The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died…This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains…The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable” (28 – 9).
Though a tragic reality for millions of Africans along the Middle Passage, one modern scholar doubts Equiano ever experienced these events firsthand. Vincent Caretta of the University of Maryland instead claims Equiano was born in South Carolina, far from the terror portrayed in his allegedly autobiographical account. Equipped with documents from St. Margaret’s Church and the Royal Navy both supporting Equiano’s American lineage, Caretta’s research has caused a great deal of controversy within American literary circles as well as African historical societies.
While some question the documents’ authenticity, other readers struggle to grasp Equiano’s reasoning for revising such a trivial detail. One possible explanation lies within his story’s motivation. Without a personal description of the Middle Passage, his case against slavery would have been drastically weakened, solely relying on plantation-based mistreatment at the hands of North and South American planters. By bridging his story across the Atlantic, the issue of abolition becomes a global affair stemming from America to Africa to Europe. Not only does Equiano’s (possible) repositioning call for English involvement, it also establishes a precedent for other first-person accounts of the slave trade. Even if slightly falsified, The Interesting Narrative offers a more realistic view of slavery than the white poets and playwrights of his era. Equiano provided a literary precedent that allowed for other black writers – like Mary Prince – to voice with their own experiences as slaves.
Despite Equiano’s controversial beginnings, his social impact today cannot be questioned, even by Caretta. Under intense scrutiny, the rest of Equiano’s accomplishments as a freedman, abolitionist and writer are not only factual but inspirational. Whether viewed as a work of fact or a justified lie, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is one of the most revolutionary texts of its time. And that’s the truth.
Caretta, Vincent. “Does Equiano Still Matter?” The Historical Society. Boston University, Jan.-Feb. 2006. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <http://www.bu.edu/historic/hs/janfeb06.html>.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2001. 28-29. Print.