Vincent Carretta. Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. xxviii + 436 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-2571-2.
Reviewed by Douglas Chambers (Department of History, University of Southern Mississippi)
Published on H-Atlantic (November, 2007)
"Almost an Englishman": Carretta's Equiano
In 1961, the literary critic Lionel Trilling bemoaned the then-growing tendency within the academy to distill out of literature the "power of a work of art" by subjecting it to a deadening kind of "university study." He wrote, "Time has the effect of seeming to quiet the work of art, domesticating it and making it into a classic, which is often another way of saying that it is an object of merely habitual regard. University study of the right sort can reverse this process and restore to the old work its freshness and force--can, indeed, disclose unguessed-at power." Vincent Carretta's recent biography of Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa, ca.1745-97) does just this--through rigorous "university study of the right sort" and impressive archival research, Carretta has restored "freshness and force" to what had become, in the past generation, merely a classic.
Largely forgotten for 150 years, and then rediscovered in the 1960s, Equiano's Interesting Narrative (1789) today is central to the canon of early modern Atlantic literature and history. It is taught in university courses and area studies as widely varying as African, African American, American, Caribbean, and World history/literature, and similar courses in allied disciplines. One may reasonably say that Equiano today is the most famous African, and certainly the most famous self-identified "Eboe" (Igbo), in the early modern Atlantic world, or, at the least, in the era of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in a publicity blurb for the back cover, Equiano is "the most important black man in the eighteenth century." And yet, to be honest (and I write as someone who has used Equiano extensively in my own work, if perhaps rather uncritically), the canonical status of Equiano's narrative as a classic has all too often rendered it, in Trilling's words, "an object of merely habitual regard." In contrast, Carretta's Equiano forces us to consider both the man and his story in a fresh light.
Carretta, a professor of English, is the editor of the definitive modern edition of Equiano's narrative, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (2003), as well as Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (2004), among other works. Surprisingly, given his importance, Equiano has attracted only a handful of serious biographers. One work, a literary biography by Angelo Costanza, Surprising Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings of Black Autobiography (1987), was published two decades ago, and another, a rather uncritical but still useful historical biography by James Walvin, An African's Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797, was published in 1998. And of course, the Narrative has been endlessly excerpted and anthologized.
Carretta presents Equiano essentially as a "self-made man." Evoking his own training and earlier research as a literary historian of eighteenth-century British satirists, Carretta implicitly compares Equiano to that most famous of contemporary self-made men, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), whose posthumous autobiography was published in 1793. As Carretta writes in the book's preface, in remembering how he personally discovered Equiano in the early 1990s, "rather than considering Equiano an African American Franklin we would more accurately call Franklin an Anglo-American Equiano" (p. xiii). Indeed, in Equiano's own account, there was a moment in his life, in early 1759, when he first felt, not satirically but earnestly, "almost an Englishman." In Carretta's account, he could just as well substitute, in current academic parlance, "almost an Atlantic creole" (pp. xiii-xiv).
In fourteen chapters, and reflecting meticulous research following the 1995 edition he so ably edited, Carretta follows Equiano through his story of enslavement, transportation, maritime slavery in a time of European war (and Christian baptism), kidnapping a second time into slavery (from London to Montserrat), his travels, and his freedom, winding up back in London in 1767, when he was about twenty-two years old. Carretta then discusses his adventures at sea through the 1773 Arctic Expedition on the royal navy ship the Racehorse, and his rebirth as an ardent Anglican, which ironically was followed by participating in a scheme to create a slave-based plantation on the Miskito Coast (Caribbean Central America). In the end, Equiano (universally still known as Vassa) turned to anti-slave trade agitation, living as he did in England in the mid-1780s, which led to his official service in the 1786-87 effort to "repatriate" (perhaps better thought of as to deport) Africans in Britain to Sierra Leone, a royal service that made him a controversial public figure. Equiano clearly was inspired by his activism to write and publish and popularize the "interesting narrative" of his life. As Carretta takes pains to emphasize, it is a powerful story and one with many internal contradictions and inconsistencies, a work as much of politicized memory as of personal history.
Carretta's rendering of the details of Equiano's life--details that Equiano often only evokes and that Carretta then is able to bring to vivid life precisely because they are so manifestly documentable--and the personal, regional, imperial, and political contexts of so much of Equiano's life, even those with which Carretta comes into dispute, make this a richly documented and comprehensively considered interpretive history of a written life. Certainly the extraordinary level of detail is this work's greatest success. As such, Carretta's telling of Equiano's life is a signal achievement.
The problem, however, is that Carretta thinks (or at least strongly suspects) that Equiano was actually a liar, and one perhaps rising to being a notable fraud. In his archival research, Carretta discovered two separate documents: Equiano's 1759 London baptismal record and the 1773 royal navy's ship muster list for the famed Racehorse, both of which state that Vassa was born in (South) Carolina. And on the basis of these two documents, albeit two as interesting and problematic as these are for complicating an already busy life, Carretta has called into question Equiano's putative African origins, and therefore the credibility, reliability, and authenticity of Equiano as an enslaved African. Based on these two documents, Carretta goes so far as to judge that Equiano's accounts of his early life--and all the interpretive weight they are now given as a kind of substitute for ethnographic-historical material on what he called "Eboan Africa," as well as his wrenching description of being enslaved and transported across the Atlantic, his extended and harrowing Middle Passage--are all "probably fictitious" (p. xvi). As one might expect, Carretta's use of these two anomalous sources, and his consequent contention of Equiano's possible birth not in Africa but in North America, have garnered the most notice and disputation.
In fact, Carretta wants to have it both ways in his telling of Equiano's life, and this is what makes this book so maddening and, potentially, so interesting. Certainly Carretta is correct in calling attention to the two documents claiming a South Carolina birth for Equiano, as they do exist. But as Paul E. Lovejoy has pointed out, given the preponderance of other evidence, even though it too is mixed or at least muddled, which suggests that Equiano was truthful about his origins and early experiences (augmented as his story was by his acquaintance with other Africans and by his readings), why should we privilege two anomalous written documents over a preponderance of other, essentially oral, sources? Might the documents not be anomalous? Or, at least, explainable? In his post-publication debate over historical sources and their interpretation, and to counter Lovejoy's criticism, Carretta has applied the test of Occam's Razor--that the simplest explanation for something is the one most likely to be true.
Ironically, Carretta's own revised narrative of Equiano's early life challenges his assertion that Equiano's early story was "probably fictitious." Clearly Equiano's basic chronology cannot literally be true, that is, that he was born in 1745 and was eleven years old when he was enslaved. If that were literally true then, as Carretta shows convincingly, Equiano would have been in Virginia no earlier than 1757. However, because the navy service of his eventual master (Captain Michael Henry Pascal) in the 1750s is so well documented, Equiano must have been purchased by Pascal in the summer or fall in 1754, that is, in time to leave Virginia with his new master when he sailed from that colony for the last time as a merchant captain in December 1754. This date, then, establishes an externally documented terminus ad quem for Equiano's early life, a date which suggests either that Equiano was born a couple of years before 1745 or was younger at enslavement than he wrote. Does this discrepancy between Equiano's memory and the actual likely chronology make him a purposeful deceiver? Did Equiano, as Carretta suggests, mis-state his age at enslavement for rhetorical and political purposes? Or, does this mean that Equiano simply was mistaken, whether purposefully or not, about his age when he was first enslaved? And then the question begs, what of it? For Carretta, this discrepancy, and the supposition that Equiano purposefully lied about the age at which he was thrown into slavery, is important. Since we can reasonably put Equiano in Virginia by mid-1754 and if we accept his year of birth as 1745 then clearly Equiano was younger than he said he was. It is likely that he actually was as young as seven or eight, rather than eleven, when he was enslaved.
For Carretta, Equiano's extreme youth further calls into question the reliability of Equiano's descriptions of his African "country" and "countrymen," and of his Middle Passage experience, even if we do accept (for sake of argument, apparently, or rather, for sake of narrative) that Equiano was born where and when he claimed to have been born. However, very young children, even those who have been traumatically and violently displaced, as for example the "lost boys" of modern Sudan, can retain and relate as adults remarkably detailed and rhetorically powerful accounts of the lost worlds of their earliest childhoods. An excellent modern example of the kind of powerfully evocative (if nostalgic) ethnographic memory of a traumatically displaced African, in this case, of three Sudanese "lost boys," whose memories of village life (buttressed by each other no doubt) were from the ages of about five to eight years, was written at the remove of two decades, and certainly as a memoir with clear political or propagandistic purposes, given the current genocide in Darfur/Sudan.
But because Carretta seems so haunted by those two written documents claiming a Carolina birth, and yet cannot quite decide how decisive they are, or their ultimate import, he constantly sees examples of how Equiano might have made things up, or gotten things wrong on purpose, implicitly hinting at ulterior motives, at a calculated self-fashioning for largely political or polemical ends. Carretta's Equiano is not only a likely liar but a most cynical one at that.
On the issue of how old he was when enslaved, Equiano indeed must have been mistaken. But the probable historical fact that he was quite younger does not seem particularly consequential to this reader. More interesting, however, is the relative ease with which Carretta can plausibly reconstruct a series of events, and particular historically documented ships, to get the very young Equiano from Nigeria to Virginia via Barbados, and at exactly the right historical moment. The ease with which Equiano can be fit into a larger historically specific context, which requires that we accept that he was enslaved in 1753 and transported from Nigeria to Barbados to Virginia in 1754, itself is remarkable. And the historical specificity of these hypothetical connections is worth repeating and exploring in this review.
Using a published database, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM (1999), edited by David Eltis, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, Carretta identifies a particular ship, the 1753 voyage of the Ogden, a mid-sized two-masted "snow" from Liverpool trading at Bonny on the Calabar coast, that may well have carried among its cargo of 250 to 300 enslaved Africans the young boy, Equiano (pp. 30-31, 34). As Carretta notes, this ship was "the most probable vessel bearing Equiano from the Bight of Biafra to Barbados" (p. 371, n. 18). To add credence, perhaps, Bonny at this time was rapidly becoming a major slave trade site, and specifically for Igbo who were bound for the British Americas. The Ogden arrived at Bridge Town, Barbados on 9 May 1754.
Equiano wrote that he was kept just a short time at Barbados ("a few days; I believe it could not be above a fortnight") before he was put aboard "a sloop for North America," and was eventually "landed up a river a good way from the sea, about Virginia county [sic]." And, in fact Carretta can document a sloop, the Nancy, that cleared Barbados on 21 May 1754 and arrived in Virginia on 13 June with thirty-one slaves on board (p. 37). The sloop entered at the York River, which along with the Upper James was one of the main avenues for the transatlantic slave trade to Virginia, with the two accounting for over two-thirds of Africans brought to the colony in these years. The transshipment trade from Barbados at this time (1751-55), however, tended to send slaves to other rivers (Hampton, Rappahannock, and South Potomac). Equiano's presumed ship was one of the two from Barbados that entered up the York.
Equiano's memory of his relatively short stay "about Virginia county" is also problematic, though not necessarily for Carretta. If we accept Equiano's story, it is curious that he remembered being so isolated linguistically and presumably culturally on the home plantation of his Virginia master, a "Mr. Campbell." Equiano wrote that he "saw few or none of our native Africans, and not one soul who could talk to me ... I had no person to speak to that I could understand." It is curious because this plantation was likely situated on the upper York River, which was the epicenter of the Igbo importation trade to Virginia. However, it may be that Equiano, because he was at the master's house, or because of his extreme youth, never made it to the outlying quarters (sub-farms), where the Africans were likely sent. Or, it may be that his particular district on the York was, between 1751 and 1755, where the over one thousand African arrivals from Congo and Angola were concentrated. Indeed, the kind of work that the newly arrived boy was put to, weeding grass and gathering field stones, and then fanning his bedridden master, was consonant with his age (probably under ten years). Of course, if Equiano was carried from Barbados on a ship other than the Nancy in these years, he would most likely have been taken to a part of "Virginia county" where few Igbo were taken, and thus his sense of isolation.
My point is that, other than the isolation that Equiano reports while in Virginia, his general account of how he got from the Calabar coast to Barbados, and thence to Virginia, can easily be fit into not just the general patterns of the transatlantic and intercolonial slave trades, but specific patterns of particular ships plying these trades, and within a very limited time frame. In fact, the very ease with which Equiano can be plausibly inserted into the vast British transatlantic slave trade ironically leads Carretta to quite innocently (if manifestly) impose technical falsehoods on Equiano's actual written narrative. Carretta, in the lead sentence of chapter 2, writes that "According to The Interesting Narrative, Equiano's world came to an abrupt end around 1753" (p. 17). Actually, Equiano did not write that his "world came to an abrupt end around 1753"--that is a date that Carretta imposes in order for his later string of events, in which he gets the enslaved young boy across the Atlantic and then to Virginia within the necessary time frame for Equiano (then called "Jacob") to be purchased by Pascal in the summer or fall of 1754. But nowhere does Carretta directly explain his legerdemain. In the end, Carretta no doubt does have the actual chronology right, but only if we accept Equiano's primary claim that he was born in "Eboe" (which contradicts Carretta's main new finding, that Vassa's Equiano was a likely fraud). If we accept Equiano's story, of course, Carretta is historically accurate in assigning that specific year. But, in fact, Equiano did not write that "around 1753" was when he was enslaved; rather, he implied (by declaring his birthdate as 1745) that he was enslaved ca.1756. The ease of tying Equiano to a plausible and historically documented chain of events, and the terminus ad quem of Pascal's purchase of the slave boy, does suggest that Equiano was enslaved in 1753, but, only if we accept his basic story. Given that Carretta has determined that Equiano's early story is "probably fictitious," however, one might ask, why bother?
Again, the plausibility of a particular chain of events resulting in Equiano being in Virginia by the summer of 1754, to be purchased by Pascal, which Carretta documents well, necessarily depends on accepting Equiano's own account. In other words, if we accept Equiano's basic story, then there is no mystery, or at least, there is a plausible set of explanations--a particular set of events--that put him where he must have been at a particular moment in time. By the measure of Occam's Razor, or explanatory parsimony, we need prove no more than what Carretta already documents. If, however, we reject Equiano's basic story, and have him born (as the two later documents seem to attest) in South Carolina, then how a very young boy wound up in Virginia by the summer of 1754 is a total and complete mystery. In this regard, the best that Carretta can do is a vague and general statement: "Given the unpopularity of Igbos, particularly among South Carolina planters, an Igbo-descended slave born there might well have been brought to Virginia for sale" (p. 319). The explanatory contrast could not be greater. And the historical set of events that landed a supposedly South Carolina-born boy in Virginia remains a total and complete mystery. We must accept, on faith, an unknown universe of unknowable actors and events. The simplest explanation, therefore, is what Carretta actually documents (the 1753 Ogden, the 1754 Nancy) because these are known and documentable. In addition, these linkages stretch not just back across the Atlantic to a vague Africa, but specifically to Bonny in the Bight of Biafra, which specialized in the Igbo slave trade to the British Americas.
There is one other point that may indirectly support Equiano's story as he wrote it, especially given his stay in Virginia in the mid-1750s. If Equiano was born where he said he was, and possibly even if he was born in South Carolina, the fact that he gives an unequivocal year of his birth ("I was born, in the year 1745") is another striking rhetorical anomaly, and one that begs explanation. How could he have known this with such (apparent) certainty? In Igboland, historically, people did not mark individual years of their birth, but instead were grouped into age grades of anywhere from three to five years. And if born in mid-century South Carolina, and then (somehow, mysteriously) carried as a very young child to Virginia, it is also unlikely that he would know with certitude the year he was born. Instead, one would expect someone like Equiano to write, "I was born, about the year 1745." In Virginia at the time, however, it was common for masters to carry young recently imported African children into the local county court to have their ages officially adjudged for tax purposes, which were then entered into the county minute or order books. Slaves (male and female) were taxed as tithables from age sixteen, and so masters needed to fix the ages of child arrivals, if for nothing else than so they would know when they were liable for taxes on them. Of some 2,100 children so adjudged in six counties in the central and southern piedmont between 1722 and 1774, for example, ages ranged from seven to fifteen years old, with a mean of nine to ten years. Though such an experience would have been terrifying, it also would necessarily have been memorable. Equiano, of course, mentions no such experience. But, given that he arrived in Virginia at the peak of the annual importation season, which overlapped with the monthly pattern of adjudging ages in the county court, and the fact that Equiano's sense of his own age as dated from 1745 is consistent throughout his narrative, the possibility that he had his age adjudged in Virginia may suggest why he felt so certain that he was born in a particular year: he was officially told so, or at least his master was. Such an experience would have been fairly common among recently arrived enslaved African children in Virginia.
Ironically, the key issue surrounding Carretta's assertion that Vassa may have lied about his actual origins, which if true seriously undermines Equiano's credibility and authenticity, actually seems to escape Carretta. Did Vassa lie privately when he was an unknown man-boy (in the cant of the day), or did he lie publicly when he was a famous adult public figure? Clearly he did lie, at least twice, about his origins. (But, how many of the other nearly two dozen ship muster lists on which his name should appear include a statement of his origins? Has Carretta tracked down each and every one of the royal navy muster lists for ships on which we know that Vassa served?) In an age when the ethic of honor was central to a claim of gentlemanly status, and when one's "character" meant one's public reputation, would Vassa have been more likely to lie when he could have been exposed and ruined, or would he have lied when it really did not matter? I would bet on the latter (lying privately when he was obscure and telling the truth publicly when he was a public figure). Carretta asks us to believe that someone would tell the truth privately when it did not matter and then would lie publicly when it would have mattered deeply. I think it more likely that Equiano lied when he was an obscure nobody, and then told the truth when he was a prominent controversialist.
In the end, Carretta's account, as finely researched as it is, begs comparison with the eminent historian James Walvin's biography. Walvin's work is mostly from secondary sources, and is largely an uncritical retelling of Equiano's narrative; whereas Carretta's is a critical study built on impressive archival research, and one which forces us to situate Equiano's narrative in a number of sometimes competing contexts, both literary and historical. Walvin gives us a straightforward account of Equiano, as he told his story; Carretta subjects this classic work to critical analysis. Walvin assumes the authenticity of the tale; Carretta thinks Equiano's account of his early life is "probably fictitious." Thus, Carretta tends to see conspiracies, mixed motives, opportunism, and polemic, whereas Walvin celebrates the unalloyed successes of this freedman. There is a fundamental difference of perspective: Walvin's focus is on Equiano as an enslaved African who became free and then famous; Carretta focuses on Equiano as an "Atlantic creole," a rootless (and ruthless) cosmopolitan of the late eighteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic world who reinvented himself, largely for personal gain and political ends. Carretta succeeds more at bringing Vassa and his world to life because of the extensive archival and primary source research that he brings to bear on his subject. And thus Carretta's account is much more vivid, more personal, and more contingent than Walvin's, and richer in details of persons and personalities and the many larger contexts within which Equiano's life twisted and turned. As such it is "good history," but Carretta's lapses make me question whether it is good History.
Equiano wrote his book as an already public figure and, yes, to further the anti-slave trade cause. As Walvin wrote, "It was a tract for the abolitionist times." But, as Walvin also noted, "It was also a tale of self-improvement, of an African raising himself from the most wretched of circumstances to become an educated man of refinement." It was not that Equiano the African was, as Carretta would have it, principally a "self-made man" (and a creole at that, the liar), though clearly he did lie somewhere, and more than once. Equiano's story was not principally one of self-invention, but of transcendence; not of politically motivated public deception, but of a remarkable (an "interesting") personal journey that resonated with his times.
To his great credit, however, Carretta has succeeded in reinvigorating Equiano's narrative, both as text and as history. A new, critical understanding of this complicated story and its manifold meanings and historical possibilities may even, as Trilling would have hoped for any classic work, reveal or disclose "unguessed-at power." Carretta's biography represents an important opening in Atlantic history, and the case of Equiano's ultimate origins is far from closed. But whereas Carretta would have us see Equiano primarily as Gustavus Vassa, that is, as an "Atlantic creole" and "almost an Englishman," Vassa himself demanded that we remember him as Olaudah Equiano, that is, as "the African" and "a native of Eboe." Though reasonable people can reasonably differ, I choose to believe Vassa's Equiano over Carretta's Equiano.
. Lionel Trilling, "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," in Trilling, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, ed. Leon Wieseltier (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000), 381-401, quotation on 386.
. Two other modern versions of Equiano's Narrative are Paul Edwards, ed., Equiano's Travels (Oxford: Heinemann, 1967); and Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself, ed. Robert J. Allison (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995). For the history of the Narrative's publication, see James Green, "The Publishing History of Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative," Slavery and Abolition 16, no. 3 (1995): 362-375.
. Carretta's first two books were literary-historical studies of early modern British satirists as social critics. Carretta, "The Snarling Muse": Verbal and Visual Political Satire from Pope to Churchill (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), and Carretta, George III and the Satirists from Hogarth to Byron (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990). For an authoritative edition of Franklin's autobiography, see Leonard W. Labaree, Ralph L. Ketcham, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman, eds., The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964).
. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (1995), 77.
. Carretta introduced these two sources and advanced his rejectionist argument in "Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on an Eighteenth-Century Question of Identity," Slavery and Abolition 20, no. 3 (1999): 96-105.
. Paul E. Lovejoy addresses the question, criticizing Carretta, in an extended review essay, "Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African," Slavery and Abolition 27, no. 3 (2006): 317-347. See also the testy exchange between the two that followed: Carretta, "Response to Paul Lovejoy's 'Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African'," Slavery and Abolition 28, no. 1 (2007): 115-119; and Lovejoy, "Issues of Motivation--Vassa/Equiano and Carretta's Critique of the Evidence," Slavery and Abolition 28, no. 1 (2007): 121-125. For a different take on Equiano and the question of authenticity, and one which tends to support Lovejoy over Carretta, see Alexander X. Byrd, "Eboe, Country, Nation, and Gustavus Vassa's Interesting Narrative," William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2006): 123-148.
. Carretta, "Response to Paul Lovejoy," 115.
. This point may be especially true for those who, as adults, can rely on other survivors of the same basic experience to buttress their collective memories, as Equiano did, by his own admission. See Benjamin Ajak, Alephonsion Deng, and Benson Deng, They Poured Fired on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan (New York: Public Affairs, 2005).
. Interesting Narrative, ed. Carretta, 62.
. The source for this shipment is Walter Minchinton, Celia King, and Peter Waite, eds., Virginia Slave-Trade Statistics 1698-1775 (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1984), 155.
. Figures are based on the database query, "5-year period 1751-1755 and Where slaves disembarked=Virginia, and Principal port of slave disembarkation=[Chesapeake; Hampton, Va.; Norfolk; Rappahannock, Va.; South Potomac, Va.; Upper James, Va.; Virginia [unspecified]; Virginia-Lower James; Virginia-Potomac; York R. Va.]"; Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
. Interesting Narrative, ed. Carretta, 64, 62.
. Ibid., 32.
. James Walvin, An African's Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797 (London: Continum, 1998), 162, 164.
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Douglas Chambers. Review of Carretta, Vincent, Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man.
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