Classic slave narrative: fact or fiction?

Maryland professor disputes parts of Equiano's 18th-century tale of Middle Passage

September 22, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

In his eloquent autobiography, Olaudah Equiano describes in gripping detail his boyhood in Africa, his capture by slave traders and the hellish Middle Passage voyage in a slave ship across the Atlantic.

The book became a sensation in 18th-century Britain and greatly aided that nation's abolition movement. Two centuries later, it became a classic text in African-American studies, a rare first-person account of the cruelties of slavery. The author is virtually a national hero in Nigeria, the land he claimed as his birthplace.

But now a book written by a scholar at the University of Maryland, College Park says Equiano was almost certainly born in South Carolina, not Africa. And the vivid account of Equiano's boyhood in a vale among the Igbo people, and of his violent capture at age 11, is probably fiction, said Vincent Carretta, an English professor. His conclusions, contained in Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man scheduled to be published next month by the University of Georgia Press, have sparked a fierce debate among scholars.

"I think `devastating' is not underestimating some people's reaction to this notion," said Philip Morgan, a Princeton University history professor who has written about 18th-century slavery.

Some experts disagree with Carretta's conclusions, saying Equiano's account is too detailed and accurate to be a work of fiction. But others back Carretta's scholarship.

Carretta, a former fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, draws upon recently discovered documents, such as British baptismal and naval records that indicate a birth in the Carolina colony. Other documents show that Equiano was a Royal Navy officer's slave for 10 years before winning his freedom and becoming a free sailor based in England - never taking part in the Middle Passage.

Published in London in 1789, the same year as the French Revolution, the autobiography was intended as a catalyst by a black author who knew change was in the air, Carretta says. Equiano even dedicated it to members of Parliament, which abolished slavery in 1807, a decade after Equiano's death.

"It's what was needed at the time, a voice and an eyewitness, because Parliament was about to take up abolition of the slave trade," Carretta said.

"I'm crazy about the guy," Carretta said. "I'm not calling him a liar."

In the book, Equiano chronicles his remarkable life, which includes serving in the British navy, buying his freedom in the West Indies, his marriage to a white British woman and his opposition to slavery. He states he was born in 1745 in present-day southeast Nigeria.

According to the account, Equiano was kidnapped by slave traders, stopping first in Barbados and then Virginia, where he was bought by a Royal Navy officer. He wrote of his African land, and the Igbo people, as a paradise lost, "almost a nation" of dancers, poets and magicians.

Long before Frederick Douglass wrote of his escape from slavery, Equiano related the grim sights, sounds and terrors of a trans-Atlantic slave ship. He wrote that he "looked round the ship too, and saw ... a multitude of black people of every description, chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow."

"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," he wrote.

Equiano's story faded after his death in 1797, but the text was revived in the 1980s and is used in many university literary and history classes.

On the Maryland faculty since 1979, Carretta previously edited Equiano's complete writings for a Penguin Classic and edited the works of the 18th-century black poet Phillis Wheatley.

Carretta admitted that a fair share of his fellow academics are mad at his suggestion of fakery regarding Equiano: "Some are in a state of denial and anger, because he is the primary, unique source as a victim's voice on the Middle Passage."

Paul E. Lovejoy, an author of 20 books and a history professor who specializes in the African diaspora at York University in Toronto, disagreed with Carretta's conclusions about Equiano, whose given name was Gustavus Vassa.

"I give the benefit of the doubt to Vassa precisely because the second part of his life story has been shown to be accurate," Lovejoy said.

"My question to Carretta is: If he manufactured this, where did he get the information from?" he said.

But the book got a boost from Henry Louis Gates Jr., who directs Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and is a leading expert on slave narratives.

Gates, a professor of humanities who was traveling out of the country and unavailable for comment this week, is quoted on the book's jacket as calling it "one of the most significant biographies published about a black author in a very long time."

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