Let’s Read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
One of the books on my current course is The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, written by Olaudah Equiano (AKA Gustavus Vassa, a name that was forced on him by somebody else, or simply ‘The African’, as he was referred to in his own time). Equiano is a remarkable figure; born in what is now Nigeria 1745, he was enslaved at a young age before going on to become by far the wealthiest person of African descent in Britain during 18th century. He was a staunch abolitionist and, according to many historians, was instrumental in the ending of the British slave trade.
The book itself is quite short, and chronicles his life in fascinating detail. The early chapters are filled with rich descriptions of his home before moving on to the abject horrors of slavery, first in his own country and then in Britain and the West Indies. It’s easy to see why the book became something of a touch stone for the abolitionist movement in Britain – the writing is clear and compelling even to modern readers, and Equiano manages to evoke sympathy without ever straying into overt sentimentality or melodrama. Slave narratives offer a glimpse into a world that is now gone, at least in the form of the form movement of humans by colonial powers, and it’s obvious why both historians and literary critics would be intensely interested in Equiano’s narrative.
What makes it even more interesting to fans of scholarly spectacle, however, is the possibility that Equiano may have fabricated the earlier parts of the story. (Papers on the subject tend to use phrases like ‘constructed an African identity’ here, but I’m going to go with ‘fabricated’ in the interest of accurate spade-naming.) Apparently there are documents suggesting that he was actually born in South Carolina which, taken together with the letters he wrote where he claims to have lived in an entirely different part of Africa to that described in the book, cast some doubt on the reliability of the earlier chapters. (The later sections are not in any doubt, however.)
I tend to be interested in things like this. I love the (slightly overblown) idea of a historian as a detective, painstakingly trying to unearth the truth from a tangled web of evidence, all the while knowing that the true nature of some of that evidence may have been deliberately obscured by those who created it. It’s a stark reminder of the difficulties inherent in working with human-produced sources.
Equiano’s intentions in making up the ‘African’ section of his autobiography, assuming that he did make it up, are as obvious as they are noble. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he realized the power inherent in an African description of the dehumanizing effects of the slave trade. He saw that Europeans would be more moved to action if they thought of Africans as real people rather opposed to faceless ‘Others’, for whom they could feel sympathy but not any real empathy.
The book stands as a reminder of many things, including the power of narratives, the difficulty of establishing ‘truth’ in history and, of course, the suffering endured by millions of people in the name of European colonial expansion. It’s definitely one of the more enjoyable books I’ve had to read for a university class. You can read it for free on Project Gutenberg (and lets all take a moment to thank whoever came up with the concept of ‘public domain’). Like I said, it should be quite readable for most people, although some of the enormous paragraphs can be a bit daunting when read on a computer screen.