copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
24 June 2006
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of
Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself
(1789) presents an absorbing and, for some, a heart-wrenching
problem. It used to be pre-eminent as a complete account of
the African slave experience: the narrator describes growing
up in what is now Nigeria, in a society that did not seem improbably
idealised. It was a slave-owning world, with its own aristocracy,
to which the author's father had belonged.
At 11, the author is kidnapped and taken to
the coast to be sold as a slave. He survives the notorious slave-ships
of the Middle Passage, is taken to Barbados, sold on to Virginia,
before being bought by an English naval officer and making his
way to London. He serves in the British Navy, as a "powder
monkey" (a child employed in the delivery of gunpowder
on a man-of-war during combat) in the course of the seven years'
war, converts to Christianity and believes himself to be a freed
man, until his master informs him otherwise and he is sent back
to the West Indies. In time he purchases his freedom from his
own resources and returns to England, eventually to become a
prominent anti-slavery campaigner.
The Penguin Classics edition (1995) has extremely
helpful notes by Vincent Carretta, among which we find a great
deal to support the authenticity of the memoir, together with
a few corrections of what are taken to be slips of memory. It
is easy to pass over the footnote on the record of the author's
baptism at St Margaret's, Westminster, in 1759: "The entry
in the parish register for 9 February reads 'Gustavus Vassa
a Black born in Carolina 12 years old'."
But if Equiano was born in Carolina, then everything
in the crucial first three chapters of the Interesting Narrative
must be taken as, at best, fiction, or at worst an imposture.
The person who investigated this possibility was the same Vincent
Carretta who had edited the memoir in good faith, and the results
of his investigations were published in 2005 in Equiano the
African, Biography of a Self Made Man (University of Georgia
Press) - an excellent complement to Equiano
It turns out that while everything in the later
chapters of his memoir seems remarkably accurate, the picture
of Benin society, of Eboe or Igboland, given in the first two
chapters, must be second-hand at best. Equiano, most probably
born in South Carolina, could well have grown up in America
speaking an African language, and could easily have based what
he tells us about his childhood on the recollections of fellow
slaves. But the author has designs upon us. He wants to depict
himself as a representative African, coming from a world which
in his conception has much in common with the Israel of the
Old Testament. He is not a savage, he is one of the circumcised.
It cannot be denied that it is disappointing
to find that some of the details of the Interesting Narrative
are fictional, for they are vividly told. On the other hand,
the world of the British navy in action, seen from the point
of view of a black powder-monkey, and especially as elucidated
with the help of Carretta's biography - all this is fascinating.
The Admiralty, we are told, took the view that a man-of-war
was "a little piece of British territory in which slavery
was improper". The muster lists record rank and job of
each member of the crew, but not his colour, ethnicity or free
or slave status. "Within the ratings black sailors ate
the same food as their white counterparts, wore the same clothes,
shared the same quarters, received the same pay, benefits and
health care, undertook the same duties, and had the same opportunities
for advancement." All this decades before the Mansfield
decision of 1772 established that slaves brought to England
could not legally be forced to return to the colonies.
This goes some way to explain why, although
we expect Equiano's account to be full of the brutalities and
dangers of naval life, what we find is an unmistakable thrill
at serving with the British and fighting the French. The author
is learning English, acquiring an education, becoming a "black
Christian", living on equal terms with his fellows, sharing
the common dangers and triumphs - in short, appearing to leave
slavery far behind.
His master had promoted him (we need Carretta's
book for this crucial fact) to the rating of able seaman. An
able seaman could not be a slave because he was entitled to
be paid. Equiano could therefore reasonably expect to be manumitted
when his ship reached shore in 1762 and the crew were paid off.
Instead his master swindles him and sells him into Caribbean