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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Olaudah Equiano- birthplace

The traditional account of Olaudah Equiano's life begins with the idea that when he was eleven years old he and his sister were kidnapped from his West African village to be sold as slaves. After many years in slavery he had enough money to buy his freedom and settled in London. He then self-published his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself in 1789. These sites provide more details of his story: BBC, Spartacus. (Also have a look at Ottabah Cugoano and Ignatius Sancho)

On this site you can read Equiano's account of his journey from Africa across the Atlantic. He writes of his arrival on the ship:

When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.

Equiano's description of his journey was particularly important at this time because people in Britain were campaigning to end slavery. (You can read more about the anti-slavery movement here.) Equiano's experiences helped them to understand that Africans suffered a lot during the crossing and that slavery was bad.

American literary critic Vincent Carretta questions the traditional story by suggesting that Equiano was born in South Carolina in North America and was not from an African village. He thinks that most of Equiano's autobiography is true but that he invented his African birth because he knew anti-slavery campaigners needed an account of an Atlantic journey. Many people disagree with Carretta and I have no idea whether he is right. You can find some arguments for and against his idea in this fascinating article. Whatever the truth about Equiano's birth it does not change the fact that he was a truly remarkable man.


Blogger Nathanael said...

Hey, Claire, glad to see you made it back to the blogosphere.

Carretta seems a bit hypocritical. I would grant Equiano the fiction of his African birth because it meant overcoming the passive dislike of the institution of slavery by inserting the more distasteful process of enslavement. Did not a man who was born legally a slave have his will broken? The educating a child to be a slave is still socialization into subservience, taking advantage of the youth of the slave to make that socialization easier.

1:16 am  
Blogger Mapo said...

I think *if* he was actually born in America that makes him just as fascinating as if he'd been born in Africa. I wonder what happened to his sister. I should read his book before I forget.

8:27 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are descriptive details of a culture that do not come easily with a non-native. Ask any Igbo person and he will tell you that Eqiano's description is too 'spot-on' to have been invented.

12:58 am  

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