By Onyekachi Wambu
Olaudah Equiano keeps coming back into view. He is currently the subject of a ground-breaking and now trending Instagram film made by Israeli Americans; the Nubian Jak Community Trust, which has been commemorating the black presence in London with blue plaques, recently dedicated one to Equiano; the Equiano Society (founded by Arthur Torrington and Samuel B. King) delves into the history of the man himself and aspects of Black British history. Meanwhile, in Nigeria a new wave of ‘Hebrewism’ amongst the Igbo people is drawing on him as a source of validation.
So, what makes the author of an autobiography and anti-slavery campaigning book published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, so relevant today, gaining him millions of putative descendants across the black Atlantic, and especially in his native Igboland? His own actual bloodline literally fizzled out a generation after his death, with the passing of Joanna Vassa, his one surviving daughter by his English wife, Susannah Cullen.
Equiano is considered African British, African Caribbean, African American and African Igbo – having lived periods of his life in all of these locations, with each vividly documented in The Interesting Narrative. As an Igbo person, I am drawn to the subject of a distinguished ancestor, one of the first Igbos to speak to the world in English, but also by the ways in which he has been mythologised and has become increasingly a key to unlocking many of the current mythologies that grip both the Igbo and wider black Western imagination. This, notwithstanding the many deceptions that supposedly surround him, and the many contradictions of his own life – enslaved/overseer, truth teller/alleged fabulist, freedom fighter/encourager of British hegemony. Once the dead are dead, their remaining interest (or function) is the usage to which we sometimes put them in the present. So, what are the many faces of Equiano in the present, and to what uses is he being put?
Equiano – Out of Africa
One of the most important aspects of Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative is its existence as one of the earliest and by now definitive accounts of an African being taken from the continent and enduring the brutalising process of enslavement, but buying his freedom, working as a free individual in the Royal Navy, trading as a merchant, settling down in London to campaign against the evil trade with his group of fellow African activists, the ‘Sons of Africa’, then writing his opus against the trade and hawking it around the country in an incredible one man crusade. The reader undertakes an internal trans-Atlantic and transcontinental journey alongside him – Roots before Alex Haley – emotionally processing the ravages of slavery through Equiano’s fears and apprehensions, his discovery of and wonderment at his new settings seen through childlike eyes and expressions: ‘I have often taken up a book and have talked to it and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.’
One of the controversies that have engulfed the area of Equiano studies over the last 30 years is the possibility that such innocent appreciation of the new may have been confected. The suspicion is that Equiano may not actually have been born in Africa, was not captured in Igboland, did not undergo a journey to the coast before boarding the ship, but was probably born, it is alleged on a plantation in South Carolina. According to American transatlantic historian Vincent Carretta, The Interesting Narrative may be ‘historical faction’ rather than pure autobiography:
Equiano was certainly African by descent. The circumstantial evidence that Equiano was also African American by birth and African British by choice is compelling but not absolutely conclusive. Although the circumstantial evidence is not equivalent to proof, anyone dealing with Equiano’s life and art must consider it.
(Carretta, Vincent (2005. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. University of Georgia Press. pxvi.)
When in 2003 Carretta presented at an Equiano conference his findings of a baptismal record of someone named Gustavus Vassa (the name he was and continued to be known by before and after he adopted the name Oladuah Equiano for his publication), it produced a powerful pushback, with gathered Igbo historians accusing Caretta of an attack on their identity, and on Igbo-ness itself.
The implications of Carretta’s research are open to question on a number of levels. For them to be true Equiano would have had to have invented the whole of the first part of his autobiography: his sister; the journey they undertook to the coast; their separation; the intimate details of Igbo culture which remain familiar to many of us even to this day; the crossing and arrival in the New World. Indeed, so successful would he have been in researching or imagining all of this that he would have invented a new kind of factional literary genre, way ahead of its appearance in the twentieth century. Perhaps he was inspired by his contemporary Laurence Sterne’s Shandean biographical experimentation, nevertheless these charges would actually enhance, as Carretta admits, Equiano’s own status as a literary genius – his single book containing elements of fiction, autobiography, ethnography, travel writing, as well as political and religious philosophy. Carretta is able to find supporting secondary documentation for the overwhelming majority of incidents described in The Interesting Narrative… apart from those early years. So, there is paperwork of his working on plantations; his time in the merchant navy; his adventures in the Arctic north; and so on. What rationale would he have to tell the truth for all parts of his life apart from his origins? The suggestion is that an important part of the anti-slavery campaign at this stage was to provide an authentically African experience of being captured, being hauled on a boat, and completing the gruesome journey. If so, Equiano is a heck of a researcher and storyteller, and actually a more extraordinary character in apparently converting the dry bones of written and verbal accounts, garnered from other enslaved people, as well as presumably traffickers, into vivid place settings and characters (including the creation of the fully persuasive character of his sister).
Equiano – and that portrait
Beyond the uncertainty of his place of birth, there is also the mystery of what he looked like. For many years, the person we thought was Equiano was not actually him. The portrait of a dignified, eighteenth-century wigged gentleman with a red jacket, white collar and neckerchief belongs to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter which for years has charged a fee for the use of the image. Though the person in the picture is unlikely to be Equiano, for many people it has become the real Equiano. It adorns the cover of Vincent Caretta’s highly researched life of Equiano in America, and the volumes to date of the Penguin classics edition of The Interesting Narrative in the UK. Some people have suggested the picture might have been Ignatius Sancho, another writer and member of Equiano’s ‘Sons of Africa’ group. The most reliable portrait of Equiano is, of course, the black and white engraving at the front of The Interesting Narrative, from a painting which he would have commissioned himself. Why this has not been widely used to depict him remains a mystery. The engraving is out of copyright and can be used freely, whilst Exeter City Museums continue to charge for the use of the image of the anonymous man. Perhaps there is another simple explanation, embodying a hoary old trope. In a week when the current Chancellor of the Exchequer is represented in a national newspaper by a photograph of another black male walking in Whitehall, plus ça change…
(‘That isn’t me, Kwarteng tells Mirror over wrong image’ – BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-63100715)
Equiano – and religion
Amongst Igbo historians, the origins of their ethnic and language group of over 40 million people – one of the largest in Africa – are sourced to four different and contested starting points. Some assert an Igbo autochthonous origin in their forest location in Southeast Nigeria, evolving from a group of small proto-forest people; a second group asserts they arrived from elsewhere, giving three competing locations, each with its strong supporters – the East African plains, date unknown; ancient Egypt in the last two thousand years; and, finally, ancient Israel, again in the last two thousand years. At different times, the Southeast Nigerian forest origin has commanded the most support amongst both historians and the Igbo people. Now, the Hebrew origin is gaining increasing support for a number of complicated reasons.
In his account of his early life, Equiano described the traditions and culture of the Igbo people and their similarities to Jewish culture and religion. He spoke about circumcision after eight days and some other practices that he further suggested may have meant that the Igbos were perhaps one of the lost Jewish tribes. The Interesting Narrative has become an important source over the years for this notion of an Igbo Jewish identity. In the current period, it has become a political issue with a revived religious ‘Hebrewism’ being linked to a political project for a revived Biafra, one being led by Nnamdi Kanu’s Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement that seeks to achieve the failed goals of the 1960s civil war for independence from Nigeria. Interestingly it would move Nigeria beyond the current bi-polar contestation ground involving the imported religions of Islam and Christianity, to an arena of competition between the three major Abrahamic religions.
Perhaps, however, Equiano’s most enduring religious legacy to Igboland and Nigeria is a kind of Born-again-ism, a fundamentalist Christianity. A significant portion of The Interesting Narrative depicts his conversation to Methodism, together with his proselytising on the role of the church (and the British state) in helping Africans move towards development. Along with other diaspora figures, such as Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther in Sierra Leone, he was to lay the foundations for the future christianisation of large parts of West Africa. It is interesting to note that, as one of the leading African intellectuals of his time, he could not conceive of an indigenous, African philosophical or religious system for knowledge production, nor did he attempt any synthesis between the old and the new – syncretising African and Christian thought systems as many in the diaspora had managed in places like Haiti in the Caribbean and Bahia in Brazil.
Equiano – and the black world
Equiano is seen by many as the beginning of a black Atlantic literary tradition. As one of the first slave narratives, The Interesting Narrative did a number of things, including: giving eyewitness testimony to the internal realities that enslaved people endured; providing graphic evidence of the development of that double consciousness that W. E. B. Du Bois captured a century later as both a state of mind and a tactic of resistance; and also using narrative as a political campaigning tool to first overturn the slave trade and then to attack the institution of slavery itself. In capturing an individual African experience of a globalised world and the African place within it, Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative became a key, critical text in understanding black Atlantic experience, but also a powerful weapon in the campaign against the alienation, exploitation and brutality that has shaped the European dominated global system of the last 500 years.
Two major literary figures, both of Igbo origin, bookend the experiences of slavery and colonialism, shaping African realities both internally and through external perception in the modern world. Chinua Achebe’s quartet of books, the masterpieces, Things Fall Apart (1958), No longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964) and A Man of the People (1966), deal with the period of colonisation after slavery and the ways in which African societies crumbled internally under the pressures of forced European colonisation, continuing into the crises and disappointments that engulfed the post-colonial period. These novels have become a modern psychological bridge for both Africans and non-Africans to understand this recent past. Achebe probably played an even more influential role through his editorship of the African Writers Series, which published and promoted African fiction and non-fiction from across the continent to the modern world, sustaining the literary rebuilding of internal self-realisation. At one point, the royalties from Things Fall Apart and the other three novels in the quartet were subsiding the entire series.
(Personal communication to author by Chinua Achebe in 2007.)
Equiano is an early cultural model for this kind of activist role – publisher, bookseller, all-round literary merchant and wheeler dealer. Not only does he lodge the book with the Stationers’ Company to ensure protection of his copyright, but he travels continuously up and down the country, hawking and selling his book – printing eight editions in the process. He is an independent, self-made man who finds a way of financing his political struggles, leaving on his deathbed an estate of £950 to his daughter (just over £132,667 in today’s money) – something unique at the time for an African, and making him one of the wealthiest black people of the time. The stereotypically independent Igbo hustler and trader of current times has good historical antecedents. Indeed, Equiano is the perfect example of an independent Igbo trader – but beautifully a trader in words and ideas, conjuring up the possibility, and sometimes the contradictions which he himself embodied, of exerting individual agency in the free world that he himself was helping to create for Africans.