Book Casts Doubts on Parts of 18th-Century Slave Narrative

Olaudah Equiano wrote with vivid detail of life as human cargo — the foul smells aboard the slave ship that brought him from West Africa to the New World in the 18th century, the anguished cries of women, the despair of those headed to a life of bondage.

The best-selling autobiography he later published is now a key text for scholars studying slavery and its roots in Africa, one of the few first-person accounts by a slave of the brutal cross-Atlantic trip known as the Middle Passage.

But part of Equiano’s tale may be more fiction than fact.

A forthcoming biography of Equiano by English professor Vincent Carretta of the University of Maryland, College Park, contends Equiano was actually born in South Carolina and could never have made the trip he describes. Carretta uses baptismal and naval records he unearthed to prove his point.

By challenging the authenticity of a major voice in the history of African slavery and one of the most widely taught slave narratives, Carretta’s work, titled Equiano, The African: Biography of a Self-Made Man, has stirred a furor among some historians and literary scholars.

“I think devastating is not underestimating some people’s reaction to this notion,” says Dr. Philip Morgan, a Princeton University history professor who has written about 18th-century slavery.

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.

Fascinated with the story, Carretta began work on an updated edition of Equiano’s autobiography. He closely examined Equiano’s facts, even consulting shipping and meteorological records to verify Equiano’s dates and claims about his naval voyages. But when he looked at Equiano’s 1759 baptismal records from a London church, Carretta received a shock — the birthplace listed was South Carolina. Carretta later uncovered a ship’s muster list from 1773 that also said he was born in South Carolina.

Carretta’s work raised particular ire among Nigerian scholars. Equiano is a prominent figure in Nigerian history. At a 2003 conference in England, some Nigerian academics assailed Carretta’s work for alleging Equiano had been untruthful.

Carretta understands the anger.

“He’s a Nigerian national hero. It would be the equivalent of saying George Washington was actually born in France,” Carretta says. 

— Associated Press

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