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Scholars Disagree Over Former Slave’s Amazing Tale

Olaudah Equiano has all the credentials to be a hero in the annals of African American history; and now, one more feather in his cap: he is depicted in the new movie “Amazing Grace” as a powerful, ex-slave and author whose famous 1789 autobiography describing the horrors of the Middle Passage was key in abolishing the British slave trade.

But a University of Maryland scholar has a different version of history, and his controversial theory is upsetting Equiano fans from Harvard University to Nigeria.

Dr. Vincent Carretta, a University of Maryland English professor and author of a book and several papers on Equiano, says that he has discovered evidence showing that Equiano may have lied about his background and in fact never even crossed the Atlantic in a slave ship. Carretta claims to have found evidence that Equiano was, in fact, born in South Carolina.

It’s a hypothesis so controversial, that even Carretta was hesitant about bringing it forward.            

“He’s a Nigerian national hero, so saying he may not have been born in Nigeria is like us saying George Washington may have been born in Paris.”

Carretta’s hypothesis has gained additional prominence with the release of the major motion picture, “Amazing Grace” and with the bicentennial anniversary in England of the end of the slave trade this year. His detractors seem just as unwavering.

“It’s certainly possible; lots of things are possible,” says Dr. Werner Sollors, a Harvard professor and editor of a Norton edition of Equiano’s book. “There’s no one who knows as much about this work as Carretta. But I just think in terms of getting the last nail down—I’m not convinced.”

Equiano is considered one of the earliest African American authors. In 1789 his first and only published book was entitled “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself.”

In it, Equiano says he was born in 1745 in a province called Eboe in what is today Southern Nigeria. He describes being kidnapped with his sister by other Africans and taken on a seven-month journey by foot and boat to the African coast where he boarded an enormous slave ship.

 “When I looked round the ship and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of Black people of every description chained together, everyone 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.”

His ensuing descriptions of cruelty and subhuman treatment shock to this day. Equiano describes crew members dining on fish, and throwing the remains overboard despite the starving passengers. Several detainees broke free from the chains and tried to commit suicide by flinging themselves into the sea—but those who were caught were flogged mercilessly. 

The ship was “so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocating us. This produced copious perspiration, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died,” Equiano writes.

After his kidnapping in Africa at the age of ten, he served as a slave of an officer in the British Navy, and spent ten years of labor on slave ships until he was able to purchase his freedom in 1766. Thereafter, he became involved in the burgeoning antislavery movement in England, being led, with little success at the time, by young British parliamentarian William Wilberforce.  But Equiano’s book was published to great fanfare, and its hideous account of the slave trade shocked many Britons into action.

It is not clear if Wilberforce and Equiano ever met, (in the movie, they have dinner together) but Carretta says Equiano’s story breathed life into Wilberforce’s movement.

“The pro-slavery people were saying, ‘well if it’s so bad, why don’t we hear anything from the slaves?” Carretta says.

“If Equiano did alter the facts about his life, I see him having done so, one: to make money, and two: for the cause. He knows what the anti-slave traded needed was a Black voice and someone who experienced the Middle Passage.”

Carretta says he came across evidence that Equiano was born in South Carolina while researching a book on Equiano. Carretta had been teaching Equiano to his University of Maryland English classes but he was unhappy with the poor translation. Carretta eventually convinced Penguin to let him edit a version of Equiano’s story. He used his 6-month sabbatical to research records in England, starting with Baptismal records in Westminster Abbey in London. In this baptismal register, Carretta saw “Gustavo Vassa, Black, 12 years old, born in Carolina.”

“I said, ‘Oh dear. This is a problem.’ Carretta recalls.

In fact, it was well known that while Equiano was alive, rumors had existed that Equiano was born outside of Africa. However, they were never proven and many assumed that was a fabrication spread by pro-slavery types. In 1792, when Equiano went on a lecture tour and was out of town, a local newspaper published accusations that he was born in the Danish West Indies (now the Virgin Islands); Equiano was so upset by this, he published a new edition of his book that began by denouncing the claims and saying they were intended to hurt his character and the sales of his book.

Carretta assumed the record could have been a mistake, so he made a small note of it. Later, though, when Carretta was reviewing naval records of Equiano’s arctic expedition, his birthplace is again listed as South Carolina, and this was dated 12 years after Equiano was made a free man.

Carretta’s research is credited as being so thorough that many are hesitant to doubt him. However, just as many, if not more, are upset at the thought of tarnishing Equiano’s reputation.

“Many people told me I should have suppressed it,” Carretta says. “I said ‘I don’t do that.’  Why, I knew it would raise a storm.”

Indeed, many do disagree, including vaunted Harvard scholar Sollors. However, his opposition isn’t an emotional attachment to Equiano.

“I don’t’ think he’s come up with a smoking gun,” he says. “In the 18th century people were already doubting it.”

But, Sollors says that only two documents indicate a Carolina birth, and “neither are handwritten by Equiano.” There’s no additional evidence confirming a Carolina birth, and Sollors thinks someone taking records aboard the ship could easily have mistakenly put down Equiano’s birthplace.

What both scholars do agree on, however, is that Equiano was a remarkable, even if he was born in the U.S. Sollors would be equally awed, if he were born in Carolina.

“He was a fantastic traveler and he went all over the world on these ships, and then bought his freedom and was still eager to sail the seas

“If he was an American, to go to England in the 18th century and pretend your African; sounds like a whole novel plot, and he hung out with a lot of Africans so he must have had more stories,” says Sollors. “What really matters was that he witnessed the slave passage. We know that he did that. The descriptions he drew are real.”

–Christina Asquith

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