Olaudah Equiano’s Transnational Insights

Sculpture of Olaudah Equiano, the Queen’s House, London (Wikimedia Commons)

Few figures of the eighteenth century have captured the attention of historians, literary critics, and scholars of Africana studies as much as Olaudah Equiano. One of the most prominent anti-slavery voices of his time, Equiano’s autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano not only yields insight into the author’s extraordinary life, but functions as a powerful polemic against one of history’s most sordid episodes, the practice of chattel slavery in the Americas. Countless authors have explored Equiano’s account from different vantage points, yet Vincent Carretta’s Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (UGA Press, 2022) remains novel. Significantly, the author avers that discourses revolving around Equiano’s likely misrepresentation of his African birth too often miss the point. Impassioned debates about the account’s historical veracity obscure the ex-slave’s motivations for distorting his childhood origins. As Carretta explains, “manumission necessitated redefinition” (p. xix). Individuals who escaped bondage were constantly engaged in an effort to redefine themselves in landscapes routinely marginalizing Blackness. Largely known as Gustavas Vassa before his famed account, Equiano’s choice to represent himself as African-born cannot be extricated from debates occurring in the societies that he was attempting to transform. Carretta convincingly casts his subject and fellow narrator as a skilled rhetorician responding to the abolitionist movement’s yelp for an authentic African voice which could delineate the social organization of African society along with the horrors wrought by the slave trade. While Carretta is firmly of the opinion that Equiano was born in South Carolina, as historical evidence suggests, he refrains from suggesting that the anti-slavery crusader trafficked in deception. Rather, Equiano seized upon his skill as a writer, vast amount of maritime experience in the Americas and Europe, and engagement with people from myriad backgrounds to craft a narrative that spoke to the plight of countless other degraded human beings whose voices are lost to us. The success that eventually greeted The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is a testament to Olaudah’s propensity for self-promotion and re-invention.

A highly prolific writer, Vincent Carretta is no stranger to composing biographies on esteemed eighteenth-century Black figures. Some of his previous works include The Life and Letters of Philip Quaque The First African Anglican Missionary (2010) and Phillis Wheatley’s Biography of a Genius in Bondage (2011). Given his experience with chronicling the lives of extraordinary men and women, Carretta’s Equiano, the African successfully alternates between allowing the tenor of Equiano’s text to emerge through quoting passages from The Interesting Narrative and Equiano’s other writings while also displaying Carretta’s complex grasp of historical processes and historiographical debates revolving around the subject of abolition. At times, his work can overwhelm given its sheer volume of detail. Nevertheless, to the biographer’s credit, neither his voice nor Equiano’s become swallowed.

Integrating a cornucopia of primary sources including newspapers, journals, literary texts, pro-slavery screeds, anti-slavery pamphlets, and missionary accounts into his scholarship, Carretta nearly always prospers in providing readers with appropriate context. Carretta’s intended audience clearly extends beyond those in formal academic settings. Consequently, he dispenses with the abstruse language that so often accompanies historical, and to a somewhat lesser extent, literary scholarship. The quantity of detail he provides about eighteenth-century life at sea, religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics, the global reach of the Seven Years’ War, the logistics of subscription solicitation, and a slew of other topics generally enrich his discussion of Olaudah Equiano’s life. Occasionally, Carretta’s scope can seem too ambitious and even tangential. Paradoxically, one wishes that he would devote more time toward fleshing out the implications of some of his normative statements about Equiano. For instance, he aptly describes Equiano as famed historian Ira Berlin dubbed an Atlantic Creole. Given the ex-slave’s exploits in the Arctic and Orient, Equiano self-designating himself as a “citizen of the world” (p. 168) is even more fitting. Yet, Carretta declines to interrogate how these exploits further supplement, complicate, or destabilize conceptions of the Black Atlantic. Besides serving as a useful rhetorical strategy to shame white enslavers, how might Equiano’s identification with the Turks enhance understandings of Black subjectivity during this period? His laudatory depiction of Turkish society functions as a fascinating counterweight against Orientalist depictions so often embedded within Western discourses. Might Equiano’s words be part of a vibrant counter-discourse and generative for historians of Atlantic intellectual history? Postcolonial theorist Edward Said ruminated upon Western depictions of the East and the importance of dispelling them. What does it mean that an eighteenth-century Black Christian man was actively refuting Orientalist tropes and held positive perceptions of Turkish Muslims? Carretta accentuates why Equiano choosing to lavish praise on an Islamic society was rhetorically useful, but framing the latter’s words as a rhetorical device seems rather limiting. Despite becoming devout in his beliefs and critical toward other belief systems, it is curious that Equiano chooses not to condemn Islam. Could our protagonist have come into contact with enslaved Black Muslims in the Americas that shaped his sympathies toward Turkish people? Did he encounter enslaved Africans in the Mediterranean? While a paucity of sources may forestall the possibility of knowing the answer to these questions, Carretta’s relative lack of attention to the Islamic World and its contemporaneous debates about abolition is surprising. Given that a sizable amount of enslaved Africans arose from Muslim backgrounds, it is likely that Equiano knew enslaved people hailing from Islamic backgrounds. Carretta’s argument that Equiano seized upon his experiences with other enslaved people in framing his own voice is persuasive. Yet, regrettably, the author does not explore how Equiano’s experience with Muslim slaves may have informed the latter’s views of Muslim Turks. The author misses opportunities to flesh out the implications of Equiano’s life within Ottoman society, theorize how non-European actors understood themselves in relation to others deemed outside the boundary of whiteness, and forcefully position Black voices within Christian and Muslim societies’ competing discourses.

Carretta’s delicate handling of Equiano’s spiritual tumult and subsequent peace that he discovered in Christianity should merit particular praise. While difficult to capture the spiritual stirrings, religious convictions, or epistemological crises experienced by an individual, much less a departed one, Carretta does so with extraordinary grace. Various scenes from Equiano’s life demonstrate his reliance on faith in conceptualizing and critiquing the world around him. As Carretta asserts, Equiano’s religious beliefs motivated his desire to help settle impoverished Black Londoners in Sierra Leone. However, while Equiano’s motivations for helping the Black Poor are evident, Carretta errs in not problematizing the less than altruistic motivations of others involved. As the historian Maeve Ryan showcases, the language of humanitarianism driving attempts to resettle formerly enslaved people throughout the British Empire must be problematized. Bewilderingly, Carretta does not acknowledge the abuses that occurred against Black subjects within the colony, which recent historians of Sierra Leone have addressed. Carretta’s curt dismissal of the darker impulses undergirding the colony’s founding, coupled with his failure to mention the serious frustrations that Black subjects possessed about the state, is striking and detract from his chapter on the Black poor.

A general desire to avoid anachronism guides this work, which is a strength. Carretta emphasizes that eighteenth century notions of Blackness and Whiteness did not possess the fixity associated with our contemporary era. An example of this is shown when Carretta recounts Equiano’s attempts to convert an Indigenous man from Guatemala. In his rebuffing of Olaudah’s attempts, the Moskito Indian described Equiano as white. Including this memorable moment speaks to longstanding efforts that historians have made in showing the constructedness and elasticity of race. Concurrently, Carretta never negates the sufferings concomitant with Blackness in the Anglo-American World. The author notes Equiano’s childhood despair at recognizing that his Blackness precluded him from being like the white figures he sought to please. Carretta incorporates W.E.B DuBois’ concept of double consciousness, which serves as a useful framework for understanding Black subjectivity in Western societies. The meticulous care that Equiano committed toward his sartorial practices and acquisition of knowledge about British culture functioned as forms of legitimation even as he adopted a decidedly African birth to achieve a different, and equally important, type of validity. Carretta is at his strongest when identifying Olaudah Equiano’s overlapping identities and how skillfully he, and by extension other free Black people, shuffled between them.

Overall, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man stands as a triumph. At one point, Carretta acknowledges that the personal is political. Olaudah Equiano’s life exemplifies the truth of this phrase. Carretta succeeds at painting Equiano as an intelligent, introspective, and enterprising individual whose unique set of skills positioned him to advocate for not only himself, but a people. Equiano’s famed account defies easy categorization, much like the man himself. From Montserrat to Georgia to Turkey, the varied contexts that our Equiano encountered speak to his cosmopolitanism and reveal that many Black figures were considerably more transnational in their movements and critiques than commonly assumed.

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Taylor Prescott

Taylor Prescott is a third year Ph.D. History student at the University of Pennsylvania. His work centers on abolition and Black freedom in the eighteenth and nineteenth century British Empire. Prescott is also interested in Black transnationalism and migration more broadly. He received his bachelor’s degree in History from Fisk University in 2017 and his M.A. in Global History from Georgetown University in 2019. Prescott has been awarded fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation and the John Carter Brown Library.

Comments on “Olaudah Equiano’s Transnational Insights

  • It was the ‘Ottoman Empire’ at that time, not ‘Turkey. He specifically visited Smyrna, a city famous for its Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Levantine population.

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