- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

Olaudah Equiano wrote in 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 is a key text for scholars studying slavery and the brutal cross-Atlantic trip known as the Middle Passage, but part of it may be more fiction than fact. English professor Vincent Carretta of the University of Maryland contends Equiano was born in South Carolina and could never have made the trip he describes.

By challenging the authenticity of a major voice in the history of African slavery and one of the most widely taught slave narratives, Mr. Carretta’s biography of Equiano has stirred a furor among some historians and literary scholars. The book, “Equiano, The African: Biography of a Self-Made Man,” is scheduled to be released Oct. 24.

“I think devastating is not underestimating some people’s reaction to this notion,” said Philip Morgan, a Princeton University history professor.

Equiano published his life story in London in 1789 under the title, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African. Written by Himself.”

The abolitionist movement was growing at the time, and the story was valuable evidence for abolitionists trying to prove the slave trade was inhuman. It eventually went through nine editions and made Equiano a wealthy man.

In the book, Equiano chronicled serving in the British Navy, buying his freedom in the West Indies, his marriage to a white British woman and his opposition to slavery.

He was born in 1745 in present-day southeast Nigeria and was taken captive at 11, Equiano wrote, boarding a slave ship and fainting upon seeing “a multitude of black people of every description chained together.”

Equiano’s story faded after his death in 1797, but the text was revived in the 1980s and is used in many university literary and history classes.

Fascinated with the story, Mr. Carretta began working on an updated edition of Equiano’s autobiography.

Most of it checked out, but he was shocked to find that Equiano’s 1759 baptismal records from a London church listed his birthplace as South Carolina. Mr. Carretta later uncovered a ship’s muster list from 1773 that also noted Equiano was born in South Carolina.

Mr. Carretta initially revealed his findings in footnotes to the edition of Equiano’s narrative that he edited, published in 1995. Nobody noticed until he wrote a paper for a journal on slave history.

The findings raise ire among Nigerian scholars because Equiano is a prominent figure in their history. Mr. Carretta understands their anger, saying: “It would be the equivalent of saying George Washington was actually born in France.”


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