Saturday, February 19, 2005

Olaudah Equiano

Updates to the Equiano page to reflect discoveries over the past few years that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina instead of Africa. From the U.S.News Classroom site:

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano tells the story of a well-born son of the Igbo tribe, in present-day Nigeria, who was kidnapped at the age of 11. After suffering the ocean voyage, he was purchased by a British ship captain in Virginia. He eventually bought his freedom and went on to have numerous adventures at sea. His 1789 book, a bestseller, was the first extended account written by a former slave and offered powerful testimony for abolition. It became the archetype for other slave narratives, such as the one Douglass published in 1845.

But unlike other slave narratives, which tend to be vague about specifics, Equiano's cites places and names and dates. That intrigued Carretta, who was put-ting together a new edition of the book. In 1994, he decided to go to the United Kingdom, where Equiano had lived and worked, to see how the tale checked out. The vast majority of the book matches historical records. But two discrepancies raise some doubts about the very chapters that teachers rely on most.

One of Carretta's first stops was St. Margaret's Church, Westminster, where Equiano was baptized under his slave name, Gustavus Vassa. There Carretta found an entry in a 200-year-old record book. But in the space for the birthplace, someone had written: "Carolina."

While Carretta found that odd, he shrugged it off as a mistake by someone speaking for a child. But then he searched naval records, looking for expeditions mentioned in Equiano's narrative. The manifest of one ship that Equiano sailed on lists a "Gustavus," age 28, born in South Carolina. At this point in his life Equiano was a free man, and others on the ship claimed African birthplaces. Why would Equiano offer up "South Carolina"? Historian Philip Morgan of Johns Hopkins University calls the document "a bombshell."

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