The interesting author: Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative has long been seen as the first great narrative of slavery by someone who has been a victim of it

Photograph courtesy Penguin Classics

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent “deep sorrow” over Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, abolished in its colonies two hundred years ago on March 25, 1807, provoked both ridicule and frustration. It was certainly intended as an act of reconciliation, an affirmation of Britain’s multicultural future and a symbolic atonement for its imperial past. But the idea of Blair shouldering blame for the pitiless sugar barons of the 18th century seemed less than credible. At the same time, those who point out that Britain’s Industrial Revolution and subsequent economic success were based on the profits from slavery felt short-changed.

The anniversary, to be commemorated in various forms of “dialogue”, reminds us that the ending of the slave trade was at best an ambiguous victory. Not only did slavery itself persist in the Caribbean for a further thirty years, but the actual ban on the transatlantic trade was blatantly flouted and circumvented by slavers from Britain and other nations. The planters and their spokesmen in Parliament of course argued that an end to fresh supplies of slave labour would spell the immediate demise of the West Indian sugar industry. Some even went so far as to suggest that they were doing the heathen Africans a favour by introducing them to the values of civilisation and Christianity aboard the pestilential ships of the Middle Passage.

But if Eric Williams, perhaps the most eloquent analyst of slavery, is to be believed (as he should be), the plantocracy’s days were ended not by a sudden humanitarian impulse among Britain’s political class but by market forces. Slave trading was no longer what the new industrialists and free-traders of the early 19th century wanted. They wanted wage labour, markets for exports (both Africa and the Caribbean), and a modern capitalist system. The old Caribbean landowners, with their cohorts of slave-trading captains and adventurers, were an anachronism, and had to go.

So it was that the slave trade was abolished (though not in practice for some years) and — this was the best bit as far as the British government was concerned — the Royal Navy could take the high moral ground and start intercepting vessels belonging to Spanish, French or Dutch owners in the name of humanity. For if the British had ended their slave trade, they were certainly not going to allow their Caribbean competitors — Cuba in particular — to keep theirs.

One might assume that in the ferocious propaganda war that accompanied the debate over abolition the voices of actual slaves would be absent. But that was not the case. Perhaps the loudest warning noise had come from Haiti, where in 1804 a thirteen-year conflict had ended in a successful slave revolution which terrified even the most enthusiastic advocates of slavery. But there were also significant contributions from men and women of African origin, all of whom had at one time been slaves. Indeed, there was a minor literary industry of narratives written by those who had been freed or had bought their own freedom.

The best-known of these is The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, which was first published in London in 1789 and went through eight subsequent editions in the author’s lifetime (it was also published in the US, Germany, the Netherlands and Russia, and has been in print ever since). Interesting it certainly is, as the author, known both as Olaudah Equiano and Gustavus Vassa, recounts a life almost incredibly rich in incident, disaster and triumph. Equiano’s experiences are a rollercoaster of adversity and victory, played out against a vast backcloth that encompasses Africa, Europe, America and the Caribbean.

The book tells how Equiano was kidnapped in his native land (nowadays south-eastern Nigeria) and enslaved at the age of eleven. English slave-traders bought him from his African captors and shipped him to Barbados, from where he was taken to Virginia and sold. Quickly resold to a British naval officer, Michael Henry Pascal, he was taken to London. In Pascal’s company, Equiano witnessed military action in the Seven Years’ War, including naval battles in the Mediterranean. In an abrupt change of fortune, he was then re-sold when Pascal reneged on his promise to free him, and shipped once more to the Caribbean, to Montserrat.

For three years Equiano was witness to the everyday brutalities of Caribbean slave society:

It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St. Kitt’s, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name, and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed, on the most trifling occasions they were loaded with chains and often other instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumb-screws, &c. are so well known, as not to need a description, and were sometimes applied for the slightest faults. I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over.

Strangely, Equiano prospered in this cruel environment, saving enough money from a small trading business he was allowed to set up to buy his own freedom in 1766. It was an early sign of his entrepreneurial nature and stands in marked contrast to the horrors that he saw around him.

The second half of The Interesting Narrative takes the reader on a dizzying succession of voyages. The now-free Equiano travels on business and for adventure between America, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, somehow finding time to learn to play the French horn and serve on the 1773 Phipps expedition to the North Pole. He eventually settles in London, marries and converts to Methodism. The book’s final sections deal largely with his involvement in the abolitionist movement and with various petitions to the great and the good, not least Queen Charlotte, wife of George III.

On one level, Equiano’s book is a fascinating account of what Paul Gilroy termed the Black Atlantic, the triangular relationship of commerce and slavery between Africa, Europe and the Americas. It is also an impassioned attack on slavery and the slave trade, but one that never suggests that the slaves themselves should destroy the system that oppresses them. Instead, Equiano appeals to the philanthropy of the enlightened British Establishment, pleading the moral case for abolition and — significantly — pointing out that a slavery-free Africa would be a good market for British manufacturers.

The message clearly worked, at least among some. The worthy subscribers (people who pre-bought copies of the book) included bishops, lords, and even the Prince of Wales. The publishing venture made Equiano a small fortune and propelled him into London’s polite society. He was even able to dabble in money-lending with his respectable new friends.

Yet there is something deeply ambiguous about the narrative. Partly it is the ornate, rhetorical language of the Hanoverian period that hardly seems to fit what we imagine the voice of an ex-slave to be. And partly it is the sheer scale of the story, which takes a child from an African village and, via slavery, turns him into an English gentleman. So it is not altogether surprising to find that in 1999 Professor Vincent Carretta produced a controversial book that aimed to prove through detailed documentation that Equiano was born not in Africa, but in Carolina. Carretta’s work, showing that Equiano had in fact never set foot in Africa, was, to say the least, a blow to the traditional view that his was the first and greatest “slave narrative”.

Was Equiano a fraud? Carretta’s book shows that much of his story can be verified from other sources, but the likelihood that he was not African-born cannot but undermine the very essence of his work and weaken our belief in its authenticity.

Yet one might argue that as a work of the imagination — based perhaps on contact with “real” African slaves — The Interesting Narrative is still a powerful piece of writing, a tribute more to Equiano’s skill as a storyteller than his powers of survival. Perhaps it is best to view this remarkable literary creation as an amalgam of fact and fiction, a work of creation as much as documentation.