The summary of Olaudah Aquino’s story from free life in his native Africa to slavery in the Americas and acquisition of freedom has revealed that several issues need to be investigated based on the story and history of slavery. Quite clearly, the presence of several texts and historical accounts tend to create a topic of debate on the validity of Olaudah Aquino’s story. In this paper, an in-depth analysis of the texts is done to expand the existing knowledge on the validity of the story as given in the book. This paper attempts to expand the existing review of historical accounts that tend to support or refute Olaudah Aquino’s claims. Also, this analysis attempts to demonstrate the importance of the texts and devolve a specific interpretation of the story. It seeks to address the tension and contradiction created by the debate. The paper argues that the story given by Aquino in his book is based on his personal experience on his journey from West Africa to the Americas. The hypotheses that tend to refute this story are based on speculations that he was using available knowledge in geography and history to develop a story of his experience. However, it is worth noting that Aquino used the existing knowledge to perfect the story of his experience. Thus, this paper shows that Aquino’s story has a significantly high degree of truth.
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Justification of the study: What is the importance of analyzing Olaudah Aquino’s story’s narrative?
Over the years, Olaudah Aquino’s stories in his book “The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Aquino, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by him” has become one of the most important texts that attempt to describe the nature and process of slavery from African to Americas. The story has been the center of discussion in both literal and historical studies. For example, the narrative remains one of the few texts written in English by a former slave who experienced all the stages of slavery- capture, transfer across the Atlantic, slavery, and eventual freedom. Besides, the text is one of the first and few accounts by a person with experience of slavery, which is relatively rare. Thus, the story is one of the few slave narratives that attempt to provide an in-depth description of slavery in all aspects. In history, the narrative provides evidence of validity as a source of information in teaching and synthesizing history.
For instance, the publication and release of the book in 1789 came at a time when the evils of the slave trade were under legal and social discussion in Europe, especially in the British Parliament. It played an important role in providing evidence of the evils of slavery. Studies have shown that this book was one of the materials that supported the antislavery and abolitionist movements in the UK. It supported the work of William Wilberforce and other abolitionists in the UK and later in Europe and the Americas. Olaudah Aquino’s movements in various parts of the world to advocate for the abolition of the slave trade partly contributed to the formation of Antislavery laws in the UK, which eventually led to the termination of the trade. Thus, it is clear that Aquino was not just a storyteller. Rather, he was using his personal experience as well as information from the existing materials on slavery to emphasize the importance of abolishing slavery.
Review of the story and literature: How valid is the story?
In recent times, there has been a widespread debate among historians, sociologists, economists, and experts in literature over the validity and truth of Olaudah Aquino’s story. While a good number of research-based studies support the validity and truth of the writer’s accounts of black people’s journey from Africa to slavery and eventually freedom, a good number of other studies have attempted to refute the story, claiming that it is a piece of literature with a lot of fiction. Several issues in the story remain debatable. For instance, various researchers and authors have debated Olaudah Aquino’s claim that he was born in West Africa. They have also debated his name, analysis of the life and nature in West Africa, use of literal techniques to convince the audience, and the accounts of his life as a slave and acquisition of freedom. Thus, this analysis will review the existing research-based information in each of these aspects.
The issue of the birthplace of Olaudah Aquino in his story is arguably the first aspect that researchers should consider when determining the validity of the story. In his narrative, the author claims that he was born Olaudah Aquino in a place known as Essaka in West Africa. He claims that he was a member of the large Igbo tribe, which is located in modern-day Nigeria and Benin. According to Damrosch, Wolfson, and Manning (127), most researchers have attempted to locate the position of the village in vain. Geographical accounts as well as studies in geography, history, and sociology of the region have not shown that a village with the name existed. However, according to Acholonu (67) and other authors, the village is most likely associated with the name Isseke, which is located in the Orlu region of the central Igboland. The accounts given by the narrative writer, including nature and geography, can be matched to this region. Thus, this finding provides evidence that Olaudah Aquino was born in the region. It may also suggest that he was not born in Igbo land, but had interacted with slaves who had been captured from Isseke.
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The finding of records about Olaudah Aquino’s birth in South Carolina has complicated the story. Records from the birth registration office suggest that Olaudah Aquino was born Vagustus Vassa in South Carolina. Researchers have used these records in their arguments that the name ‘Olaudah Aquino’ was a pseudonym while ‘Vagustus Vassa’ was his real name. His origin has become a major issue in the debate on whether he was born in Africa as he claims. The birth registration records in South Carolina suggest that an individual by the name “Vagustus Vassa” was born around the same year that Aquino claims to have been born in Africa. Secondly, the certificates indicate that the individual was of the black race. This suggests that Aquino was a black individual born in South Carolina, contrary to his popular story.
Nevertheless, various authors have refuted this claim, providing some evidence that Aquino was probably a different person from the ‘Vagustus Vassa’ born in South Carolina. For instance, a study of Aquino’s first language suggests that he was not born among an English speaking community. According to Shyllon (436), English Speaking people dominated South Carolina, which means that children born there had good English. This is not the case in Olauda Aquino because his English was not perfect in his initial years, suggesting that he was not born there. It also suggests that he was born in Igbo land as he claims. This claim supports Aquino’s story.
Olaudah Aquino’s description of life, nature, and other aspects of West Africa is an important topic of debate. As the story begins, the author provides a long and well-structured analysis of the life and nature of West Africa and its people, environment, practices, and culture. It is worth analyzing these accounts with history, environment, culture, and practices in West African societies at the time.
According to the narrative, Olaudah Aquino (using the name of Gustavus Vassa) claims that he was born around 1745 in a region known as ‘Essaka”. It is believed that the region was located in the modern southeastern parts of Nigeria or southwestern parts of modern-day Benin. He claims that he was born a native Igbo, one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. Also, the Igbo ethnic group was one of the most affected during the slave trade, including indigenous slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Therefore, the claim seems to be historically valid in this aspect.
In his research Ogunde (239) argues that “Olaudah Aquino’s story, and his identity as a native Igbo, is largely fictional”. The author further notes that the narrative Olaudah Aquino gives is based on the 18th century literal forms, which mostly depicted the slave trade, especially by focusing on the voyage from Africa to the Americas. The author further argues that Olaudah Aquino used a wide range of material and oral evidence given by people who had undergone the normal life in West African before capture and enslavement in the south and North America. For instance, Ogunde indicates that Olaudah Aquino had studied widely the European accounts of Africa, tales, and traditions that were told by slaves, and details from his early life in America.
For instance, Olaudah Aquino’s story is based on the geography of Africa developed in Europe, which was largely used by European writers to describe Africa in terms of environment, nature, people, culture, practices, and other sociological aspects. In his research, Ogude concludes that there is enough evidence that the verification of Olaudah Aquino’s story tends to show that he was telling “less than the truth”. This suggests, rather than confirming, that Aquino may have been basing his descriptions of West Africa based on European records of the time. However, this is not enough proof that the writer of the book was born in the US. Since Aquino left his native West African society when he was only 12, it was impossible to retain every detail of the society, culture, geography, and other aspects in his youth. Thus, he was only using the materials from literature to perfect his story. Besides, his ability to remember important names of places and people provide some evidence that he was born in West Africa but captured into slavery early in life, which makes it difficult to remember most details.
Carretta, a social and economic history, also attempts to analyze the claim that Olaudah Aquino was born and brought up in West Africa. This author argues that the authenticity of Olaudah Aquino’s story, especially the accounts of his childhood, is largely doubtable. For instance, Carretta (233) uses the documentary evidence available in the Carolina registry that Olaudah Aquino was born in South Carolina. According to this author, recent biographical discoveries tend to cast doubt on the accounts are given in Olaudah Aquino’s narrative, especially his birthplace and early childhood. The author claims that the available evidence suggests that the author of the book, believed to be Vassa using the pseudonym ‘Olaudah Aquino’, may have been a fiction writer rather than a former native African. Citing baptismal and naval records found in South Carolina around 1747, Carretta has claimed that the accuracy of these records is more valid than the historical accounts given by “himself”.
The fact that there is no other record to show that Vagustus Vassa was born in West Africa, apart from his biography, provides some evidence that the author was not only a great writer but also a person with the ability to collect historical, geographical, and oral materials to develop a compelling story that attracts and convinces his audience. Vagustus Vassa was no doubt a great writer, which has made his text survive over time with little evidence to show that it was based on fiction. According to Shyllon (433), Olaudah Aquino’s analysis and description of life in Africa fail to capture many aspects apart from those written in European geographical, social, and cultural accounts of Africa. For instance, he describes his life as a young Igbo living in a wonderful country in Africa. He remembers that life was good and based on social and cultural cooperation. He claims that the people lived in large villages, worked on fertile lands to produce food crops, and rear animals for their personal use. Also, he claims that childcare was a common responsibility among native Africans. He argues that the children were often left in a group as parents and other adults went farming. According to him, this was the main social loophole that created space for slavery.
From this point, Olaudah Aquino’s story jumps to describe the state of slavery in indigenous Africa. He claims that African slave traders abducted children and sold them to local slave owners located miles away from the point of capture. Also, he describes how he underwent African slavery in the hands of local owners, including his constant movement from the ownership of one African chief to another. The story also captures his separation from his sister and an event in which these were briefly united before the final separation. These accounts are based on literal creativity and are backed by European accounts of slavery in West Africa. Aquino says that he lived in Igbo land until the age of about 12. At this age, he was supposed to remember most of the cultural practices of the community. Apart from the childcare, fighting, and farming practices that he mentions in his book, there are few other cultural practices provided in the story. From historical and other records of the Igbo society, the community had some of the most popular cultural practices in West Africa. There were various cultural practices such as music, festivals, fights, ceremonies, and religious cerebrations. Olaudah Aquino fails to remember most of these events, which affects the validity of his story.
However, some authors have also attempted to refute this claim, arguing that some of the cultural practices mentioned in the book were the most popular in Igboland. For example, several authors cite Aquino’s ability to mention some cases of tribal fights, the use of ‘ichi’ scarification, the use of python venom and anchor-shaped money as well as the practice of “two ceremonies”. Historical and sociological evidence support this claim, which suggests that Olaudah Aquino was born in Igbo land. Thus, the claim that Aquino was not familiar with the Igbo culture seems to be relatively weak.
Another major area of debate is Olaudah Aquino’s identity. On most occasions, he uses the name “Vagustuc Vassa”. He claims that the name was given by his master Michael Henry Pascal at the age of 12 on he was crossing the Atlantic. He argues that he did not like the name at all and “refused to be called so”. However, Caretta claims that Olaudah Aquino did not object to using the name in his literal work, as well as other names such as Michael and Jacob, which he received while crossing the Atlantic and in Carolina respectively. According to Carretta (23), Olaudah Aquino continued to use the name Gustavus Vassa years after publishing the book, yet the book popularized his identity as ‘Olaudah Aquino’. Researchers have attempted to determine the actual name given to the writer at birth (Lovejoy 341). The author further claims that Olaudah Aquino’s used his position as a freed slave to develop a comprehensive text fighting for the rights of his fellow Africans both in Africa and America.
However, Lovejoy (344) argues that the identity portrayed by the author in his narrative provides evidence that it was a “narrative self” because he had individual experiences as a former slave. The name ‘Olaudah Aquino’ suggests that Gustavus Vassa identified himself as an African, not because he was born in Africa, but because he had done a wide reading and interaction with African slaves and the freed slaves. For instance, he seems to defend the kind of slavery indigenous to Africa. While he agrees that Africans, indeed, practiced slavery, he also notes that African slavery was less cruel than American slavery. For example, he cites a case in which a group of African slave traders from a community known as Oye-Eboe passed slaves across his community’s land, they were often challenged, disrupting the trade. He also says that most of the slaves in Africa were war prisoners and individuals punished for their wrong deeds within the communities. He also argues that most chiefs not cruel, with an exception of a few cases. According to Lovejoy (338), this provides some evidence that Olaudah Aquino identified himself as an African and defended the slavery and evils associated with some African practices. Besides, Lovejoy (339) argues that the information about slavery indigenous to Africa that Olaudah Aquino gives in his writings is largely derived from European accounts of Africa during the peak of the slave trade.
However, these claims are refuted by the evidence that Aquino admits to having read wide. He used information from books and geographical accounts of West Africa to support his knowledge of West Africa. A 12-year-old boy is not expected to remember every detail of the geography, history, and culture of the region. Thus, his claims seem to have a high degree of truth.
Besides, Olaudah Aquino seems to argue that European traders, whose demand for slaves was high, perpetrated the indigenous African slavery and many ethnic battles. He argues that African tribes fought with each other because the European greed for slaves at the west coast of Africa influenced African leaders in the interior parts because they traded guns, clothes, and other European items with slaves. Olaudah Aquino’s story seems to reflect much of the events associated with slavery, including the European involvement in making Africans involved in the slave trade. While some authors claim that this is an indication that Olaudah Aquino has read widely before publishing his work, others claim that it is an indication that the writer of the narrative had some firsthand information, and perhaps experience, as an individual born in Africa. Therefore, it is possible that Aquino, as a small boy before his capture, witnessed some of these events in his native Igbo land but used information from studies to enhance his story.
Conclusion and suggested study question
Thus, these studies have shown that Olaudah Aquino’s story may have been true or based on fiction. In particular, his claim that he was born in Africa remains doubtable. The claims that he was born in South Carolina are refuted by the evidence that he did not have good English in his youth. Secondly, the claim that he was using European stories about Africa is refuted by the evidence of Aquino’s ability to remember most of the cultural events like tribal fights, cases of abductions, the “ichi” and other events. Moreover, Aquino’s name “Vagustus Vassa” cannot be used as evidence that he was born in America and not Africa because he obtained several names during his slavery and career. Thus, this paper shows that Aquino’s story has a significantly high degree of truth.
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Acholonu, Catherine. “The home of Olaudah Equiano- A linguistic and anthropological survey”. Journal of commonwealth literature 22.2 (2007): 5-16. Print.
Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self Made Man. Atlanta, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005. Print.
Damrosch, David, Susan Wolfson and Peter Manning. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2A: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. London: Longman Group, 2010. Print.
Lovejoy, Paul E. “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African”. Slavery & Abolition 27.3 (2006): 337-344. Print.
Ogude, Simon. “Facts into fiction: Equiano’s Narrative Reconsidered”. Research in African Literature 13.1(2007): 31-43. Print.
Shyllon, Folarin. “Olaudah Equiano; Nigerian Abolitionist and First Leader of Africans in Britain”. Journal of African Studies 4.4 (2007): 433–45. Print.