In his narrative “The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, The African”, Olaudah Equiano (Gustuvas Vassa) presents a detailed account of his autobiography. In brief, the author says that he was born in a beautiful land in West Africa. It is believed the place was located in southeastern Nigeria or southwestern parts of Benin. The story begins with a description of life and nature in Africa. As a young boy, Equiano lived in a beautiful land, where food, sun and land were plenty. The society was united. People shared activities such as farming and child rearing. However, it was at the peak of the infamous slave trade.
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The author cites several cases when slave hunters emerged from the bushes and kidnap children from their villages in absence of adults. Equiano and his younger sister became victims of these hunters. They were kidnapped from their home and taken through a long journey before they were separated and each sold to a different African chieftain. Equiano changed ownership several times. Sometime he came under good masters while other times experiencing oppression from other chieftains. Finally, he was sold to African slave traders, marched to the coast and sold to a transatlantic slave merchant.
Finally, he made a long voyage across the Atlantic before reaching Barbados. In a few days, he was sold again and taken to Virginia, USA. Here, Equiano lived as a slave under a Royal Navy officer named Lieutenant Michael Pascal, a kind Briton who named Equiano “Gustavus Vassa”. He accompanied Pascal to various regions in the world for about 8 years. While staying in Britain during their travels, the author obtained writing and reading skills and adopted Christianity.
He later changed ownership two times, ending his slave career after buying his own freedom. He made several trips to various parts of the world but settled in Britain, where he joined the antislavery movements led by William Wilberforce and other individuals. He married Susanna Cullen, a white Briton, with whom they had two daughters. He died in 1797.
Historical and evidence-based interpretation of the story: Focus on truths and contradictions
The description of the African cultures, geography and lifestyle at the beginning of Equiano’s story provides evidence that the author was quite familiar with Africa and the Africans. According to the author, he was born in beautiful African country, where people lived worked in harmony. There were no cities, schools, churches or money because people lived in large villages, working on communal basis to achieve social goals.
Equiano further notes that the Africans had a traditional but effective religion, which was symbolized by signs. For example, he believes that the snake was his clan’s sign because he once stepped on a large and dangerous snake but it “did not bite him”. He further remembers his mother performing sacrifices in a deep forest, where his maternal grandmother was buried. He further argues that the social norms among his Igbo people (written as Eboe) allowed women to take care of their children, teach them morals and self-defense. According to him, life was good. In addition, he likens his people with Jews, arguing that the religious practices were similar and that the Igbo were distant descendants of Jews.
Nevertheless, it is evident that a lot of his narration about the African country, culture, beliefs and geography are doubtable. Although the communal work and some religious practices mentioned in the book are in agreement with the Igbo culture, his story cannot be verified. For instance, it is doubtable whether the writer was conversant with the African country he mentions. He argues that he was born in a place known as Essaka, a large village that he calls a town.
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However, there is little evidence to show that such a town or village existed in West Africa. Igbo history and narratives do not show the existence of a place bearing the name. In addition, British and other Europeans visiting West Africa as slave traders or explorers did not leave any record showing the existence of such a name in the region. Therefore, it is quite likely that Equiano borrowed a story from other slaves in Virginia or the West Indies, but integrated it in his autobiography.
Secondly, the issues of his birthplace and voyage across the Atlantic raise further concerns. Whether Equiano was born in Africa is subject to doubts. For instance, some records found in some of his other works say that he was born in Carolina rather than Africa. Moreover, his name “Equiano” does not have similarities or equivalent with any Igbo name. It does not have a meaning in the Igbo language. It is possible that he was born and baptized in Carolina, where such Spanish names as “Equiano” were frequently given to slave children.
It is also worth noting that Equiano’s theory of purchasing his freedom within three years is contradicting. In history, most merchants used their slaves to make profits, with few, if any, allowing them to involve in trade, especially during voyages. It is doubtable whether the author purchased his freedom through “side businesses” during his voyages.
Finally, his language, art, writing style and ability to escape slavery and settle in the UK show that he spent a lot of time studying. One doubts whether the few classes he took in England were adequate to propel him from slavery to become an international activist, author and British citizen.