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Was Equiano an American?

After finishing this book, I decided to read some literary commentary to gain perspective.  What struck me was Equiano’s use of strategy in his writing of this book.  Here are some of the ideas that stood out the most for me:

1) Equiano may not have been African.

In my edition’s introduction, Vincent Carretta mentions that Equiano appears to be exceptionally factual, except when it comes to his childhood.  Ships’ logs indicate that Equiano arrived in England two years before the date stated in his autobiography.  In addition, both his baptismal record and records from his North Pole expedition list his place of birth as “Carolina.”  No records have been found to corroborate Equiano’s claim of African nationality.   It seems likely that the clergyman could have made a mistake.  However, the existence of the North Pole records duplicating this same mistake several years later makes it seem more likely that Equiano was American rather than African.

Why would Equiano choose to fabricate a new nationality for himself?  Other details of this book have been carefully scrutinized by historians and have been verified as accurate to a remarkable detail.  What made Equiano’s childhood different?  While I can’t know what the author was thinking, I have a guess.  I think that Equiano’s goal in writing this book was to help abolish slavery in the most effective way that he could.  Reverand Nichols, another abolitionist of the time, mentioned that “the stupidity of negoes is… urged by the friends of slavery as a plea for using them as brutes; for they represent the negroes as little removed from the monkey, or the oran-outang, with regard to intellects” (Carretta, p. xii).  If this was a main argument in favor of slavery, then it would be very important for Equiano to invalidate this perspective as prerequisite to invalidating slavery itself.  Certainly, Equiano’s own intellect is clear throughout the text.  But readers may have written him off as an exception or assumed that he had help.  Claiming African nationality gave Equiano the authority and opportunity to describe African civilization in detail.  He uses his supposed childhood memories to inform English readers of the complexity and order of African society, as well as its similarities to Western lifestyles.   The author also slightly exaggerates his age upon first arriving in England.  I think this serves to make him a more reliable narrator.  Being eleven, Equiano might have had a clearer memory of his childhood and more sophisticated first impression of England than could be attributed to him if he had been only 9 at the time.

2) Equiano does not directly denounce slavery in his book.

I was actually surprised to read this, yet I encountered this claim in several outside sources.  After reading the book, I felt that Equiano spent the majority of the text explaining why slavery is immoral, impractical, and harmful to all involved.  But Carretta, along with several other scholars, has pointed out that while Equiano denounces certain forms of slavery and human cruelty in general, he stops short of arguing against the general practice of slavery.  Apparently, this was a common tactic among abolitionists at the time.  It was considered unrealistic to try to convince governments to outlaw slavery altogether.  But if the importation of slaves was abolished, then slave holders would have to treat their own slaves better, as replacing them would become too expensive.  Once slaves stopped being expendable, the cost of their maintenance would reduce the economic benefit of slave labor and slavery would fade away entirely.  Once again, Equiano’s fabricated childhood allowed him to illustrate his point, this time by allowing him to provide a first-hand account of the atrocities of the middle passage.

I think it’s clear that Equiano is more than he seems.  He portrays himself as an almost dispassionate observer of the world around him – objectively describing the injustices that occur to him with reason, temperance, and religious faith.  However, I think that in reality, Equiano was a purposeful and passionate abolitionist who carefully constructed this book to maximize its impact in the argument against slavery.  Since each paragraph of the book was likely chosen for its persuasive outcome, I imagine that there must be many layers of this book that could be deeply analyzed, on historical, strategic, and psychological levels.

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One thought on “Was Equiano an American?

  1. Wow! Amazing analysis of the background. Before I read this I never once considered his upbringing to be particularly fictional but elements could be constructed. Compared to the rest of the novel the details are a little sketchy while relying heavily on painting the emotional picture needed to convey the horror of him being ripped away from such a utopia.
    From Equiano being an abolitionist standpoint I would whole heartedly agree that he and probably a large group of abolitionists saw the potential of a formers slave’s narrative in undermining slavery especially at the very basic level of a black man being able to read and write.
    Excellent commentary and Im totally going to go back and look at the beginning and try and do some research as well.

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