"Having known what the loss of liberty entailed, once free he took as much control of his life as he could, even revising the events to make a profit in a just cause.... he became the first successful professional writer of African descent in the English-speaking world."
The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African was published in 1788. Its author, generally known as Equiano, was a man whose life, though made public through his autobiography, remains a mystery to this day. Author Carretta steers us gently through the misty seas of time and the many conflicting possible versions of Equiano’s early life and lets us judge where he began by where he ended.
There is no doubt that Equiano’s last years were spent in England, a country he chose over all others, and that through the medium of his autobiography he emerged as a fervent spokesman for the abolition of slavery. His story was more compelling than most because he wrote with a gentleman’s command of the English language and because he had, he asserted, been born in Africa, retaining many memories of his early childhood and subsequent years of enslavement after being captured and sold by African traders around the age of eleven.
Because the early years and his youthful encounter with the cruel system of slavery gave his literary voice such emotive power, there is a reluctance to suggest that he may have been born in the Carolinas in America. Carretta implies that Equiano might have absorbed tales of child capture and bondage from his fellow Africans, with whom he always maintained a cordial, if back-door, relationship even as he rose to respectability in English society as a free man.
Equiano comes across in this narrative as a feisty, ambitious and argumentative man, not willing to be profiled and despised once he gained his freedom. At one point, a chance visit to Savannah revived his memories of slave life, when he was apprehended without cause by a night watchman and threatened with flogging. His "last indignity as a free black in the West Indies" was being told by the captain of the vessel he wanted to sail on that he must first advertise himself in case his claims to be a free man might be false and someone might claim him as a runaway. "Luckily some white acquaintances from Montserrat vouched for him to the captain."
Equiano’s book, self-published and promoted, appeared at a time when abolitionism was gaining a foothold among Quakers and other like-minded people, and served as a vehicle for that movement. If the former slave used his wit and talent to refurbish his life story to further that effort, it is certainly not only forgivable but admirable.
This is a fact-rich book that strays far from Equiano’s spare chronicle to offer a pungent slice of the times and the various cultures and levels of status that Equiano passed through on his fascinating journey from African to author.