Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African

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Response to Paul Lovejoy’s “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African”
Paul Lovejoy may be correct: Olaudah Equiano/Gustavus Vassa’s published claims that he was born in Africa and experienced the Middle Passage may be true. We share the desire to believe those claims true. But as I have said repeatedly in print over the last dozen years, the evidence for and against his assertion of an African birth is ultimately inconclusive. As Lovejoy admits, “the existence of independent documents stating a Carolina birth appear to be conclusive proof that [Equiano] was not born in Africa.” The main disagreement between Lovejoy and this historian is over how to resolve the discrepancy between Equiano’s baptismal and 1773 naval records, which say he was born in South Carolina, and the claim to an African birth he makes in his 1789 autobiography.

The most elegant way to try to explain the discrepancy would be to judge the conflicting statements by the most plausible contexts of means, motive, and opportunity in which they appeared. The respective means and opportunities for the conflicting utterances are probably not disputed: records had to be made of Equiano’s baptism and naval service, and publication gave him the chance to recreate his life in print; the abolitionist debate created a demand for an African victim’s account of the Middle Passage. Motive is the most likely key to recognizing what we should believe in Equiano’s account, as well as to understanding why he would suppress the records in his autobiography.

Lovejoy rightly notes that we must appreciate “the embellishments of memory that are characteristic” of autobiography when considering “the relationship between autobiography and memory.” Furthermore, he accurately observes that Equiano’s Narrative is, “of course, subject to the same criticisms of selectivity and self-interested distortion that characterize the genre of autobiography.” As a literary critic, however, Lovejoy needs to go further. Every autobiography is an act of re-creation, and autobiographers are not under oath when they are reconstructing their lives. Autobiographies are rhetorical acts designed to influence the reader’s impression of their authors, and often to affect the reader’s beliefs or actions as well. Spiritual autobiographies were consciously fashioned to demonstrate the providential order behind the apparently random circumstances in the subject’s life. And as an abolitionist text, Equiano’s autobiography was also designed to serve a cause. He reconstructed his life to serve as a model to be imitated by his readers in their own religious and secular conversions to true Christianity and abolitionism.

Why might Equiano have created an African nativity, and disguised an American birth? The timing of the publication of The Interesting Narrative was no accident. Equiano knew that what the anti-slave trade movement needed most in 1789 to continue its increasing momentum was the rhetorical power an authentic African voice could wield in the struggle. His autobiography corroborated and even explicitly drew upon earlier reports of Africa and the trade by some white observers, and challenged those of others. His account of Africa is a combination of printed sources, imagination, and memory. But was the memory his own? The abolitionist movement required precisely the kind of account of Africa and the Middle Passage that he supplied. An African, not an African-American, voice was what was needed. He gave a voice to the millions of people forcibly taken from Africa and brought to the Americas as slaves. Equiano recognized a way to do very well financially by doing a great deal of good in providing that much-needed voice. He also knew what parts of his story could be corroborated by others, and, more importantly if he was combining fiction with fact, what parts could not easily be contradicted. Whether or not Equiano invented an African birth, he intentionally suppressed any mention in his autobiography of the references to South Carolina in his records, as Lovejoy acknowledges. As Lovejoy admits, Equiano was either re-fashioning his life when he said that he had been born in South Carolina, or when he later said that he had been born in Africa. The financial and ideological motives for inventing an African nativity are clear.

But what other than the truth would have motivated Equiano to say more than once that he had been born in South Carolina? The closest Lovejoy can come to a possible motive behind the baptismal record is his speculation that “In 1759, it is possible that the Guerins and Pascal wanted people to think that Vassa was creole born, and not a native African, because he had mastered English so well by then or for other reasons relating to perceived higher status for creoles.” Lovejoy can offer no evidence for such a desire or perception. Lovejoy confesses that “The muster entries for the Racehorse, in which Vassa himself was responsible for claiming a South Carolina birth, are difficult to explain.” He wonders whether “as a freeman and the assistant to the noted Dr. Irving … he thought that a Carolina birth was more respectable than an African birth at that point in his life?”

Naval records provide a probable answer to Lovejoy’s question. Lovejoy suggests that the mis-recording of “Vassa” as “Feston” and “Weston” on the muster lists of the Racehorse casts doubt on the age and South Carolina place of birth recorded for him on the same lists. As unlikely as those names may seem, they are no greater misunderstandings of “Gustavus Vassa” than the “Gusta Worcester” recorded by another purser sixteen years earlier on another vessel. Foreign names were frequently mis-recorded. What are the odds that the purser of the Racehorse misheard Equiano’s place of birth and age so as to fortuitously render them consistent with his previous records? Besides men from Europe and British America, the ninety-man complement of the Racehorse included at least two able seamen born in Africa: Madagascar-born Jonathan Syfax, and Guinea-born Richard Yorke. Madagascar-born able seaman Joseph Brown served on the Carcass. Neither Syfax, Yorke, nor Brown saw any reason to conceal an African birth. Why would Equiano have done so when the records indicate that he could have claimed any birthplace he wished? Given Equiano’s abolitionist motives, the reason to “doubt Vassa’s account of his birth rather than what he registered in the muster books” again seems clear.

To counter the compelling documentary record, Lovejoy relies on what he calls “circumstantial evidence.” At times, Lovejoy’s argument appears to control such “evidence” rather than vice versa. Combining question-begging, an argument from authority, and non-sequitur, Lovejoy says that Equiano “seems to have interpreted his experiences in the context of his perception of destiny, which derived from a religious conceptualization based on his childhood acculturation as Igbo. As Paul Edwards and Rosalind Shaw have demonstrated, the concept of ‘chi’ pervaded Igbo cosmology and was a factor in the psychology of Vassa.” Unless we can first establish that Equiano was indeed a native-born African Igbo exposed to a concept he never mentions we cannot logically say without qualification that it was such a factor. We should at least entertain the possibility that he interpreted his experiences in the context of the concept of Calvinistic Protestant predestinarianism, as he actually says.

Apparently prompted by a desire to demonstrate that Equiano was old enough to recall African experiences, Lovejoy’s speculation about his date of birth has unanticipated consequences. Lovejoy argues that since Equiano had not “received the ichi scarification” he “was about 11 when he was kidnapped.” All that the absence of such marking would prove was that he was younger than 11, but not necessarily 11. Buried in Lovejoy’s footnote 55 we find evidence that Equiano would have been younger than eight years old when he claims to have been kidnapped: “every seventh child of their class when about six or seven years of age undergoes the operation” [of ichi scarification]. Not being fettered on the slave ship would indicate that Equiano was younger than age 12, but not necessarily 11-12. If Equiano was as old in 1755 as Lovejoy imagines, the sailor who held him in the air by his heels must have had noticeably hypertrophic anterior deltoids. And, given Lovejoy’s assumptions, Equiano’s friend Richard Baker, four or five years older than Equiano, would have been a remarkably incompetent crewmember, not to have been promoted to the rating of ordinary seaman when he supposedly died in his twenties. Lovejoy imagines that Equiano was well into his twenties when Pascal promoted him to the rating of “able” seaman, even though Equiano identifies himself with the “other boys” at the time. “Boys” in the Royal Navy ranged in age from 6 to 18. Pascal’s promotion of Equiano in late 1762, when he was around the age of 18 according to Equiano’s own published claim, as well as the documentary evidence, thus makes sense.

For Equiano’s age on the 1759 baptismal record to be off by a year or two before puberty is plausible. But to have it off by five years, as Lovejoy contends, would place Equiano well into puberty at the age of 17, when he would have been far more likely to have had a say in, and later remembered, what was recorded. And his godparents and witnesses should have noticed the difference between a child and an adolescent. In later editions, Equiano claims that he “could speak no language but that of Africa” when he first reached England in 1754. Mary Guerin Baynes is one of the very few witnesses he offers to support his claim. (Lovejoy confuses her with her older sister, Elizabeth, Equiano’s godmother.) None of his witnesses met Equiano before he had spent years in an English-speaking environment. The likelihood that hearsay, perhaps from Equiano himself, was the source of their evidence is increased by the fact that the Mrs. Shaw on the list was the daughter of one of Equiano’s earliest owners, Michael Henry Pascal. She was probably not even alive in 1754.

Lovejoy’s description of the relationship between Equiano and Dr. Charles Irving is not completely reliable: “The question arises as to why Vassa was on the Arctic expedition. He was not an ‘ordinary seaman,’ as listed in the muster roll …, but rather he assisted Dr. Charles Irving, naval surgeon and inventor, in his experiments in distilling seawater.” Equiano was an “able seaman,” a rating higher than “ordinary.” For someone as constitutionally restless and in love with the sea as Equiano, the chance to receive a premium wage for a voyage of high adventure was motive enough to join the expedition. He did so, he says, because he “was roused by the sound of fame to seek new adventures.” Equiano’s relatively high pay for an able seaman can no doubt be attributed to his greater maritime experience and skills superior to those of most of his crewmates. Irving entered as the vessel’s surgeon, and his surgeon’s mate was Alexander Mair. Mair assisted Dr. Irving in his official naval duties as surgeon to the officers and crew. Equiano assisted Dr. Irving as a member of the crew, but he also “attended” him as his personal servant. In addition to his naval salary recorded in the ship’s paybook, Equiano no doubt received a salary from Dr. Irving for his personal services.

Lovejoy’s account of Equiano’s role in the 1776 scheme to establish a plantation in Central America is based almost completely on speculation and assertion rather than evidence. He can offer no evidence that Irving hired Equiano because he was fluent in Igbo, rather than because he had employed him off-and-on over the last decade. Lovejoy repeatedly begs the question of whether Equiano was indeed fluent: we have no evidence of Equiano’s fluency in Igbo, beyond a very few words in his autobiography. In his discussion of the plantation project Lovejoy makes much of Equiano’s reference to his “countrymen,” assuming that he used the term narrowly to refer to Igbo-speaking people alone, even though Lovejoy later acknowledges that Equiano “at times … clearly included [all Africans] in his definition of his people.” And in footnote 79 Lovejoy admits that in later editions Equiano added the phrase “from Libya” to qualify his reference to his countrymen. Nor is there any evidence that Equiano “encouraged [the slaves] to seek self-redemption.” If Lovejoy means “self-redemption” in a theological sense, as a Calvinistic Methodist Equiano demonstrably considered such a belief in spiritual “self-sufficiency” to be sinful. No evidence supports Lovejoy’s claim that in 1776 “Vassa interpreted Christian salvation as the road to emancipation.” Because Lovejoy’s argument is driving his evidence here he finds it “curious” that given the “fact” that Irving’s partner in the scheme, Alexander Blair, was a subscriber to Equiano’s Narrative, Equiano did not know when Irving died. But what happens if we question whether the partner and the subscriber “Alexander Blair, Esq.” were indeed the same person? What if the alleged “fact” may not be a fact? Lovejoy concludes that Equiano “would have been of little use to Irving if he did not know the [Igbo] language,” but surely, whatever Equiano’s non-English linguistic abilities may have been, as a reliable, multi-skilled and talented, and long-familiar employee of African descent and a former slave himself he would have been a very plausible person for Irving to turn to oversee the slaves.

I have addressed at some length in my biography the question of possible alternative sources for Equiano’s account of Africa, a few of which Equiano acknowledges. Some arguments for an African nativity are obviously weaker than others. Lovejoy relies on Catherine Acholonu as an authority on Igbo society and culture, though he admits in footnote 43 “that Acholonu makes errors in quoting from The Interesting Narrative, and her discussion of generation length, kinship relationships, and physical resemblances between portraits of Vassa and individuals who may be distant relatives is questionable. “Questionable” is a very generous way to characterize an argument dependent upon the assertion that Equiano’s descendants had an average life span of 150 years. Why rely on someone whose scholarship is admittedly so flawed? And if Acholonu’s Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano is invoked, one should at least acknowledge the existence of S.E. Ogude’s refutation, “No Roots Here: On the Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano,” Review of English Studies (1989), 1-16? Readers must decide for themselves whether the memories of Africa and the Middle Passage reconstructed in Equiano’s autobiography are more likely his own or those of others.

Equiano indisputably suppressed the records of a South Carolina origin when he decided to publish the reconstruction of his life. My methodology requires me to offer a plausible explanation for why those records exist, and why Equiano makes no reference to them in his Interesting Narrative. Did Equiano suppress accurate records of a South Carolina birth and invent an African birth because of obvious abolitionist and financial motives, or did he suppress for reasons unknown records whose existence we cannot very plausibly explain? Equiano may have been born in Africa. For this historian, however, Paul Lovejoy’s argument does not lead to that conclusion.
Vincent Carretta

University of Maryland

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