Of uncertain origins, Equiano rises from servitude to literary celebrity in 18th-century England.
Carretta (English/Univ. of Maryland) has published editions of Equiano’s 1789 autobiography (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Oludah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African) and is a leading authority on both the man and his text. And, as he quickly acknowledges, much more is known about the latter than the former. Carretta shows that Equiano carefully, even artfully, crafted his African identity, yet two key documents indicate he was born in South Carolina. Continent of birth aside, there is no doubt he was a slave and that he endured many of the cruelties suffered by millions of others. Carretta’s narrative can at times be numbing: He expends many pages summarizing Equiano’s text—often using block quotations—repeating even the most dubious aspects of Equiano’s story (his African boyhood, his capture, the Middle Passage), as if to say, yes, it’s likely that none of this happened to him, but it did happen to others. The story becomes more engaging when Carretta tells what we do know about Equiano—his years at sea with the Royal Navy, his religious conversion to Methodism, his emerging careers as abolitionist and writer, his marriage. One of his first owners, a Royal Navy lieutenant, betrayed Equiano, refusing to free him as promised. Undeterred, Equiano earned enough to purchase his liberty, returned to England, spent some time as a hairdresser, domestic servant and laboratory assistant (for a man converting seawater to fresh) before publicly defining himself as an African, writing abolitionist newspaper articles and, finally, composing his autobiography, a text Carretta analyzes in scholarly fashion. Equiano married a white woman, made much money on his book, inherited other property from his wife’s estate and died in 1797 as England’s wealthiest man of African descent. His gravesite is unknown.
Too densely academic in structure and execution for general readers, but a historical work of surpassing importance.