Olaudah Equiano wrote with vivid detail of life as human cargo -- the foul smells aboard the slave ship that brought him from West Africa to the New World in the 18th century, the anguished cries of women, the despair of those headed to a life of bondage.
The bestselling autobiography he later published is now a key text for scholars studying slavery and its roots in Africa, one of the few first-person accounts by a slave of the brutal cross-Atlantic trip known as the Middle Passage.
But part of Equiano’s tale may be more fiction than fact.
A forthcoming biography of Equiano by English professor Vincent Carretta of the University of Maryland, College Park, contends that Equiano was actually born in South Carolina and could never have made the trip he describes.
By challenging the authenticity of a major voice in the history of African slavery and one of the most widely taught slave narratives, Carretta’s work, titled “Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man,” has stirred a furor among some historians and literary scholars.
“I think ‘devastating’ is not underestimating some people’s reaction to this notion,” said Philip Morgan, a Princeton University history professor.
Carretta’s book, published by University of Georgia Press, will be released Oct. 24.
Equiano published his life story in London in 1789. At the time, the abolitionist movement was growing, and his story of the horrific voyage on a slave ship was valuable evidence for abolitionists trying to prove the slave trade was inhuman. It eventually went through nine editions and made Equiano a wealthy man.
In the book, Equiano chronicles his remarkable life, which includes serving in the British Navy, buying his freedom in the West Indies, his marriage to a white British woman and his opposition to slavery. He says he was born in 1745 in present-day southeast Nigeria and was taken captive by slavers at age 11.
Fascinated with the story, Carretta began work on an updated edition of Equiano’s autobiography. He closely examined Equiano’s facts. Most of them checked out. But when he looked at Equiano’s 1759 baptismal records from a London church, the birthplace listed was South Carolina. Carretta later uncovered a ship’s muster from 1773 that also said he was born in South Carolina.
Adam Potkay, an English professor at the College of William and Mary who has written about Equiano’s narrative, said Carretta’s archival work doesn’t reduce the text’s value.
“It may lessen the claims to historical veracity,” he said. “But it does not lessen its persuasive power.”