- Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man
In 1995 Vincent Carretta achieved the impossible, producing an edition of Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative (1789) more comprehensive than the 1969 Pall Mall edition by the late Paul Edwards. Carretta has referred to Edwards's introduction to Equiano's work as "magisterial," and the same could surely be said of Carretta's edition (Penguin; revised 2003), which offers a wide-ranging and thoughtful introduction and an exhaustive textual apparatus including nearly seven hundred footnotes. In fact, much of the appeal of Carretta's edition of The Interesting Narrative emerges from the textual dialogue between author and editor. More than glosses, Carretta's notes fact-check and correct, contextualize and supplement, all the while providing a generous share of detail about Equiano's life and times. In other words, Carretta began working on his account of Equiano's life in 1995, and it is a delight to see his painstaking efforts now shaped into a full-scale biography.
Equiano, the African opens with a nine-page preface in which Carretta reasserts his influential claim that Equiano may have been born not in Africa (as Equiano claims in The Interesting Narrative and elsewhere), but in Carolina. Carretta's claim, first fully articulated in his 1999 article, "Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on an Eighteenth-century Question of Identity" (Slavery and Abolition, 20.3, 1999, 96–105), and revisited in 2003's "Questioning the Identity of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African" (in The Global Eighteenth Century, F. Nussbaum, ed., 226–35), has proven no less controversial than influential. As Jennifer Howard noted recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Questioning Equiano's origin calls into doubt some fundamental assumptions made in departments of African-American studies and among historians and literary critics who study the British Atlantic world" ("Unraveling the Narrative," 9 September 2005; see as well my article, "The Other Interesting Narrative," forthcoming in PMLA, in which I reexamine the evidence upon which Carretta bases his claim). After providing his own survey of this debate in his preface, Carretta through fourteen chapters chronicles Equiano's life, taking The Interesting Narrative as the chief source, but also pulling from a broad archive, including naval records, newspapers, correspondence, and various contemporary publications that inform Equiano's life and work. An assiduous researcher, Carretta is particularly impressive in situating Equiano's years as a military and commercial sailor within the context of late eighteenth-century maritime culture. As well, readers new to the history of British abolitionism will appreciate Carretta's skillful survey of this complex material. If histories of British abolitionism have tended to overlook the efforts of black abolitionists, studies of Equiano at times elide his involvement with British political organizations (such as the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade). Carretta's interdisciplinary approach laudably situates Equiano's later years in Britain within the broader anti-slave trade movement.
This work of telescoping between individual and context is the biographer's crucible, and though his expertise is manifest, Carretta readily concedes the difficulty [End Page 571] of his project. In fact, the disorienting semiotic projected on his study's cover thematizes Carretta's challenge. We encounter the title, Equiano, the African, written by a critic well known for his claim that Equiano was not born in Africa, set against a portrait of a man who most scholars suspect is probably not Equiano. For Carretta, portrait and title commune at the definite article: he reads Equiano's claims for an African birth as a figure for his assumed role as the voice of the African millions who did experience the Middle Passage, and so Equiano, if not literally an African, is metaphorically the African. It is a provocative beginning, and readers might have wished it were followed by a longer meditation on the complex implications of Carretta's claim that Equiano forged his nativity. For Carretta to assert at the outset that he plans to treat Equiano's "probably fictitious...