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  • Olaudah Equiano and the Sailor's Telegraph:The Interesting Narrative and the Source of Black Abolitionism
  • Matthew D. Brown (bio)


The strong presence of the sea is grossly under-examined in American literature, doubly so in African American literature.1 As Elizabeth Schultz observes, "Historically and culturally, the African American experience has been an inland one. Black Americans," she continues, "have not generally turned seaward in their literature." Although she comes to a "however" that adds the observation "the sea is not absent from African American literature," the rhetorical pose imagined in the claim that "the sea is not absent" is that it will take a good deal of searching to find it (233).2 And yet, as Jeffery Bolster observes in his ground-breaking 1997 study Black Jacks, "Sailors wrote the first six autobiographies of blacks published in English before 1800" (37).3 Many of these autobiographies carry clear abolitionist intent and hint at the type of anti-slavery discussions carried on by sailors around the Atlantic world. When scholars of African American literature turn their attention to works written by sailors, like Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789), most suffer from the misplaced assumption Schultz points to, and thus fail to see the crucial link between sailors and black abolitionism. Indeed, what Crispus Attucks, Paul Cuffee, Robert Smalls, Frederick Douglass, and so many other black revolutionaries in America have in common is that they were all sailors or in some other way directly connected to the maritime trades.

Chinosole observes, "The temptation is strong in some criticism to tune in to only one of Equiano's voices and to silence others," and goes on to lament that the factionalization of academic disciplines has dislocated Equiano's Interesting Narrative from the contexts that can best support important new readings (10). What Chinosole highlights is a dilemma every reader of The Interesting Narrative must confront, as Equiano explicitly lists several "voices"—Olaudah Equiano, Gustavas Vassa, Jacob, Michael, Captain, Freeman—and The Interesting Narrative itself is largely about the power and possibility of controlling and shifting identities. Indeed, its very title lists a "himself" who wrote it, but confronts us with an "or" that questions the identity of "himself:" Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa. This is, of course, further complicated where "The African" seems to be appended not to Equiano's African name but rather to what he calls his "current name," Gustavus Vassa, a Swedish name he was given as a slave. Small wonder it is, indeed, that critics will "tune into only one voice." We are confronted with multiple dynamic identities and asked to sort and prioritize them. The question Chinosole seems to suggest has not so much to do [End Page 191] with which identity is the most "authentic," but rather which is it that allows Equiano to develop and, ultimately, control the others? Of The Interesting Narrative's many voices, that which is most often and most completely silenced is, indeed, that voice which speaks the loudest. After Equiano is taken captive, the voice into which every important event in his narrative is keyed is the voice of the sailor, and it is this center from which all other voices flow.

The significance of this is that Equiano's forecastle sailor's voice speaks from a largely hidden source of power in anti-slavery efforts that I call the Sailor's Telegraph—a network of information that flowed through free black and enslaved sailors throughout the African Diaspora. Almost a hundred years before the electronic telegraph, the Sailor's Telegraph was a conduit of information from the world of slavery to the world of anti-slavery, without which the world of anti-slavery could not have made any progress against the institution of slavery. Since the slave trade itself as well as the slave-dependent industries related to the production and refinement of cotton and sugar were inextricably bound up with Atlantic sailor culture, the experience of slaves was readily available to sailors and the experience of sailors was, if to a slightly lesser degree, available to slaves. Equiano's experience...