Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man / Edition 1

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This definitive biography tells the story of the former slave Olaudah Equiano (1745?-97), who in his day was the English-speaking world’s most renowned person of African descent. Equiano’s greatest legacy is his classic 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. A key document of the early movement to ban the slave trade, it includes the earliest known firsthand description by a slave of the horrific Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. Equiano, the African is filled with fresh revelations about this many-sided figure—most notably that Equiano may have been born not in Africa, as he claimed, but in South Carolina.

For Vincent Carretta, such disconnects between the public persona and actual life of Equiano only increase his importance as a window into a number of complex, overlapping worlds. Equiano was a sailor, adventurer, entrepreneur, and jack-of-all-trades. Carretta distills years of scholarly detective work on Equiano’s life and writings into a richly textured portrait of the man whose many transformations took him from slave to slave trader to anti-slave-trade advocate, and from pagan to Christian.

This is “life and times” history at its best. Throughout, Carretta relates The Interesting Narrative to the historical record on Equiano, as well as to the century’s economic, political, and religious undercurrents. Carretta argues that Equiano may have fabricated his African roots and his survival of the Middle Passage not only to sell more copies of his book but also to help advance the movement against the slave trade. Equiano, the African will leave readers with a fuller appreciation of the man’s achievements and a deeper understanding of race and slavery in the Atlantic world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A remarkable man has been blessed with a superbly qualified biographer. Carretta knows more about Equiano than anyone alive, has carefully and respectfully edited his work, has boldly raised tantalizing questions about his origins, and has meticulously tracked down information about him that no one else has found. This book will be the authoritative source about Equiano's life for many years to come.”—Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves

"This biography provides an accurate, fair-minded, reliable, and engagingly written account of the life of the man whom Carretta describes justifiably as 'the most famous person of African descent in the Atlantic world.' In this rewarding study, Carretta invests the large store of erudition he has amassed from many years of assiduous study of Equiano's life and times. I know of no scholar who is as steeped in Equiano and no one who has done more to restore Equiano and his literary work to serious scholarly consideration."—William L. Andrews, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"A bold, daring, and meticulously researched re-creation of the life and times of the founding father of both the African and the African American literary traditions. Carretta’s superbly written biography—certain to generate considerable discussion and debate—will change how we conceive of the remarkable contributions of the most important black man in the eighteenth century. This is one of the most significant biographies published about a black author in a very long time."—Henry Louis Gates Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University

"With an impressive breadth of knowledge of the religious, literary, social, and cultural conditions of Equiano's time, Carretta's work in fourteen chapters frames an inquiry from which scholars of several disciplines will surely benefit. . . . truly engaging social and cultural contextualization."—Journal of African American History

"Provides a masterful, lively and scrupulously researched account that questions central parts of the ex-slaves narrative, but upholds his view of himself as a self-made man . . . Carretta's exemplary study offers not only the definitive biography of Equiano but also a first-rate social history of the late 18th century in America and in England."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"[A] historical work of surpassing importance.”—Kirkus Reviews

"This is a thoroughly rich, engrossing, and well-researched portrait of an exceptional man and the cause he championed."—Booklist (starred review)

"Vassa remains a subject worthy of continued study and research . . . Carretta's biography is now the standard reference on the life and times of this 'African' intellectual."—Journal of Southern History

Mary Frances Berry
Equiano, the African, University of Maryland English Professor Vincent Carretta's biography of Vassa, is an intriguing piece of detective work … his biography of the era's most important African in the English-speaking world should delight readers.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Olaudah Equiano's (c. 1745-1797) much anthologized autobiography is one of the earliest by an English-speaking person of African descent. But was it wholly truthful in its self-portrayal? Carretta, a senior fellow at Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, provides a masterful, lively and scrupulously researched account that questions central parts of the ex-slave's narrative, but upholds his view of himself as a self-made man. Carretta points out "compelling but not absolutely conclusive" evidence that Equiano, despite his description of a childhood in Africa and the Middle Passage, was born in South Carolina. As a slave, he spent most of his early life at sea, serving various British naval officers. Quick-witted and intelligent, Equiano gained his superiors' confidence and eventually his freedom; his nautical knowledge served him well later, when he traveled as a missionary to Sierra Leone. He lived most of his free life in England, worked as an abolitionist and served as a missionary. As Carretta so eloquently observes, Equiano did invent himself as a writer with a singular vantage point on slavery and as a spokesman for Africa (which he did visit later in life), a continent that few Europeans knew about in the 18th century. Carretta's exemplary study offers not only the definitive biography of Equiano but also a first-rate social history of the late 18th century in America and in England. B&w illus., maps. (Oct. 24) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Southern Humanities Review
Carretta provides rich and empathetic commentary.... [T]his book provides a scholarly model worth emulating. Carretta's treatment is as factually and interpretatively rich as it is enjoyable.... [P]hysically very pleasing with excellent illustrations, good quality paper, readable print, and ample margins for note-taking.
—Robin Sabino
Kirkus Reviews
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 inscholarly 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820325712
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Vincent Carretta, professor of English at the University of Maryland, is currently a senior fellow at Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. His books include scholarly editions of the works of Equiano and of Equiano’s contemporaries Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano, and Phillis Wheatley.

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