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

Overview

A controversial look at the most renowned person of African descent in the eighteenth century

In this widely aclaimed biography, historian Vincent Carretta gives us the authoritative portrait of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797), the former slave whose 1789 autobiography quickly became a popular polemic against the slave trade and a literary classic. Sailor, entrepreneur, and adventurer, Equiano is revealed here as never before, thanks to archival research on an unprecedented ...

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Overview

A controversial look at the most renowned person of African descent in the eighteenth century

In this widely aclaimed biography, historian Vincent Carretta gives us the authoritative portrait of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797), the former slave whose 1789 autobiography quickly became a popular polemic against the slave trade and a literary classic. Sailor, entrepreneur, and adventurer, Equiano is revealed here as never before, thanks to archival research on an unprecedented scale—some of which even indicates that Equiano may have lied about his origins to advance the antibondage struggle with which he became famously identified. A masterpiece of scholarship and writerly poise, this book redefines an extraordinary man and the turbulent age that shaped him.

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Editorial Reviews

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: 9780143038429
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 1/30/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 1,411,159
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.49 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Vincent Carretta is professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the editor of the Penguin Classics editions of the Complete Writings of Phillis Wheatley, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, and Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings by Ottobah Cugoano.

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Table of Contents

Equiano, the African List of Illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgments
Note on Money
Chapter One. Equiano's Africa
Chapter Two. The Middle Passage
Chapter Three. At Sea
Chapter Four. Freedom Denied
Chapter Five. Bearing Witness
Chapter Six. Freedom of a Sort
Chapter Seven. Toward the North Pole
Chapter Eight. Born Again
Chapter Nine. Seeking a Mission
Chapter Ten. The Black Poor
Chapter Eleven. Turning against the Slave Trade
Chapter Twelve. Making a Life
Chapter Thirteen. The Art of the Book
Chapter Fourteen. A Self-Made Man
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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