American scholars studying the topic of slavery and in particular African slavery have engaged each other on the issue of African identity. Many of these debates have focused on the ethnological labeling of Africans based on their ethnic identities. One such ethnic grouping that has managed to draw a lot of attention is the Igbo ethnic identity.
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The issue of Igbo ethnic identity was brought to the fray by the story of Olaudah Equiano, who in his autobiography claimed to have been born in Igbo land but an American slavery scholar by the name Vincent Carretta disputes Mr. Equiano allegations stating that he was born in America, South Carolina to be precise.
Despite this controversial assertion, Mr. Equiano books managed to attain global acclaim due to its depiction of 18th century African Atlantic identity.
According to his autobiography, Mr. Equiano was captured in Nigeria and sold to American slave owners. Mr. Equiano was later able to purchase his freedom and as a freedman, he was able to travel to different parts of the world learning the various cultures before deciding to settle permanently in England.
Mr. Equiano story is one such depiction of how many of the Africans who were enslaved in various parts of the world during the eighteenth-century slave trade were able to form their identities. As a slave, Mr. Equiano got to travel to the United States and stayed there for quite a while serving his master.
During this time, he was able to learn various aspects of the American culture. As a freedman, Mr. Equiano was able to travel to different parts of the world including Central America, the Caribbean and the Arctic and in these places; he also had an opportunity to learn new cultures of the people that were leaving in these areas.
After deciding to settle in England finally, Mr. Equiano also was able to learn aspects of the English culture and integrate it into his own identity. The story of Mr. Equiano is an essential illustration of the many debates that have been held over time by African slavery scholars on the twin issues of creolisation and retention.
Some opponents of creolisation argue that even after arriving in America and other foreign destinations, Africans still were in a position to retain their African identities and maintain contact with their African heritage.
However, both sides of the divide seem to concur that the process of African identity development involved the integration of new cultures into the existing African cultures resulting to the new African American and other such corresponding cultures.
One of the specific aspects of African identity during the eighteenth century slave trade period is the aspect of group identity. Group identity was most notable among the well-traveled African slaves who had an opportunity to live in different cultural settings and consequently learning the cultural aspects of the people living in these places.
In order to clearly illustrate this aspect, the story of Domingo Alvarez is used, a Benin born man who was able to live in various parts of the world, including West Africa, Brazil and Portugal. Domingo Alvarez worked as a slave in Brazil and during this time, he was able to apply his knowledge in matters of divinity and healing which he acquired from home to help other people.
This uniqueness enhanced his reputation making him one of the most popular slaves in the farm. However, after using his powers to poison his master Domingo Alvarez, was jailed and on completion of his jail term sold to another master.
The new master wanted to apply Domingo Alvarez in the healing of his wife, but when this failed to materialise, Domingo Alvarez was sold to a third master who in turn wanted to profit from his slave’s talents.
After saving some money that he got from going into business with his master, Domingo Alvarez was able to purchase his freedom and practiced freely before being arrested by Portuguese authorities on charges of witchcraft; this saw him spend time exiled to a remote part of Portugal.
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During the trial in Brazil, the issue of Domingo Alvarez identity arose several times and various people who were called to testify made different assertions as to the origin of this man. Domingo Alvarez himself testified that he was born in Nangoˆ on the Mina, however various people who were called to testify had different claims about Mr. Domingo Alvarez birthplace.
This was because Domingo Alvarez had traveled far and wide and consequently, he was able to learn various cultural practices that formed the basis of his identity. During his interactions with the people, Mr. Domingo Alvarez was able to deploy the most convenient identity that resulted in these people making presumptions about his birthplace.
For instance, many people who interacted with him assumed that he was from Mina Nation. However, one of his long-time friends asserted that Mr. Domingo Alvarez was actually from Cobu.
After all, is said and done, the story of Olaudah Equiano and Domingo Alvarez reveals the complexities that went into forming the Atlantic African identity.
These were people whose lives were periodically changed whereby they were taken from one socio-cultural setting to another and consequently, they had to make appropriate adjustments in order for them to fit into these settings.
Therefore, a study that seeks to analyse the African Atlantic identity should place more emphasis their complete life stories as opposed to simply focusing on their ethnic origins.