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The life of Olaudah Equiano, otherwise known as Gustavus Vassa, is interesting for a number of reasons. His famous autobiography can be considered to be one of the causes of the success of a British movement that wanted to end the slave trade. Moreover, the impact of these writings and his narrative spread to the sphere of world literature as Equiano’s memoir was one of the few works of the 1800s that were written by persons of African descent (Carey). However, the credibility of this author was undermined by various scholars, who started to argue that Equiano’s place of birth was not Africa, as the author wrote but South Carolina. It is hard to assess the impact of this fact on the overall value of Equiano’s work and contribution to the abolition of slavery. This paper aims to investigate the possible outcomes of the fact that Equiano’s information of his place of birth is incorrect and discuss the effect it may have on people’s perceptions of large-slave events connected to slavery and the slave trade.
The verisimilitude of Equiano’s Narrative
The significance of Equiano’s autobiography only contributes to the fact that people believe that author’s information should be truthful. At the time when the memoir was published, Equiano’s words became the voice of people that suffered from being enslaved. Thus, his story and its contents had an immeasurable value to slaves as well as sympathizers and abolitionists. The facts disclosed by Equiano are his work, including every important event of his life story from the second of his birth to the days of his life as a free man. Every bit of information that he presented to his readers was seen as an illustration of a slave’s life (Jaros 17). Thus, the significance of his autobiography cannot be overstated. However, the question of credibility of the facts introduced in his book may change one’s perception of Equiano’s narrative. Some scholars that argue that Equiano was, in fact, born not in Africa but South Carolina extend their suspicion to other events that are described in the autobiography, which leads to people believing that the author was unreliable and untruthful in his depictions.
While scholars may debate about this particular fact as a reason to change one’s outlook on the author’s trustworthiness, it is important to take into account the influence of Equiano’s work as a whole. In his work, Equiano portrayed the lives of enslaved people and devoted a significant part of the text to describe various types of abuse from which many slaves suffered. The depiction of these events may be considered crucial to the process of people beginning to understand the cruelty of this concept. Equiano wrote, “I have seen a negro man staked to the ground, and cut most shockingly… another negro man was half hanged and then burnt,” bringing the attention of people to the tortures that black people had to endure because of their origin (5). These particular parts might have been the center of attention among abolitionists, who based their vision on the firm belief in equality.
The place of Equiano’s origin might have also played a role in people feeling more compassionate towards his life as the notion of a child being taken away from his motherland and brought to work as a slave to a different country was reasonably viewed as unjust. However, the fact that slavery once separated families, tribes, and populations should have been enough for people to believe in the cruelty of slavery. Although Equiano himself might have been born in America, other slaves were being brought from Africa on a regular basis. The narrative that Equiano proposed in his work should have expanded beyond one person to the nations that suffered from slavery. Thus, the place of birth of one man should not have diminished the lives of millions of other slaves. It is possible that Equiano decided to change some facts about his early life in order to create a life story that would be more appealing to the general audience. Therefore, he chose to craft a narrative that followed the lives of many slaves that Equiano possibly met throughout the course of his life.
The fact that Equiano’s life may be seen as a template for a slave narrative is not accidental. Equiano represented many people that we’re unable to tell their stories to the world as he could. Thus, his work is not a simple recollection of one man’s life. It is a compilation of stories that surrounded him and other slaves for many years. Thus, the facts of his work should not be treated the same as the facts in textbooks. The immense value of his writings encompasses the feeling of the burden that slavery brought to the people that suffered from it. Therefore, even if the story of Equiano is untrue in some parts, the overall verisimilitude of the narrative should not be affected.
Understanding of Large-Scale Events
The scope of slavery and the slave trade surpasses one person by millions and millions of individuals. Thus, in my opinion, the possibility of Equiano lying about his origins should not change one’s understanding of such events. The story of Equiano, while possibly untrue in this case, might have been a reality for someone else. Although some of the facts of the story might have been fabricated, the purpose of every point is understandable as they all were targeted towards appealing to the audience. Every part of the author’s narrative, including his birthplace, journey to freedom, and literacy, is in the book because they create a person who can be deemed a human in the eyes of the general public. However, the fact that some of these aspects might have been untrue for Equiano does not mean that these elements have been false for every slave.
First of all, there can be no doubt that many people were taken from their home countries, brought to Europe and colonies to serve, and treated as objects rather than people. Secondly, while many slaves of the following generations were born in captivity and not in the countries of their nations, it did not affect the way slave sellers and buyers treated them. The Slave trade was active in those countries as well, and enslaved people were still treated as items. Moreover, the impact of slavery can be seen to this day. Thus, the implications that one individual lied to influence the process that helped to free many people do not change the seriousness of the issue. In this situation, Equiano was a persona that lent his visibility to show a broader picture of those that could not express it to the people that we’re unable to see otherwise.
Carey, Bryan. “Where Was Olaudah Equiano Born?” Bryan Carey. 2013, Web.
Equiano, Olaudah. Life of Gustavus Vassa. Fordham University, 2013.
Jaros, Peter. “Good Names: Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa.” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 54, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-23.