History's Unaverted Eyes

By Mary Frances Berry,
Geraldine Segal Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "My Face Is Black Is True"
Wednesday, February 1, 2006


Biography of a Self-Made Man

By Vincent Carretta

University of Georgia. 436 pp. $29.95

After Gustavus Vassa published his autobiography in 1789, he quickly became the wealthiest and most famous person of African descent in Europe and North America. "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself" has long been known to scholars and has been widely taught as an example of an early slave narrative. "Equiano, the African," University of Maryland English Professor Vincent Carretta's biography of Vassa, is an intriguing piece of detective work. He reminds us that the "Narrative" was produced by a self-made man before the example of Benjamin Franklin and that it had a major influence on the opposition to the slave trade.

Vassa, who called himself Equiano mainly in his "Narrative," briefly spent time in the American colonies and acknowledged Britain, Turkey and Africa as his homes. The public greeted his "Narrative" as an authentic African voice, speaking from personal experience, that deserved its respect.

Taking advantage of 18th-century newspapers' demands for copy, Vassa began his writing career by publishing letters and book reviews and became acquainted with leading anti-slave-trade advocates of the day, such as Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. As he became known in these circles, he decided to write his autobiography despite his lack of formal education. Opponents of the trade understood the importance of an African reply to the pro-slavery forces and encouraged him in the enterprise.

In 1788, Vassa began soliciting buyers for his forthcoming book, identifying himself publicly for the first time as Olaudah Equiano. He made the strategic decision to self-publish and organized a subscribers' list. Unusual for the period, he required partial payment in advance. He also kept and registered the copyright. Advertisements for the two-volume edition appeared in May 1789, just when debates over the slave trade, which had been overshadowed by the illness of King George III, regained prominence.

The cover -- with a portrait of Vassa by William Denton, a reputable painter -- depicted him not as a savage but dressed as an English gentleman looking directly at the viewer. The British public was accustomed to comic Africans and to kidnapped noble ones who were too good to be slaves, and other contemporary portraits of Africans were not so bold. Carretta notes that, in contrast, the frontispiece to a book by another former slave, Phillis Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," published in 1773, shows a person of modest, clearly inferior social status. The elegant portrait done in 1781 for African-born Ignatius Sancho's posthumously published letters depicts a gentleman's gentleman who does not look at or engage readers. By looking directly out at readers, Equiano, their moral equal if not their superior, gives an impression of a man of the world, at ease in his own skin.

The autobiography describes an "idyllic" early life in West Africa, followed by enslavement and the horrors of the Middle Passage to the Caribbean. Vassa details his voyages and adventures with his sea captain owner, Michael Henry Pascal, whose female cousins sent Vassa to school because they wanted to introduce him to Christianity, and his eventual qualification as an able-bodied seaman. Thereafter, he describes his maturation and spiritual conversion, his work in London as a hairdresser and his further adventures at sea, including his participation in an expedition to the Arctic. He notes that his involvement in the struggle to end the slave trade led to his decision to write as an African petitioning Parliament to abolish it.

Vassa traveled throughout Britain promoting the book and the abolition cause. International booksellers also informed American readers. He became the African spokesman in debates on the slave trade. Reviews were generally favorable, and sales grew.

Over the next few years, through nine editions of the book, newspaper printers and publishers, the royal family and socially and politically prominent figures in the trades and the arts all eagerly became subscribers. Carretta describes how the placement of their names in Vassa's narrative depicted them as fellow petitioners to Parliament. Since Vassa was his own publisher, he enjoyed complete control over what went into subsequent editions. His marriage to an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, and the birth of their two daughters, Ann Mary and Joanna, extended the story of his success.

As his own publisher, Vassa kept the book's entire and considerable profit. By February 1792, he was able to lend today's equivalent of $35,000 and could afford to lose it when the debtor defaulted. He also routinely subscribed to antislavery writings of other authors. However, he died in London on March 31, 1797, 10 years before England abolished the slave trade. His burial site is unknown. His wife had died before him, and Ann Mary not long after. His daughter Joanna inherited $160,000 on her 21st birthday in 1816.

Carretta reminds us that every autobiography is an act of re-creation and that a manumitted slave had a necessarily broad opportunity for redefinition. However, after meticulously researching the voyages of ships, the dates of writings and other materials, Carretta confirms the fundamental historical accuracy of Equiano's story. He explores whether Equiano made a few mistakes -- including his birthplace, which was either West Africa or South Carolina -- only to conclude that the evidence is "conflicting." Carretta also worries inordinately over whether Equiano secretly believed that particular misfortunes he suffered stemmed from racism. But his biography of the era's most important African in the English-speaking world should delight readers.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company