Not being able now to afford as many books as I would want, I have taken to borrowing from my local library at Soham in Cambridgeshire and, on my last visit there, I came across what has turned out to be one of the most interesting, intriguing and thought-provoking tomes that I have ever read. I picked it up because I had read elsewhere of a Soham link with Olaudah Equiano, aka 'Gustavus Vassa, the African.' What I had picked up was that Equiano was married to a local white lady at St. Andrew's Church, Soham, in 1792, but I knew little else.
Professor Vincent Carretta, of the University of Maryland, has written what is clearly the definitive biography of Olaudah Equiano, hitherto supposed to have been born in 1745 in what is now Nigeria and transported, as a slave and via 'the Middle Passage,' to the West Indies, along with his subsequent adventures in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East until he was eventually regarded as a 'gentleman' - even if only by himself - and a leading anti-slave-trade campaigner in late-eighteenth-century London.
The main material for the biography is Equiano's autobiography, 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself' (London, 1789), and Carretta examines the latter work, seemingly line-by-line and with forensic skill, comparing it with other records and newly-discovered information that is extremely relevant to the truth or otherwise of Equiano's assertions.
Not to put to fine a point on it, it now appears more than possible that the narrative of Equiano's early life in Africa is either the product of a very fertile imagination or the result of fraudulent intent. Moreover, if the early life in Africa is fictitious, how much reliability can one place upon his account of his travails during 'the Middle Passage'? And another thing has often puzzled me. Assuming that the slave traders' object was to get as many live slaves from Africa to the other side of the Atlantic, how come we hear so much of the suffering and deaths of the slaves? I suspect that it is because opinion was based - and is still based - on the publication in 1788 of a print purporting to be of the layout of the British slave ship 'Brookes,' showing the slaves packed as sardines. Quite frankly, I don't believe what I have seen reproduced again in this book: it's too far-fetched. My guess is that the passage was extremely hazardous for both the white crews and the black passengers and it appears that privations and losses were proportionate.
Carretta also draws attention to the possibility - nay, the likelihood - that Equiano's 'narrative' could have included plagiarism from other authors and also could have been produced in collusion with, or the help of, other contemporary campaigners. Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce are the best known of the anti-slave trade pantheon of heroes, but it was, of course, in their interest that a well-known black person's story should have been published when they were at their busiest. And so it transpired.
Another thought has also been provoked by this excellent book. I have read that the anti-slave-trade campaigners, Equiano included, made much of the slogan shown on the seal of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade as designed for Josiah Wedgwood, one of their number, in 1787, which bears the legend, "Am I Not A Man And A Brother?" I can well understand that the effect of this on Englishmen and others who believed then that they were all descendants of Adam and Eve would have been both convincing and transformative as well as destructive to those who opined that Africans were in some respects inferior to Europeans and did not merit the same freedoms as the latter. Today, of course, only fundamentalists or ignoramuses still believe our respective peoples' biblical birth and more are content with Darwin's theory of evolution. If Darwin was right - and I believe that he was - then African peoples may have evolved differently or with less or greater speed than did white people. (I was much amused by the idea, supposedly espoused by Equiano, that we all descend from a 'tawny' coloured people and that those in more Northern parts became whiter due to the colder climate whilst those to the South became blacker for the same reason).
As soon as I opened this book, I knew that its contents were explosive and I recommend it most highly to readers, not because I want to see an explosion, but because I believe that it contains enough fresh information and fresh interpretation to ensure a substantial re-evaluation of accepted events and opinions. Professor Carretta has done us all a great service by his researches and his top-rate writings.