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This article was downloaded by: [University of Pennsylvania] On: 09 October 2011, At: 18:14 Publisher: Routledge Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK Slavery & Abolition Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information: Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New light on an eighteenth‐century question of identity Vin
  This article was downloaded by: [University of Pennsylvania]On: 09 October 2011, At: 18:14Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK Slavery & Abolition Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information: Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New light on aneighteenth ‐ century question of identity Vincent Carretta aa  Professor in the Department of English, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland,20742Available online: 13 Jun 2008 To cite this article:  Vincent Carretta (1999): Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New light on an eighteenth ‐ century questionof identity, Slavery & Abolition, 20:3, 96-105 To link to this article: PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLEFull terms and conditions of use: article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematicreproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form toanyone is expressly forbidden.The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contentswill be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae, and drug doses shouldbe independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss, actions, claims,proceedings, demand, or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly inconnection with or arising out of the use of this material.  Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa?New Light on an Eighteenth CenturyQuestion of Identity VINCENT CARRETTA I stress the question mark after the name Vassa in the title of my essay toraise the issue of identity in  The Interesting Narrative of the Life of OlaudahEquiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by  Himself firstpublished in London in March 1789.' The author's work, quickly andwidely reviewed, immediately became a bestseller: a second editionappeared in 1789, and a ninth, the last published in the binomial author'slifetime, in 1794. Selling his book primarily by subscription, which requiredbuyers to pay half the price of the book in advance, the binomial authorcontrolled the means of production and distribution of his book, and thus hispublic identity. During the author's lifetime, the newspapers  The Oracle  and The Star  raised what I call the Equiano question: was Olaudah Equiano anidentity  revealed,  as the title of the autobiography implies, or an identity assumed  by Gustavus Vassa in 1789 for rhetorical (and financial) ends? TheEquiano question has been further complicated by the recent discovery ofmore biographical information about the life of Olaudah Equiano orGustavus Vassa, which suggests that the author of  The Interesting Narrative may have been a native of South Carolina rather than Africa. 2  And this newinformation enables us to correct the chronology of the author's early yearsin slavery.In the first known published review of  The Interesting Narrative,  MaryWollstonecraft noted the significance of the author's nationality. Hercomments in the May 1789 issue of  The Analytical Review  opened with theobservation thatThe life of an African, written by  himself is certainly a curiosity, as ithas been a favourite philosophic whim to degrade the numerousnations, on whom the sun-beams more directly dart, below thecommon level of humanity, and hastily to conclude that nature, by Professor Vincent Carretta is in the Department of English, University of Maryland, CollegePark, Maryland 20742.Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 20, No. 3, December 1999, pp.96-105PUBLISHED BY FRANK CASS, LONDON    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   U  n   i  v  e  r  s   i   t  y  o   f   P  e  n  n  s  y   l  v  a  n   i  a   ]  a   t   1   8  :   1   4   0   9   O  c   t  o   b  e  r   2   0   1   1  OLAUDAH EQUIANO OR GUSTAVUS VASSA? 97 making them inferior to the rest of the human race, designed to stampthem with a mark of slavery.In the June 1789 issue of  The Monthly Review,  the anonymous reviewerof  The Interesting Narrative  called the book 'very seasonable, at a timewhen negro-slavery is the subject of public investigation; and it seemscalculated to increase the odium that has been excited against the West-India planters ...' For this reviewer, too, the author's nativity was of primarysignificance: the review opened by remarking, 'We entertain no doubt of thegeneral authenticity of this very intelligent African's story.' Although theauthor of  The Interesting Narrative  srcinally published his book withoutauthenticating documentation, he added reviews, including this one, andtestimonials to preface each of his subsequent editions.Pro-slavery writers also recognized that  The Interesting Narrative  was'calculated to increase the odium against the West-India planters' at a timewhen Parliament was actively considering bills to abolish the slave trade.But for three years the apologists for slavery left the authority of the workand the binomial identity of its author unchallenged, watching the bookbecome a bestseller. The fourth edition, published in Dublin in 1791, alonesold 1900 copies. On 25 and 27 April 1792, however, while the author wasin Edinburgh revising and promoting what would be the 5th edition of the Narrative  (Edinburgh, 1792), the question of the author's true identity wasraised in two London newspapers:  The Oracle  and  The Star. The Oracle reported thatIt is a fact that the Public may depend on, that  Gustavus Vassa,  whohas publicly asserted that he was kidnapped in Africa, never was uponthat Continent, but was born and bred up in the Danish Island of SantaCruz, in the West Indies [now St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands].  Exhoc uno disce omnes  [that one fact tells all]. What, we will ask anyman of plain understanding, must that cause be, which can lean forsupport on falsehoods as audaciously propagated as they are easilydetected?Suddenly, both sides of the author's binomial Afro-British identity had beenchallenged. But what was at stake?In 1789 the author's rhetorical ethos - his authority to speak as a victimand eye-witness of slavery in Africa, the West Indies, North America,Europe and the Middle East - was dependent on the African nativity heclaimed. His autobiography was offered and received as the first extendedaccount of slavery and the slave trade from a former slave's point of view.With the exception of his binomial friend and sometime collaboratorQuobna Ottobah Cugoano, who had published his  Thoughts and Sentiments    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   U  n   i  v  e  r  s   i   t  y  o   f   P  e  n  n  s  y   l  v  a  n   i  a   ]  a   t   1   8  :   1   4   0   9   O  c   t  o   b  e  r   2   0   1   1  98 SLAVERY AND ABOLITION on the Evil of Slavery  by subscription in London in 1787, the author of  TheInteresting Narrative  was the first writer of African descent to present hiswork as self-authorized, proudly announcing it on the title-page as 'Writtenby  Himself.  Cugoano and his friend published their works without any ofthe authenticating documentation or mediation by white authorities thatprefaces the works of Phillis Wheatley or Ignatius Sancho and other blackwriters to reassure readers that the claim of authorship is valid and to implythat their words have been supervised before publication. Cugoano's Thoughts and Sentiments  went unreviewed and unanswered, and hence hisidentity and authority went unchallenged. But the claim of authenticity bythe author of  The Interesting Narrative  was quickly recognized by hisreaders to be fundamental to the effectiveness öf the autobiography as apetition against the Atlantic slave trade. If an African could write andpublish without the help or authorization of European intermediaries, and ifhe could attest from personal experience to the cruelty and inhumanity ofthe Middle Passage and slavery, he was  prima facie  evidence against themajor arguments made by contemporaneous apologists for slavery.Furthermore, the binomial identity found on the title-page enabled theauthor to maintain his British identity, signified by the name Gustavus Vassagiven him in slavery, as well as his newly announced African identity.Following the author's own usual practice, henceforth in this article I referto him as Gustavus Vassa, except when he himself writes of his OlaudahEquiano identity.Ironically, Vassa reverses the traditional rhetorical relationship betweenauthorizing white and authorized black writers. In his capacity as thevictimized African Equiano, his descriptions of his experience of havingbeen enslaved, especially of his life in Africa and the horrors of the MiddlePassage, serve to verify and thereby validate much of the evidenceconventionally cited in abolitionist discourse. Vassa's memory of Africa asa pastoral and idyllic land corrupted by European contact reinforces aconvention frequently found in the arguments by white abolitionists anddisputed by apologists for slavery, who contended that slavery rescuedAfricans from a brutal existence and introduced them to Christianity andcivilization.Immediately recognizing the issues at stake in the challenge to hisidentity made by  The Oracle  and  The Star,  Vassa prefaced the 5th andsubsequent editions of his  Narrative  with a letter addressed 'To the Reader'.He counter-attacked the 'invidious falsehood [that] appeared in the Oracle... with a view to hurt my character, and to discredit and prevent the sale ofmy Narrative' (p.5). Typically, he was as concerned for his pocketbook ashe was for his integrity. Sales depended on his authority, which derivedfrom his Afro-British identity. To defend his 'character', Vassa also added a    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   U  n   i  v  e  r  s   i   t  y  o   f   P  e  n  n  s  y   l  v  a  n   i  a   ]  a   t   1   8  :   1   4   0   9   O  c   t  o   b  e  r   2   0   1   1
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