The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano recounts the story, of a young man who was born in Eboe province in present day Nigeria, and was taken to England at a young age and forced into slavery. Through his ingenuity and hard work, he was able to purchase his own freedom and became a successful businessman and author. The text recounts the life of Equiano up to the writing of the narrative in an autobiographical format.
Published in 1789 by Equiano himself and was funded through a subscriber method, which entails buyers purchasing the book before it was finished or published. Equiano self-published instead of selling his copyright cheaply to a bookseller-publisher, and he was willing to take the risk and the financial burden to increase his future profits. Olaudah Equiano utilized the Stationer’s Company to help copyright his narrative. James Lackington, Thomas Burton, and John Parsons were confident in his narrative and in his mode of self-publishing so invested in multiple copies of Equiano’s subscriber method. The Stationer’s Company maintained the right to seize unofficial editions of books and it disallowed the publication of unlicensed works. By paying a small fee to the Stationer’s Company, Equiano registered the right to publish his narrative as well as earned the securities that the company provides. The narrative had nine reprints and editions within Equiano’s lifetime, which speaks to its success, and it has been published twenty-two additional times since Equiano’s passing. Despite the extreme success of the narrative, the narrative received mixed reviews when it was initially published. A 1789 article in June issue of The Monthly Review was mixed and not particularly positive or negative towards the narrative. In Gentleman’s Magazine, June 1789, Richard Gough described the narrative as ‘uninteresting’. In a May issue of The Analytical Review, May 1789, Mary Wollstonecraft was similarly unimpressed with the narrative, but praised several aspects as well.
The scholarly arguments discussing The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano range from analyzing the symbolism of Equiano’s journey from slavery to freedom, to scholars questioning the veracity of the narrative. Early scholarship concerning the narrative referred to Equiano’s journey to becoming an author who writes his own narrative as being positive. These scholars argued that Equiano being taken from his Eboe home and brought to England benefited him, despite the fact he was forced into slavery. More modern scholars disagree with this school of thought: Frank Kelleter argues that “if we exclusively concentrate on the new transcultural forms of colonial communication—we risk forgetting that the original relationship between colonizing and colonized subjects is not mutual at all, but oppositional” (Kelleter 69). Kelleter along with multiple other scholars contend that the discrepancy in power between master and slave, in this time period in Europe, is vast and harmful for those who find themselves in the lower end of the relationship of power. This relationship of power that Equiano finds himself in is attractive and appealing for scholars to analyze because of Equiano’s experiences as a slave and as a free member of society.
More recently, scholarship has again focused on the “authenticity” of the narrative. Vincent Carretta contends that a baptismal record and a naval muster roll could potentially prove Equiano was not born in Africa as the narratives suggests. Carretta argues that Equiano’s records prove he was born in South Carolina, and the abolitionist movement’s use of the narrative provides a motive for the alleged deception. On the other hand, Wilfred Samuels and others argue that Carretta has placed too much emphasis on problematic archival documents as evidence; while Cathy Davidson suggests that it might be useful to consider the narrative as a novel. For additional information concerning the narrative check the Works Cited and Secondary Bibliography below.
Fisch, Audrey. The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a self-made man. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.
Carretta, Vincent. “Response to Paul Lovejoy's ‘Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, Alias Olaudah Equiano, the African.’” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies. 28.1 (2007): 115-119.
Kelleter, Frank. Ethnic Self-Dramatization and Technologies of Travel in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Little, Kenneth. Negroes in Britain: A Study of Racial Relations in English Society. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1947.
Brycchan, Carey. Olaudah Equiano: An Illustrated Biography, Web. 15 June, 2016.
Carretta, Vincent. “Three West Indian Writers of the 1780s Revisited and Revised.” Research in African Literature. 29.4. 1998
Costanzo, Angelo. Surprising Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings of Black Autobiography. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Edwards, Paul. “Equiano's Lost Family: “Master” and “Father” in “The Interesting Narrative.”’ Slavery and Abolition. 1990.
Potkay, Adam. “History, Oratory, and God in Equiano's Interesting Narrative”. Eighteenth-Century Studies. 34.4. 2001.
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Autobiography, Eboe, England, Freedom, Olaudah Equiano, Jamaica, Robert King, London, Captain Michael Henry Pascal, Slavery,
Cite this Introduction
Dodge-Harkins, Max. "Introduction to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789). The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Boston: Northeastern University Digital Repository Service. 2016.
Northeastern University, 2015