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Contributed Scholarly Introduction: Olaudah, Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano (1794)

Olaudah, Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano (1794)

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The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano was first 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. According to Olaudah Equiano's narrative, he was a born in an Eboe province (present-day Nigeria) and was kidnapped and taken to England at a young age and subsequently forced into slavery. Through his ingenuity and hard work, he bought his own freedom and became a successful businessman and author. The text recounts the life of Equiano leading up to the writing of the narrative itself.The narrative had nine reprints and editions within Equiano's lifetime, and it has been published twenty-two additional times since his passing. This is a 1794 reprint, in addition to this text we have a similar 1973 reprint as well.


Using the subscriber method, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was first published by Olaudah Equiano himself in 1789 in London. The ever ingenious Equiano also opted to self-publish instead his work utilizing The Stationer’s Company (also known as Worshipful Company of Stationer’s and Newspaper makers, whose other clients included Richard Field and John Cleeve) instead of selling his copywriter to a bookseller-publisher. Although this was a risky move, he would go on to see high profits— his narrative saw several reprints during his life, and thus it seems that the risk was well worth it. Self-publishing gave him more freedom, however, a clause in his contract gave The Stationer’s Company the right to seize any unofficial editions of his books and disallowed the for the publication of fraudulent works. This gave The Stations’s Company a bit of power over Equiano’s work, although it is comparably small.

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. But, despite the support from these men and 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 June of 1789 Gentleman’s Magazine’s Richard Gough described the narrative as ironically ‘uninteresting.’ In the May 1789 issue of The Analytical Review, well-known author Mary Wollstonecraft was similarly unimpressed with the overall 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. Regardless of the origin or authenticity of the text, it is still an important simply for how widely read it was (and its multiple reprints), and its critical reception still offers insight as to how his contemporaries may have reacted or understood the texts.



Works Cited

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.

Secondary Bibliography

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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