One of the most remarkable figures in the history of African literature is Olaudah Equiano, who is also known as Gustavus Vassa. He was born into an Igbo community that he called Essaka, or most probably Isieke, in what is now the Ihiala local government area of the Anambra State of Nigeria. Captured and sold into slavery at the age of 12, he was taken to the West Indies. There he was resold to a British naval officer who helped him acquire an education and some nautical experience. When Equiano was beginning to consider himself a free man, he was unexpectedly sold again to a Philadelphia trader, for whom he undertook business trips to the West Indies. These trips enabled Equiano to make enough money to buy his freedom. As a free man, Equiano continued his vocation as a sailor and traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. He eventually joined the abolitionist movement in Great Britain, where he settled down as a respectable African European, married an English woman, and had two children. Equiano moved in high social circles, wrote and spoke frequently in various public media on abolition issues, and petitioned the British Parliament on the evils of slavery. But by far his most important contribution to the abolition movement was his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, which was first published in London in 1789. Not only was The Interesting Narrative an eloquent diatribe against the evils of slavery; its early chapters presented a thoroughly idyllic picture of the culture, social life, and geographical environment of his Igbo home, which he describes as "a charming, fruitful vale." In the autobiography, Equiano refutes the detractions of African peoples in European and oriental literatures, religious dogmas, and philosophical and ethnographic writings. He emerges as the first spokesperson of pan-African nationalism, black consciousness, negritude, and a whole range of other contemporary African and African American intellectual movements. The Narrative is a mixture of factual ethnographic and historical details, debatable assertions, and outright fallacies; it is as mystifying as it is revealing. So powerful is its eighteenth-century rhetorical style that, despite the assertion in its title that it was "written by himself," few of his white contemporaries were convinced that such elegant prose and humane sentiments could be written by an African.
Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was a former slave who became an outspoken opponent of the slave trade. Vincent Carretta is professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the editor of the Penguin Classics editions of the "Complete Writings of Phillis Wheatley," "Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African," and "Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings by Ottobah Cugoano,"