Olaudah Equiano’s publication, The Interesting Narrative (1789), is number 79 among the 100 best nonfiction books of all times (The Guardian, 7 August 2017). The newspaper also said, “The most famous slave memoir of the 18th century is a powerful and terrifying read and established Equiano as a founding figure in black literary tradition.”
In 2019, The Equiano Society presented a Touring Exhibition that commemorated the 230th anniversary of the book. It included prints of ‘original woodcuts’ that traced his life in Igboland, Barbados, Virginia, England, Montserrat, to name but a few places. The ‘woodcuts’ and associated text (in Equiano’s own words), summarised the story and attracted the attention of people who had not read The Interesting Narrative. The opening first eight panels covered his early life until the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). The Exhibition showed the dramatic change when Pascal, his enslaver, resold Equiano at Deptford (South London) into further bondage on the island of Montserrat. It was an opportunity for ‘The African’ to become a salesman, earning enough money to buy his freedom for £40 (18th century currency) and having extra money to organise ‘Manumission dances’ in celebration of his freedom on 11 July 1766.
Known then as Gustavus Vassa the African, his seaman years until the 1780s saw him working diligently, travelling around the world and, according to The Interesting Narrative, also becoming the voice for oppressed Africans.It was a key instrument in the debate on the abolition of the so-called ‘Transatlantic Slave Trade’ (the trafficking of Africans).The book became a best-seller from April 1789 and went into nine editions by 1794. On 7 April 1792, the author married Susannah Cullen at St Andrews Church, Soham, Cambridgeshire, and they had two children, Anna Maria, and Joanna.
‘The hybrid form of The Interesting Narrative replicates the profound uncertainty of the narrator. The text combines (in unequal parts) slave narrative, sea yarn, military adventure, ethnographic reportage, historical fiction, travelogue, picaresque saga, sentimental novel, allegory, tall tale, pastoral origins myth, gothic romance, conversion tale, and abolitionist tract, with different features coming to the fore at different times, and the mood vacillating accordingly. In style, it is alternately declarative, informational, sentimental, oratorical, exhortative, and admonitory, using different emotional registers to underscore the point, over and over, that “the slave trade [is] entirely at war with the heart of man”. It thus resembles many eighteenth-century novels (both American and European) in its first-person autobiographical narrative pretext while also fitting the generic conventions of many autobiographies of the time (again, both American and European) in its novelistic emphasis on self-creation.
Like all autobiographies, it is not simply a rehashing of every incident in Equiano’s history but a conscious shaping of myriad life-events into recognisable plot patterns. This includes repeating (as if they were factual) such well-rehearsed “contact narratives” as the “Native’s” fearful encounter with whites whom he misconstrues to be cannibals (a storyline with a genealogy back -as far as Gulliver’s Travels) and the author’s clever astronomical predictions that frighten the “Natives” (in this case, Miskito Indians) into submission – a chestnut Equiano takes, with acknowledgment, from Columbus’s journals…’