Kingston University, just outside London last week hosted the first International Conference on Olaudah Equiano, the 18th century slave whose “Interesting Narrative” an account of his early life in an Igbo village in West Africa, his capture and subsequent life was a best seller and a major campaign document of the Abolitionists. Equiano is widely regarded as one of the earliest published African writers and his narrative is a major text in studies of slave narratives.
Why then were fireworks flying at this conference devoted to a man that lived so long ago? The answer may perhaps be found in examining how I, a medical doctor, admittedly with literary interests found myself at the conference. I had while surfing the net come across a Nigerian writers and artists listserve, which I joined. Not long after, one of the members Obi Iwuanyanwu (Obiwu) (a director of writing at an Ohio university whose fiery contributions had often, threatened to enflame the list) mentioned that he would be attending a conference on Olaudah Equiano in Kingston in March.
I was eager to meet him and so went on to the Kingston University website to learn more about the conference. And that is where I learned for the first time that the veracity of Equiano’s account of his origins was being called to question. Apparently two scholars, Vincent Carretta of the University of Maryland and S.E. Ogude of the University of Benin had published work, which implied Equiano had never visited Africa. Having read the “Interesting Narrative” as a child and marveling at the resonances with contemporary Igbo life, I was eager to attend the conference.
And so I arrived Kingston, a pleasant town 25 minutes from Central London. I got into the lecture hall slightly late to hear Professor Carretta delivering his keynote address where he rehashed his original thesis. He had come across an archival entry in the Royal Navy records and a baptismal certificate, which recorded Equiano’s birthplace as South Carolina. On the basis of this and other issues including the fact that Equiano never used the name Olaudah until a short while before publication of his book, he concludes that serious doubts are raised over whether Equiano ever visited Africa. He concluded by making the point that Equiano never mentions his mother’s name throughout the book despite his closeness to her. Finally he raised the issue of vested interests pointing out that he was aware that his comments would not necessarily be welcome to Igbos, Nigerians and historians who had long insisted on the authenticity of Equiano’s work.
His keynote address was followed by that of Professor Ogude who stunned the conference, which had expected him to promote Carretta’s thesis when he declared that among other things, Equiano’s keen sense of industry marked him out as an Igbo man. He went on to suggest that Equiano came from the Ikwuano area of Abia State having earlier dismissed as unfounded the claims of Catherine Acholonu to have discovered the Igbo roots of Equiano in Isseke, Imo State.
Question time revealed the first taste of what lay ahead as Ugo Nwokeji, assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut challenged Carretta’s precluding from the debate Igbo and Nigerian historians. Pointing out that he was Igbo, Nigerian and a historian, whose area of specialty was the Atlantic slave trade, he pointed out that Carretta’s statement effectively closed the space for debate to people like him. Obi Iwuanyanwu quickly congratulated Professor Ogude for what many saw as a U-turn, acknowledging Equiano’s Igbo roots. Other contributions queried the weight Carretta was giving to the archival documents even when Equiano himself may not have supplied the information in them.
The coffee break revealed that the conference had attracted many interested parties from outside the academic circle- I met Anthony Njoku, Igbo priest and assistant director of the Whelan Centre in Owerri, Pascal Ndubisi, priest, student and editor of the World Igbo Times and Arthur Torrington, OBE, chair of the Equiano Society of Britain.
The conference then split into two parallel sessions. I therefore missed Tess Chakalal and Stephen Meardon’s paper on Equiano’s Economics and Shaun Regan’s paper on Swearing Testimony and Truth in the Interesting Narrative. I also missed Kenneth Curtis’ paper on Equiano and World History. I however was able to attend the second session, which was as explosive as the first. Obiwu kicked off his presentation by announcing that he had been so incensed at Carretta’s posturing based on flimsy evidence that he had decided to discard his prepared paper and speak from notes. In a passionate speech, he questioned Carretta’s motives in seeking to demystify Equiano from a very weak evidence base and hinted that race, finance and fame were possible motives, pointing to a recent interview in US News on the controversy. Obiwu pointed out the logical flaws in Carretta’s argument and suggested that Carretta visit Africa for further research. His paper was followed by Tara Czechowski’s paper on the undermining pathologies of African Pain evidenced by Equiano’s work and then by Kerry Sinanan’s paper on Truth and Rhetorical Self-Fashioning in Equiano’s work.
Question time released a torrent of pent up rage, the critic CL Innes and a couple of others chastised Iwuanyanwu for his imputation on Carretta. Sinanan deplored the fact that Obiwu’s comments were too personal. Obiwu defended himself saying that when Carretta went public with inconclusive evidence he indirectly invited people questioning his motivation.
Over coffee, there was much talk of an Igbo posse or lynching mob and stiff smiles all around. Kerry Sinanan tried to ask me why it was so important for Equiano to have been born in Africa. Her argument being that regardless of where Equiano was born, the significance of his writing and work were immutable. I struggled to explain what it meant to me but found it difficult.
Professor Helena Woodard of the University of Texas in the next presentation subtitled “Why Equiano Won’t Go Away” beautifully answered the question. Her presentation on the phenomenon of cultural tourism in Equiano studies began with her showing comic books for black children based on Equiano’s story, museum exhibits across the world based on the story and excerpts from films made about Equiano. Obviously demystifying Equiano could have resounding impact globally. The next presentation by April Langley addressing memory in Equiano’s narrative raised similar issues. Professor Frank Kelleter of the Georg-August Universitat felt obliged to declare neutrality in the controversy before starting his paper on different voices in Equiano’s work. Helen Thomas of Exeter University then examined the role of the narrative in an incisive paper before we broke for coffee.
The coffee break this time was more relaxed with Carretta posing for photographs with the Igbo “lynch mob”.
After coffee Professor CL Innes presented Equiano in Ireland after again first declaring that her paper had nothing to do with the controversy. Her paper dwelt on Equiano’s visit to Ireland and resonances between Abolitionist tendencies and Irish nationalism, a relationship whose validity she questioned as many of the Irish nationalists of that era were slave owners.
Her paper was followed by Professor Wilfred Samuel’s paper subtitled “What’s Africa got to do with it?” was next and again he made the case for an African birthplace for Equiano. The feisty African-American could be seen nodding vigorously in assent whenever a “pro-Equiano” point was made and promised that his long-awaited book on Equiano – Making the Crooked Paths Straight – would soon be completed. Professor Angelo Costanzo, one of the earliest contemporary authorities on Equiano gave the last paper titled “Neither a Saint, a Hero nor a Tyrant” where he warned of the dangers of unguarded revisionism.
With his paper ended, it was panel discussion time and open season on Carretta again. Helena Woodard began by asking about Carretta’s claim in one of his papers of having identified the particular ship that brought Equiano to England and finding no record of him on it. Woodard asked if the professor was satisfied with the accuracy and completeness of the records he examined and he agreed that he was not. Several other similar exchanges occurred around the importance attached to information on the baptismal certificate.
Brycchan Carey of Kingston University then thanked everyone for coming and marveled at the depth and intensity of feeling that the subject aroused. He however regarded it as a healthy phenomenon as it had led many present to enquire “What does Equiano mean to me and why?” and had stimulated fresh interest in Equiano and his narrative. In the end we all agreed, Equiano remains an enigma and an example of Igbo and African industry and creativity.