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An African's life: The life and times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1799.

James Walvin. An African's Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1799. New York: Continuum, 2000. 220 pp. $19.95.

The dean of the study of the politics and institutions of the British slave trade and British antislavery has turned his attention to Olaudah Equiano, one of the luminaries of eighteenth-century black abolitionism. Walvin treats Equiano's Interesting Narrative (1789) by relating it point by point to recent scholarship on West African slaveholding and slave-trading societies, the Atlantic slave trade, New World slavery, Anglo-American commerce, British politics, and the nascent abolitionism of the 1780s. An African's Life treats The Interesting Narrative as a window into the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, though Walvin admits that on occasion Equiano seems idiosyncratic and unrepresentative of his times. Walvin has produced the most successful contextualization--this is what he understands as a Life--ever written about any black person in the Anglophone tradition before Frederick Douglass.

Walvin's successes include his treatment of Equiano as a small-scale entrepreneur moving fruits, glassware, and slaves, including his own "countrymen," from port to port in the West Indies and the southeastern mainland British colonies and his treatment of Equiano as a figure in British radical politics in the late 1780s and early 1790s. Equiano's entrepreneurship has been emphasized, though rarely in such a way as to include his facilitation of the slave trade. Equiano's role in British reform has been less emphasized, and Walvin provides an illuminating discussion of the African's relationship to literacy, sensibility, "the rights of man," and Irish resistance to English dominance. The treatment of these and other topics is brisk and sensible.

One weakness of An African's Life is Walvin's insistence that Equiano stands in a British tradition, not a North American one. Yet there was no North America (as Walvin uses the phrase) to foster a literary or political tradition before the War of Independence. Before 1776, Anglophone America included Nova Scotia, the thirteen colonies that would revolt, and the British West Indies. Equiano spent a lot of time in some of .these areas, all of which were in the eighteenth century transit points, homes, or graves for black men and women, free and unfree. He shared with many contemporaries the Anglo-American experience, including servitude, petty commerce, and maritime travel. Moreover, it makes little sense to ascribe a fixed national identity to black Anglophone authors before David Walker. They situated themselves in an African-Anglo-American zone, sometimes imaginatively, often literally through travel. The slave trade made early black writers urgently aware of this Atlantic zone and the hybrid identities of New World Africans. Eighteenth-century black abolitionism itself was bred in that zone by people with such identities. The generation that matured after the interdiction of the British and American slave trades knew less of Africa and Africans and identified more with modern nationalities.

Walvin's sharp distinction between British and American traditions in the eighteenth century is not typical of contemporary scholarship on the black Atlantic. Nor, in our interdisciplinary times, is his sharp distinction between "literary" and "historical" ways of understanding The Interesting Narrative. One of the premises of An African's Life is that literary scholars have abstracted Equiano from his context. Walvin's method, then, is the restoration of Equiano to his context. This method commits Walvin to analyzing The Interesting Narrative as an autobiography mirroring its times. Walvin even dismisses out of hand the claim, which may still have some force, that Equiano was of New World, not Igbo, birth. But The Interesting Narrative was more than a mirror insofar as it was an instrument, rhetorical in nature, used by Equiano in an effort to change his times. The study of rhetoric is neither wholly "literary" nor wholly "historical": An argument crafted in a literary fashion to achieve ends in a certain ti me and place may do much more than reflect its context.

We should analyze The Interesting Narrative as abolitionist rhetoric, according to which Equiano made a complicated antislavery argument that Walvin fails to appreciate. Like most of his peers among the eighteenth-century black abolitionist authors, Equiano perceived that the Atlantic world was beginning a transition from slave societies to free societies. He sought to explain the origins in the Old Testament of slavery and the slave trade in such a way that his readers could see and further the process of freedom supplanting bondage in a Christian world. He sought always to portray the dynamic birth of freedom from slavery, illustrated in many ways in The Interesting Narrative and embodied in himself as the son of a slaveholding, slave-trading society, made a slave, then a worker in the slave trade, and at last an exemplary free man and abolitionist. His transition in The Interesting Narrative was not just from slave to freedman, but also from member of a society secure in its slaveholding and slave trading to member of one stretching toward freedom for all. And he sought to define a politics in which a strong state--his book was addressed to the "Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain"--would be urged to move against the slavers. He shared this rhetoric with his black peers, who understood long before white Britons and Americans that slavery would be extirpated only through the actions of a powerful central state that would set itself against slaveholders. Equiano's antislavery appeal has a depth (barely sketched in the sentences above) that Walvin, in his fine contextualization of The Interesting Narrative, does not sound.
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Author:Saillant, John
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:911
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