Chika Ezeanya on Olaudah Equiano: Before We Set Sail

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

The writer speaks out of real or imagined experience, tales do not spring from nothingness. And often, the reader studies fiction closely – for the truth. Works of fiction tell us stories of an era and complement history books. Yes, there is this compartmentalization; there are history books and there are novels and it is not often that you find a historian who tries fiction to document a lived life, writing history, so to speak. I recently got lucky; I just finished reading Before We Set Sail, a historical fiction by the historian, Chika Ezeanya. It is a novel based on the imagined life in Africa, of the freed slave Olaudah Equiano. Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa (1745-1797) hardly needs an introduction; as a freed slave, he actively advocated for the abolition of the slave trade. In his lifetime he was variously an author and entrepreneur who travelled widely around the world. He wrote an autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in which he maintained that he was a child slave from Igboland in Nigeria who eventually bought his freedom.

Equiano may be dead but he lives on not only through a vast volume of work devoted to his life, but thanks to controversy about his place of birth and the authenticity of his narrative as a child slave from today’s Eastern Nigeria. One school of thought asserts that Equiano was most probably born in the United States, not in Igboland as he claims in his autobiography. These scholars argue that much of his narrative is based on secondary sources. The most persistent of these “birthers” is Vincent Carretta who tried to make the case that Equiano was born in South Carolina, in a 1999 essay Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on Eighteenth-Century Question of Identity. He extends his analysis into his biography of Equiano, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Jim Egan’s incisive review of Carretta’s book sheds more light on the issue. Skepticism about Equiano’s narrative has been met with an equally vigorous push-back from several scholars. Ike Anya’s feisty essay describes with some hilarity the fireworks that ensued when the two opposing forces met. Here is an analysis that lays out the argument for whether or not he was born in Africa.

In writing the book, Ezeanya sought to fill that gap in Equiano’s narrative, growing up as a child in Igboland, being captured as a child slave and sojourning in several places before being sold off and shipped to the West Indies. According to Ezeanya, there is little in terms of that aspect of Equiano’s life that is documented elsewhere. What do I think of Ezeanya’s work? I loved it. In my judgment, Ezeanya pulled off this ambitious project rather nicely. She combines her muscular skills as a historian with a gift for storytelling to produce a suspense-filled, engaging and informative novel. Ezeanya also wisely sidesteps controversy about Equiano’s place of birth and with the aid of deft research and sleuthing cobbles together a story about what life must have looked like for Equiano or any child in his circumstances in Eastern Nigeria during that era. That is the issue, an undue obsession about Equiano’s true origin misses the fact that these awful events happened to someone and to a people. Ezeanya has a useful book trailer on YouTube where she provides a context for the book. Biko Agozino who reviewed the book here gets to the heart of what I admire most about Ezeanya’s novel, which is that this is not yet another hagiography of Africa penned by a starry-eyed clueless Pan Africanist:

 [Ezeanya] displays evidence of thorough historical research on what Cheikh Anta Diop theorized as pre-colonial black Africa. The only distinction here to her credit is that Diop painted a Negritude picture of an improbable civilization that appeared so perfect that there were no villains while Ezeanya shocks the reader into accepting the obvious reality that there is no such thing as a perfect civilization in a history characterized by widespread violence and terrorism. Readers who expect to find an un-spoilt innocence in pre-colonial Africa will be disillusioned to find that there were already unscrupulous people driven by greed to seek to profit from the sorrows of their fellows. Similarly, those seeking the heart of darkness in the pre-colonial epoch would be shamed into finding a thriving civilization in the hinterland.

Agozino is spot on. In Before We Set Sail, Equiano the young protagonist leads the reader through several civilizations, cultures and geographic states in parts of what is today’s Nigeria, beginning with his home town which he calls Essaka from where he and his sister are abducted into slavery. Written with pride and understated passion, the book is a quietly bold and successful attempt to assert a particular narrative because as Chinua Achebe reminds us in the East African proverb, until the lion tells the story of the hunt, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter. Ezeanya helps Equiano tell his story and assert Black Africa’s humanity and civilization with defiance and pride. In the process, the reader learns a lot about the Black Africa of the mid 1700s through the eyes of this book and Ezeanya’s heart and soul.

I loved the prose. My best line: “I stared at the ground as my tears made balls out of the mud.” (p 69) Nice. Ezeanya’s imagination is vivid, you can feel the ambience, the atmosphere; ancient groves of malevolent deities come alive and in some passages you are filled with an intimidating spiritual presence. The pacing is exquisite, it would probably make a good movie script. Ezeanya’s depiction of commerce at the Bende slave fair shook me to my roots and the savagery will stay with me for a very long time. Ezeanya does a marvelous job at capturing the times and the good and the bad. These were medieval times, commerce was robust and cowrie shells and slaves were used as currency.  It was also a highly organized patriarchy in which men spoke and women and children were mostly seen not heard. But it is a thriving place that the story describes, there is sadness and joy, and in the story of the abduction of Equiano and his sister Ezinne (at ages 11 and 8 respectively) we see children enduring heartbreaking loss and we are strangely diminished. The reader learns that Igboland was a civilization whose people were filled with the knowledge of genetics and science. Even before the coming of the white man, the men had access to guns which indicates that there was inter-state commerce.

The research is exquisite, awe-inspiring. Ezeanya invests her creative energies in developing with great attention to detail, a few major characters like Didi, easily the best female lead character in the book. Like Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Equiano masterfully appropriates the English language as his own.  There are so many lovely stories within stories in this feisty book, including one that explains the origin of the four market days in Igboland. That fable alone is worth the price of the book. More importantly, in this book, one comes face to face with a certain Africa that has been relegated to the background of history in the race to stereotype and diminish her worth. We see thriving industries, astute businessmen and women negotiating deals with the best (or worst) of the West. We see a vibrant, highly organized workforce of slaves and apprentices Iron smiths and apprentices. Ezeanya makes the crucial point that the Igbo had slaves, that indeed there was a thriving slave trade before the coming of the white man. Beyond the clinical banality of commerce, the book also offers powerful evocative testimony to the efficacy of spiritual priests and indigenous healers.

Before We Set Sail is not the poverty porn that characterizes much of of what is referred to as African writing; instead Ezeanya pens a wondrous tale of Equiano’s childhood with loving parents, living in harmony with siblings and relatives in a land thriving with commerce and industry. Ezeanya pulls this off with a writing style that hearkens to Achebe’s, words steeped deeply in a way of life that seems now to be eluding a people long used to being uncritically assimilated into Western ways:

Just as I have brought my son to you here today, so Ijeenu your great-grandfather was taken by his own father to somebody who agreed to train him. Today, you have the ways of Akputakpu in your blood. I ask only that you do unto me as someone else did to your own great-grandfather — teach my son the ways of Akputakpu so he can teach his children and his children’s children. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch. If one rejects the perching of the other, may his wings be broken. (p 59)

Ezeanya frequent deployment of proverbs and parables to convey the book’s burden reminds us of the Igbo saying:  Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. Equiano puts it beautifully in the book:

Father had often warned me when I engaged in rough play with older boys that “the crab says it has no business with any play that involved the twisting of arms.” Our education in Essaka, although not written like the Aro people or the British and people of the New World, involved the heavy use of proverbs, idioms and such wisdom packed in short, easy-to-remember sentences. From one proverb, one could write thousands of volumes such as the works of Plato, St. Augustine or, more recently, John Locke. (p 129)

This book is all about history, in delectable doses. Readers will find invaluable  insights into the Ekpe secret society, the ancient writing nsibidi or nsibiri, the treatment of biracial children in Calabar (they were disposed of like twins), etc.  We also learn about many dysfunctions and issues that are  with us today, for example, marital abuse, and the West’s reluctance to effect technology transfer (like rum manufacture). The hunger for Western consumer goods heated up the slave trade (not much different than today, many consumers might as well be slaves), and we observe ruefully how the wholesale assimilation into a Western culture turns a people into caricature-consumers as gaudy ostentation is bought with hundreds of slaves.

It is not a perfect book. For one thing, I am surprised and disappointed that such an important book has been so poorly publicized. Before We Set Sail is published by The History Society of Africa and is available in both kindle and paperback at amazon.com and other leading book stores.  You can read excerpts at www.beforewesetsail.com. Go find a copy and enjoy yourself. There are minor editing issues and sometimes, the prose becomes awkward and ungainly like a civil servant’s memo.  The book is rich with profound sayings, many awkwardly translated, for example, “Show me one living person who doesn’t have one problem or the other? Is there anybody whose anus you could look at and not find pieces of shit?” (p 22) This is not so much a criticism but an observation of how things get lost in the translation because of transitions like the forced voyage to the new land and the unlearning of one’s ancestral language. When Equiano reflects on “the fattening rooms of Calabar” one soon realizes that the term is a misnomer. If the dialogue is sometimes stilted, it is consistent with the style of the flamboyant Equiano. Before We Set Sail is technically a novel, but the absence of a bibliography is disappointing. A bibliography would have been helpful. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun comes to mind as a worthy example; it has about 30 helpful references on the Nigerian civil war. And yes, my pet peeve: Nigerian words were painstakingly italicized as if to hard-code our otherness.

All in all, Ezeanya spoke to me in this book. I read the book  at a time when I was reflecting on the notion of identity, chafing at the realization that even as color confounds, Africa is fast becoming a pejorative used to lump together for nefarious reasons, scores of nations and cultures and languages. Did Africans sell off fellow Africans as slaves? Did these people see themselves as monolithic Africans or as distinct nations warring each other for spoils and profits? Much of the contemporary commentary on Africa is superficial only because good scholars have bought into the myth of a monolithic Africa. Ezeanya brilliantly rejects that narrative and offers a uniquely creative version  of world history that doubles as an enduring celebration of the humanity of a people long hunted and haunted by forces beyond their control. All through this lovely book, nothing tells of the abiding dignity and pride of black Africa more than these resounding lines by a defiant Equiano:

The strength of my nation in farming is profound; my people never lacked food, and the rarity of ill-health among my people is direct testimony to the wealth of our diet, and our industriousness. We cultivated yam, our chief staple in several varieties; also, maize, beans, fruits of diverse kinds, assorted vegetables, and other crops made their way to our tables every mealtime and to the market every market day. Fish, game and certain edible insects are found in abundance in my part of the world, and provided the nourishment we needed from time to time. (p 29-30)

Hear! Hear! I love this book.