Wie es eigentlich gewesen

by Henry Farrell on September 7, 2005

Jennifer Howard has an interesting “article”:http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i03/03a01101.htm in the _Chronicle_ this week about a classic slave narrative which may not be what it seems.

bq. _The Interesting Narrative_ is a swashbuckling tale that takes its hero from an idyllic boyhood in Africa through the travails of slavery and a series of maritime adventures to spiritual, legal, and economic rebirth as a free man in England in the last decades of the 18th century. An immediate best seller in Britain, The Interesting Narrative had nine editions in its author’s lifetime. … Mr. Carretta[‘s] …. doubts about Equiano’s origins began only when he undertook a labor of love: a new Penguin edition of The Interesting Narrative. Mr. Carretta combed British records for traces of Equiano or Vassa, which was the name given him as a slave. “No one who had written on Equiano or cited him, even those who had reproduced versions of his text, had ever bothered to check. And I, having a mind of concrete, said, ‘He gives me a date, he gives me a place, he gives me a name, it should be verifiable.'” What the Maryland professor unearthed among public British documents — including a 1759 parish baptismal record and a 1773 ship’s muster, both of which list Equiano’s place of birth as South Carolina — came as a shock. “I was surprised. I was resistant, in fact,” Mr. Carretta says. “The naval record was the real problem to me, because at that point he’s free, he’s an adult. The pursers went and simply asked, ‘What’s your name? Where are you from?”

It’s not entirely certain that Equiano _wasn’t_ born in Africa; there’s a lively-sounding debate among historians on the topic. But the article still raises some quite interesting issues about the relationship between authenticity and identity. It seems to me that Equiano is an even more interesting and complicated figure if he invented part of his past than if he didn’t. Timothy Burke has an interesting “new post”:http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?p=94 up on the Jared Diamond debates, suggesting, if I understand him rightly, that ‘authenticity’ can be quite as much of a trap as more overt forms of condescension. I’ll have more to say on this later.

Update: the Chronicle is hosting a “colloquy”:http://chronicle.com/colloquy/ with Carretta on the topic at 1pm today.



John Emerson 09.07.05 at 3:36 pm

One of his names was, in full, Gustavus Vasa, after the Swedish king.


P ONeill 09.07.05 at 4:01 pm

On a slightly related note, there is the strange matter of the obituaries for Hamilton Naki, in which an embellished account of his achievements as a heart surgeon, seemingly propagated by the Guardian, found their way around the world until the corrections finally made an impact.


Rasselas 09.07.05 at 4:04 pm

Why might Equiano be “an even more interesting and complicated figure if he invented part of his past than if he didn’t”? Isn’t history, literary and otherwise, replete with people who made things up about themselves, for good and for ill? Isn’t making stuff up one of humanity’s most ancient and tiresome strategems? Are all of these people more interesting and complicated than they would be if they had not made things up? Would making things up about him or herself make anybody — Lola Montez, Miyamoto Musashi, Alan Moore, the Red Baron, Julia Child, Pico della Mirandola, Dietrich Bonhoeffer — more interesting and complicated?


John Isbell 09.07.05 at 4:44 pm

My hunch is that Yali would understand his friend Diamond’s answer to his question rather better than this couple’s objections to it. On a related note, this Equiano news is a reminder that actual scholarship can indeed still be accomplished, and every now and then it usefully demolishes whole architectures of theory written by people who never opened a primary source.


Henry 09.07.05 at 5:00 pm

Rasselas, indeed people have made things up about themselves – but (and this is more or less entirely a personal judgement) – I’m more interested in those who invent themselves to some greater or lesser extent, who have that quiddity and idiosyncracy than in those who are pressed into service as a proxy for some wider category of person. To the extent that Equiano did make up part of his past, it’s interesting to read and to speculate about why he chose this representation over that one. And he sounds like a very interesting character, who figured out how to play a society where the odds were stacked against him and come out ahead.


Tad Brennan 09.07.05 at 5:03 pm

I’ve always heard the phrase quoted as “wie es eigentlich” usw.

Or maybe you’ve got a different phrase in mind–Ranke on history?


Henry 09.07.05 at 5:10 pm

Nope – a bad memory and writing in a hurry. Have changed. Thanks.


gzombie 09.07.05 at 5:24 pm

An electronic edition of The Interesting Narrative is available online, and an online discussion with Carrretta takes place tomorrow at the Chronicle.


ab 09.07.05 at 5:39 pm

The really correct version is Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist


david 09.07.05 at 6:19 pm

There are many complaints to be made about anthroplogists, but the idea that, after a few years of fieldwork, they’ve never opened a primary source, is not one of them.


Henry 09.07.05 at 6:21 pm

ab – interestingly, no, as far as I can remember. _Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist_ is, of course, grammatically correct, but I seem to recall looking it up a couple of years ago and seeing that for some reason, Ranke had left out the ‘ist.’ This said, my German is mediocre at best, and my memory could be spotty – native German readers with a copy on their bookshelves are invited to jump in …


Timothy Burke 09.07.05 at 6:57 pm

I think the things that potentially become more interesting about Equiano in the wake of Carretta’s argument are twofold:

1) It may be that what he said about Africa reflected a kind of common knowledge about Africa circulating among slave populations in the Carolinas or elsewhere. E.g., Equiano isn’t so much a direct window onto Igbo society, but onto the way Igbo society was remembered and represented among first and second-generation West African slaves.

2) This is the more contentious point: I think that the many, many cases we have of authors who manage to convincingly simulate or perform identities and personal histories that are not their own suggests just how much people sometimes know and understand about other racial, national or cultural groups in the modern world, that contrary to some images where we’re encouraged to understand there to be impermeable barriers to mutual understanding across racial, cultural, religious lines, there are actually considerable flows of information and knowledge. This of course in other cases (certainly not in this particular instance) makes discriminatory conduct all the more appalling: it potentially removes even the defense of being ignorant.


david 09.07.05 at 7:13 pm

Well, you could read simulation the other way too. Many cases likely show how stereotypes of other people are so cartoonish as to make simulation easy, despite no knowledge of the culture being simulated. Traveller’s accounts, after all, were often written by people who’d never been abroad, and were believed despite easily demonstrated bullshit. Doesn’t negate point #2, but it’s worth taking into account.


Timothy Burke 09.07.05 at 7:55 pm

Yup, it cuts both ways.


John Isbell 09.07.05 at 8:06 pm

David, #10: not anthropologists, literary critics. For instance, of Equiano’s text. Which I guess is itself a primary source, though not an archival one. They are so dusty.
However, I do suspect that Yali would find the couple’s objections to Diamond bewildering, while his talk of crops and animals would make good sense.


John Isbell 09.07.05 at 8:18 pm

Oh, the phrase is “wie es eigentlich gewesen.” No “ist.”


david 09.07.05 at 9:03 pm

No reason to romanticize the dust. It makes you sneeze, and the writing is a pain in the ass to read.

Anyway, sorry to have misread you — the Yali/Diamond bit has been about anthropology, and I’m easily distracted.


CR 09.07.05 at 9:12 pm

This Carretta stuff is kind of old news… I don’t understand why it’s been played as “news” by the Chronicle…

Something to think about: It’s not my period, but as far as I understand it, Equiano’s rendition of the “middle passage” brought this savagery to light for the larger part of literate England… It was the early chapters, on his life in Africa and passage to the Americas, that were most influential.. Lit a fire under the English abolition movement. If I’m not mistaken, the book came out in 1789 (what a year!), first anti-slave trade legislation proposed (but defeated) 1791, finally ratified 1807…

Who says that fiction makes nothing happen, eh?


Timothy Burke 09.07.05 at 9:19 pm

It’s being seen as newsworthy because Carretta’s book is coming out, which seems a reasonable enough occasion to me.


CR 09.07.05 at 9:30 pm

OK – sorry – didn’t read the article… I just remembered having students asking me about this last time I taught Equiano. The Penguin edition mentions Carretta and his theory in the notes somewhere…


gzombie 09.07.05 at 10:02 pm

CR writes, Who says that fiction makes nothing happen, eh?

It’s autobiography. The original readers did not receive it as fiction.

The Penguin edition mentions Carretta and his theory in the notes somewhere.

“Somewhere,” huh? Not surprising given that Carretta edited the Penguin edition and wrote the introduction and all of the notes.

You say you teach this text?



CR 09.07.05 at 10:26 pm

Ah ha. That explains it. Got confused because I switched from Penguin to Norton last time. Big mistake. And now you can see why…

It’s autobiography. The original readers did not receive it as fiction.

Right. That’s the point. According to yr guy, it’s fictional autobiography. And what I’m point out as, dunno, ironic is the fact that it’s exactly the bits that he fictionalized that touched his readers – Africa and middle passage. If Equiano had left those things out, we definitely wouldn’t be reading him today. And maybe it would have taken a few more years for the slave-trade to end, who knows… Fiction, the fictional element of the IN, made something happen…


John Isbell 09.07.05 at 10:45 pm

Apparently Clarkson’s famous 1788 illustration of sleeping arrangements on a slave ship (which I think did more for abolitionism than Equiano’s narrative, and was certainly more widely circulated) is also inexact.


Eszter 09.08.05 at 9:25 am

Regarding the quote, a search on amazon.de shows that several books quote Ranke this same way although others show the quote with an “ist”. For a German speaker, not seeing the “ist” (or “war”) is very confusing, because it seems like the verb is missing. (I know “gewesen” is a verb, but it’s in a form that requires another part.) Alternatively, this is some super high level of German that I don’t get. But if just reading the sentence, it does beg for the rest so that’s probably the point of confusion among commenters here.


Timothy Burke 09.08.05 at 10:22 am

Re:Equiano being read as autobiography, not fiction, at the time he published. Yes, but don’t forget at the same time that the expectations we have about the line between the two weren’t necessarily the same expectations that late 18th Century reading publics had. In any event, there’s no doubt that Equiano’s account of the Middle Passage was a powerful shot in the arm for the abolitionist movement, as was his depiction of “Merrie Olde Africa” from which he was torn.


alistair hammond 09.08.05 at 11:57 am

pedants corner:

the german phrase would have to be “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”

without the “ist,” the phrase has no verb.


Henry 09.08.05 at 12:07 pm

Yeah, but unless my memory is completely mistaken, Ranke doesn’t have the ‘ist’ himself. Alistair is entirely right (even my not very good German is enough to confirm this) that the grammar would seem to require it, but my recollection is that it is missing from the complete sentence too. So either (a) Ranke has been misquoted systematically _in extenso_, or (b) for some stylistic reason he didn’t include it.


ab 09.09.05 at 6:56 pm

I’ll take it all back about the “ist”… Henry is actually right!

“Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” is indeed the grammatically correct version. However, probably for stylistic reasons, Ranke didn’t use the “ist”.

Here’s the original, quite complex, sentence in (old) German:

“Man hat der Historie das Amt, die Vergangenheit zu richten, die Mitwelt zum Nutzen zukünftiger Jahre zu belehren, beigemessen: so hoher Aemter unterwindet sich gegenwärtiger Versuch nicht: er will blos zeigen, wie es eigentlich gewesen.”


Henry 09.09.05 at 7:56 pm

Ah – glad to see that my memory wasn’t completely misfiring.

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