Monday, 09 January 2012 11:48


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By Onima Institute

Olauda Equiano Was a Son of Etsako in Edo Land : In Today Nigeria, and Yes, He Was Out of Africa 

A Rebuttal to Claims and Faulty Analyses Made by Two Eminent Scholars

Here is an interesting argument about the true birth place of Olauda Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Below is our humble presentation which we believe stands to liquidate the claims that have been made by some eminent scholars which to me seem to amount to academic and intellectual dishonesty in this matter. Olauda Equiano was one of those taken away into slavery during the slave trade era. He is one of the few known to have survived the ordeals of slave trade. He has become a remarkable personality in Europe after his self-purchased freedom, and after his death he became an acclaimed international personality because he did not only survive, but he was able to write down and published his experience on how he was kidnapped and taken away in a narrative manner.  His Interesting Narratives written by him served as the basis for British Abolitionists drive to end Slave Trade and slavery in Europe and North America as is known today.  It may not be an overstatement for one to say that Olauda Equiano is the one who started the agitation to end Slave Trade in Britain which extended to North America, in other words, Olauda Equiano was the first Abolitionist who started the movement soon after he bought his freedom from his master and was freed on July 11, 1766[1].  However, Professor Chinua Achebe says that Olauda was an Igbo man; we dispute that. We contend that Olauda was a native of Ekphei in Etsako.  Olauda had stated that he was born in “Essaka.” 

Before going further, it is important and proper to state how we came into this contest or argument.  It was in 1972 I came across a History book on Nigeria at  Pepperdine University library.  I started reading the book[2] because I love History especially history of Nigerian.  On page 155 was a story of one Olauda Equiano.  As I continued reading, I came across a statement which reads, “This kingdom is divided into many provinces or districts: in one of the most remote and fertile of which I was born, in the year 1745, situated in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka.” I quickly underlined the word “Essaka” because it was too familiar or close as a name of the place where I was born, Etsako.  I showed it to a female class mate whom we sat together in the library to study on that day.  This class mate of mine was an American.  I wrote down the name of my place of birth and I pronounced it; she said the two words were close. I explained to her why Essaka must be an adulteration or a corruption of Etsako in this case.  I said to myself that Olauda must have been from Etsako.  Thereafter I forgot about it only for me to remember it each time whenever there is a discussion about Slave Trade. It happened one Saturday in 1999, a friend and colleague of mine in New York, Dr. Harris Enabulele called me and said, “Where are you when your brother is being taking away from you? “I am fighting with some Igbo people here (meaning where he was in New York);”  “they are claiming that Olauda Equiano was an Igbo man.” He spoke a lot about how he told them that they were wrong to try to claim the man who he believed was an Etsako.”  Dr. Enabulele knows that I am a native of Etsako because we both lectured at the University of Benin in the same department before we independently found our way back to the United States.  After Enabulele had finished telling me why he had called, I informed him of my first encounter in a book with the name Olauda Equiano and the fact that the man said in “His Interesting Narratives” that he was born in Essaka.  I informed him how I felt when I read the history of Olauda the first time.  It was then I called my wife who was the female friend we sat together in the library in 1972 when I first came across the story of Olauda Equiano.  I told her what Dr. Enabulele had just called to tell me confirming and reaffirming what I had thought about Olauda Equiano and Essaka as his birth place.  This is how I came to reconfirm my instinct plus my critical analysis of the entire history and the story that Olauda Equiano, or Gustavus Vasa[3] the African, was a native of Etsako.        

“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olauda Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African written by Himself” is very definitive therefore nothing is ever going to be unraveled about it.  The English Professor, Vincent Carretta does not seem to have unraveled anything factual or correct about the Olauda Equiano and his Interesting Narrative, and has no knowledge about where Olauda was born.  I have read about Olauda and his acclaimed Narrative.  I have read Professor Carretta’s reported research about the true place of birth of Olauda in The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 9, 2005 issue, p.A11.  The fact is, the English Professor at the University of Maryland at College Park appears to be making a very serious mistake about the true birth place of Olauda Equiano.  The Professor seemingly based his faulty conclusion on Olauda Equiano’s Baptismal Certificate and the manifest of a naval ship. Unfortunately for this professor, what to him were two sources of evidence upon which he placed his  claim, seemingly is actually not two sources but one because the information about Olauda which Vincent found in a ship’s manifest must have been derived from the same baptismal certificate of Olauda Equiano.  One can imagine that Olauda Equiano’s Baptismal Certificate which he obtained only when he was made a Christian after regaining his freedom must have been his only identity card, (a kind of driver’s ID in those dark days), made for him by those who sympathized with Olauda Equiano for his ordeal while in captivity, his intelligence and courage.

My people have a saying: “akha ale losua ne ebi ebe”, meaning that ignorance is worse than the darkness of the night.  One may be able to sympathize with this English Professor because if he has had half of the experience, the true history of colonial Africa and the African experience, he would have not attempted to defame an illustrious Son of Africa, Olauda Equiano.  One is surprised that the learned professor could base his conclusion on the information found in Olauda’s baptismal certificate.  Any one familiar with the “American paper-work” something to just get-by with, would understand that it may not have been Olauda Equiano himself who would have suggested any American city as a place of his birth, but his sympathizers.  One would argue that Olauda Equiano’s God-mother or father may have just given “Louisiana” (because of Black population in Louisiana) as a birth place of Olauda during his baptism since no one knew at that time where Olauda came from, in Africa and even now.  Essaka became the key to know where Olauda came from in Africa because Olauda could not have been the actual native name of the then boy slave.  Olauda’s actual native name may never be known because it is usual for Europeans and westerners to change or adulterate an African native name with which they come in contact.  The practice appears deliberate because to this day many Blacks in Britain, the West Indies, and the Americas, just to mention but these few, do not know from where they came in Africa, for the simple reason that their native names were lost to the slave masters.  If the original names of the African slaves were left with them, Africans in the Diaspora today would have been able to return to their places of origins in Africa or at least know their roots.  Deliberate it appears of the practice to mutilate an African name because even today, many Americans still cannot or do not want to pronounce an African native name written in the same known alphabets no matter how simple and short the name is.  They can pronounce almost all other names foreign to them no matter how long and tongue twisting.  A native name in Africa speaks of his or her family, history and origins.  Our remedy of the nativity of Olauda is that this author has now established beyond doubt that Olauda Equiano was a native of Etsako in Edo Land in today Nigeria where he was kidnapped with his sister while children.

There are many Africans in many parts of Africa till today who know where they were born, but do not know when they were born, and this is because traditional Africans were not used to recording birth or death.  The reason for this probably could have been  their knowledge and belief in life here after which means that to them, life was continuous .  The idea of recording births migrated into Africa with colonial masters’ administration.  This was the beginning of Africans simply relying on the information contained in their Church baptismal certificates issued to them upon being baptized.  We are now able to emphatically say that information recorded by the priests or reverend fathers in those baptismal cards, (as they were known), are very inaccurate as they were fabricated.  We were one of such people until we found our true date and time of our birth not too long ago.  The Roman Catholic Reverend Father who baptized me claimed that I was 14 years old at the time he baptized me.  He based his conclusion on the number of teeth in my mouth at the time.  It was after the birth of our first two children we discovered that the reverend gentleman had fabricated a white lie which every one at that time had believed.   

As for me, and base on the analysis we have done, Olauda Equiano was born in Etsako in Africa, therefore a true son of the Motherland - Africa.  We may agree that Professor Carretta went to the British Museum where he stated that he found Olauda Equiano’s baptismal certificate.  We have not been to the British Museum and we do not think that we would ever go to the British Museum, for obvious reason; it is the place where all they looted from Africa are kept. From what we have read in Olauda Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, with his keen descriptive skills, the clever young man, Olauda was an Etsako son in Edo State of Nigeria.

Here is a short piece we wrote in one of our books “Etsako Traditional, Political and Social System, 2001,” with the hope that those who claim that Olauda Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African was an Igbo man would respond to it, but so far, we have not had a rejoinder.  May be some one would in the near future validate that our contestation in this analysis presented here has unraveled the truth in this matter.

Paul Edwards who read English Language and Literature at Durham University and Professor Chinua Achebe of Nigeria who was his informant and/or interpreter in his own edition of “The Life of Olauda Equiano” had agreed and stated that the birth place of this son of Etsako was Awka in Igbo land[4]. 

Olauda Equiano: Son of Etsako 

The abolition of slave trade began at the British Parliament in 1708, and finally ended in 1860.[5]  It was an ignoble trade that all those who were involved in it, the Europeans, Arabs, Americans, Italians, the Portuguese, and the Germans, etc. including some African chiefs, were guilty of.  There are probably still many of our people who may not be aware of what we are saying here pertaining to the slave trade.  It is therefore necessary to state briefly for the benefit of those who do not know what slave trade was.  In Etsako, a slave is “oghumha” and slaves mean “eghumha.”  Slave trade was a trade in human cargo; the buying and selling of the African people to Europeans, the British, Arabs, and the Americans who were coming to buy slaves to work in plantation farms in the Americas.  Historically, those who were sold as slaves were always members of an ethnic group who were defeated in inter and intra-ethnic wars that may have arose as a result of struggles, either for land, women, and or power between traditional rulers[6].  Some of the fighting or wars were instigated, enticed and encouraged by the English, American, and Arab merchants hunting for slaves.  Initially, captives in such wars were slaughtered by their captors[7].  As time went on, war captives were sold into slavery by their captors.

Such were the Nupe wars of about the 17th Century during which Etsako was usually raided for able-bodied young men and women, by the vandals from the Nupe ethnic group in the north central areas of today’s northern Nigeria.  The Nupes finally withdrew from the area in 1897 to resist the British attack in their homeland in the North[8].  Evidence of the unholy raids in Etsako is still found today in Idah, Benue, and other areas of north central, where Etsako people who were carried away to these places are today found with Etsako traditions and customary marks on the cheeks and faces.  The Nupe wars were a tragedy to the people of Etsako because Etsako lost very many able-bodied young men and women through the Nupe raids.  If this was the situation in Etsako with the Nupe warriors of the 14th century[9], is it possible that the young man, Olauda Equiano and his sister who were kidnapped were among the Etsako people, young men and girls, who were sold away into slavery?  One is asking this question, not because one wants to glorify the tragedy of the slave trade nor was one happy that Olauda Equiano and his sister were all sold away as slaves.  However, it is important to state, Etsako and this author are thankful to the Divine that Olauda Equiano survived the ordeal of the slave trade.  Equally, one is interested in putting things into their right perspectives.  A spade should be called a spade, and Jesus was quoted as saying that what is Caesar should be given to him, and to God what is His.  A recent story about the nativity of Olauda Equiano states that the man was from an Igbo society.  This is not true.

The point must be made that Etsako has being classified or regarded as a minority ethnic group in Nigeria based solely on the lack of opportunity.  Although, Etsako are clever, nationalistic and smart people, but, the people had not had the early opportunity to come in-contact with the Whiteman of the period within colonial time and immediately after independence, as did the Achebes.  It was the opportunity to travel out of Nigeria that brought the Achebes and some other notable Nigerians in contact with the Britons and the Americans who may have introduced the Achebes to an important and celebrated African former slave, Olauda Equiano who had become famous for his intelligence and writing skills. This could have been how Olauda Equiano became an Igbo man as soon as the Achebes were presented with the story by a Whiteman or woman.  Since it appears the Igbos were usually quick to identify with those who are winners, Olauda Equiano was not speared from becoming an Igbo as a winner of historical magnitude.  Rebuffing this seemingly a selfish idea of the Achebes, Ozodi Thomas Osuji, an Igbo, states:

“Olauda is probably one of the first Africans to write books and, as such, a very important man; so, seeing him as one of their own would seem to make Igbos feel special.  “See, the first African, or so, to write a book is an Igbo, so we, Igbos, must be special breed of human beings, we must be God’s elect, like the Jews[10].”

And Osuji concludes”

“(Many Igbos claim to be Jews, a claim, I believe is predicated on their desire for specialness. ….” “I said to me, these people like to take credit for the good, for that makes them seem good but do not like to take responsibility for the bad, for that would make them seem bad.”[11]    

As reported from Olauda’s “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olauda Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1789[12],” the man was a native of what is today called Nigeria.  This remains a fact, but what was in doubt, is what was been reported purportedly as the birthplace of Olauda Equiano.  According to Thomas Hodgkin, while foot-noting “EQUIANO.  Ibo Society in Mid-Century”, in a footnote “4” in his book, he states:

From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olauda Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, written by himself, London, 1789, pp. 3-25, according to his own account, Equiano (born c. 1745) was kidnapped from his home in Igbo land during a slave-raiding expedition in 1756: he was taken in a slave-ship to Virginia.[13]

However, relating Olauda Equiano’s interesting account as narrated by Olauda Equiano himself, Thomas Hodgkin writes:

That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along the coast above 3400 miles, from Senegal to Angola, and includes a variety of kingdoms.  Of these the most considerable is the kingdom of Benin, both as to extent and wealth, the richness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its king, and the number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants.  It is situated nearly under the line, and extends along the coast about 170 miles, but runs back into the interior part of Africa, to a distance hitherto I believe unexplored by any traveler; and seems only terminated at length by the empire of Abyssinia, near 1500 miles from its beginning.  This kingdom is divided into many provinces or districts: in one of the most remote and fertile of which I was born, in the year 1745, situated in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka.  The distance of this province from the capital of Benin and the sea coast must be very considerable; for I had never heard of white men or Europeans, not of the sea; and our subjection to the king of Benin was little more than nominal; for every transaction of the government, as far as my slender observation extended, was conducted by the chiefs or elders of the place.  ..........My father was one of those elders or chiefs I have spoken of, and was styled Embrenche; a term, as I remember, importing the highest distinction, and signifying in our language a mark of grandeur.  This mark is conferred on the person entitled to it, by cutting the skin across at the top of the forehead, and drawing it down to the eyebrows; etc[14]

In another publication in its web site, the British Library states:

 “Equiano tells us that he was born around the year 1745 in an area called ‘Eboe’ in Guinea.  Ibo (or Igbo) is one of main languages of present day Nigeria[15].”  However, I do not understand what this may seem to mean.  “Igbo” is one of many Nigerian languages just as Edo is one of the Nigerian languages spoken yesterday and today.  Etsako “Essaka” is of the Edo linguistic stock, and Edo or the Benin Empire or Kingdom extended throughout the Guinea coast in ancient period.  Etsako is in Edo and not in Igbo land.

Looking at the narrative by Olauda Equiano as stated by Hodgkin, and with my current knowledge of the areas described by Olauda Equiano in his narrative, combined by my intuitive and perceptive urges, I am compelled to question the integrity of the claim that Olauda Equiano was born in Louisiana, USA; and I question the audacity of the claim that Olauda was from Igbo-land, in other words, that this historical Giant is an Igbo-man.  A point must be made clear.  As an Africanist, I am proud to learn or hear that such a personality as Olauda has his origins in Nigeria, an African country.  However, it is necessary to record history as accurately as possible to enable a better understanding of the present, and most importantly History should not be politicized or prejudiced.  An Igbo is a Nigerian as well as a Yoruba or an Etsako or Hausa;` in other words, we are the same - Africans.  Nevertheless, we cannot be afraid of darkness to the extent that we have to put our food on the ground.  Etsako “eyo kha no ope ebi na rthe emi to oto.”  In other words, one should not because of fear fail to shed light on an important issue.  Olauda Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, could not be an Igbo man neither is he from Igbo society in Nigeria.  This contention is based on a number of facts as disclosed by the man himself, Olauda Equiano, in his Interesting Narrative.

First, the place of birth of Olauda Equiano, according to his Narratives written by Olauda himself and published in 1789, is “Essaka.”   It is my calculation that “Essaka” is Etsako because “Essaka,” from all indications is an Anglo Saxon corruption of Etsako.  Although, in the 1988 edition of “The Life of Olauda Equiano, edited by Paul Edwards, under the interpretative guidance of my learned friend, Professor Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, it is said that Essaka is a derivative of Awka. “Place names such as Ezi-Awka, still to be found in the area, might well have been Anglicised into Essaka,” (see Edwards, p. xx – xxiii). Ezi-Awka could not be anglicized to become Essaka.  Etsako is closest to Essaka, and this includes the descriptions of the area or place of birth as stated by Olauda in his Narratives.  The difference in the two words is the consonant “t” replaced by an “s.” This is because the Europeans or Americans cannot pronounce the “ts” as a consonant in Etsako language; instead therefore, the double “ss” is substituted for “ts”.  The same thing applies to the “a” at the end of “Essaka” instead of Etsako.  The “o” sound in most African vernacular sounds like the word “or” in English language. In African vernacular, the “o” sound is difficult for most Europeans and Americans to hear as well as it is hard for them to pronounce.  They are also unable to pronounce “Igbo” instead it is “Ibo” or “Eboe” as can be seen above.  For example, the British could not pronounce “Esan” or “Etsa;” instead, they pronounce “Ishan” for Esan or Etsa.  My name is another example of what I am trying to explain here.  Omoh is my first name.  Some people do not understand most African vowel and consonant sounds.  For an example, most Europeans and Americans will pronounce “Amar” or Omar” for “Omoh.”  There are other several consonants, such as “kp”, “kph”, “gb”, “gh”, “vh”, “gbh”, “vbh”, “mh”, “ny” and “nw”, just to mention but these few, which most Europeans, Americans and other foreigners to Africa are not able to pronounce.  Secondly, from my knowledge and the investigation I have conducted, there does not appeared to have been a place in Igbo land or around the area described in the Narratives, that is, and or was called Essaka.  Thirdly, in Igbo-land there was nothing like kingship worship nor did they believe in it because there was no king, the people were what can be regarded as African democrats which they actually are.  It is common knowledge in Nigeria that the British brought the concept of “warrant chief” during the colonial period to the land of Ndigbo.  Fourthly, the people of Igbo society were never warlike nor have they ever been described as angry people as the Binis in Edo Land.  In addition, the Igbo society was never under the ambit of the Benin Kingdom, in other words, the Igbo people were never as closed a subject of the Kingdom of Benin.

However, it is historically correct that many of those who today claim to be indigenous Igbo people were Benin migrants from Edo Kingdom to such places as Onitsha, Asaba, Imo State, Agbor, and some part of Anambra state. According to Olauda’s Narratives, “The distance of this province from the capital of Benin and the sea coast must be very considerable;” this description alone, by itself places the birth place of Olauda Equiano at Ekphei in Etsako Central Local Government area of the present Edo State.  Benin as a landmark in this description is significant due to Ekphei’s historical link with Benin City in Edo Land.  

Also, the customary “Embrenche” mark described in the Interesting Narratives of Olauda Equiano marches the distinguished mark that Etsako people put on the center forehead of the children of a king or children of a ruling house.  My father’s mark was there very prominent even as at the age of 100 years.

In view of these characteristics, as presented above, I beg to state without any equivocation whatsoever that Olauda was an Etsako man who survived the ordeals of the slave trade.  The British library might need to further investigate to allow it correct the misinformation currently contained in its archive on Olauda Equiano, which is considered to be a native of Etsako.  The young man was a victim of the Nupe raids of the 17th century.  My respected Professor Chinua Achebe should re-evaluate his interpretation and the nativity of Olauda Equiano.  

In the same vein, we should not defame the dead; Professor Vincent Carretta appear to have erred in his misjudgment and calculation on Olauda Equiano’s birth place, and we argue that Olauda Equiano was a free born of Etsako before he was kidnapped by  those who enslaved him.  He was not a native of Louisiana nor was he an Igbo man, but he was out of Africa.

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[1] Paul Edwards, (ed), “The Life of Olauda Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African,” (Written by himself), Longman, 1988, p. 99.

[2]  Thomas Hodgkin, “Nigerian Perspectives: An Historical Anthology, Oxford University Press, London, 1960, pp. 155-166.

[3] J. A. Rogers, “Sex and Race: Negroe-Caucasian Mixing in all Ages and All Land, Vol. 1, Helger M. Rogers, St. Petersburg, FL, p. 203. The depth of J. A. Rogers’ historical analyses compelled me to use his spelling for Vasa in stead of Vassa which is common to all; the two words appear to me as Etsako versus Ekassa, both could be right. 

[4] Edwards, Paul, “The Life of Olauda Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” (edited), Longman (1988), pp. xxii – xxiii.

[5].  Hallett, Robin, “Africa to 1875,” University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, (1970), p.186.

[6].  Ojior, Omoh Tsatsaku, “African and Africans in the Diaspora,” U.B. & U.S. Communication Systems, (1996), p. 17.

[7].  Ibid.  P. 14.

[8] British Intelligence Report, Ibid, p. 52.

[9] J.H. Blair, British Intelligence Report on Etsako Clans, 1935, pp. 1-53.

[10] Osuji, Ozodi Thomas, “Was Olauda Equiano Igbo?” , p.1.

[11]  Ibid.

[12]Brycchan Carey 2000- 2001, Olauda Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African,

[13] Thomas Hodgkin, Nigerian Perspectives, London Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 155.

[14] Ibid. 155-156.

[15], Olauda Equiano: A Critical Biography, 11/21/01 2:31 PM...


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