While in college, I read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African (1789) and did not make much of it. Recently, someone told me that Chinua Achebe, the famous Igbo writer, claimed that Olaudah is an Igbo. I asked him how Achebe came to this conclusion and he did not know. I thought about it for a while and thought that Achebe is probably full of it. Why?
Though I am an Igbo, I have a love-hate relationship with Igbos; I tend to be suspicious of whatever Igbos say. I had concluded that many, if not most, Igbos are motivated to seem very important persons. Given that desire, I said to me that they probably would like to take ownership of Olaudah because doing so would reinforce their delusion of specialness.
Olaudah 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 a special breed of human beings, we must be God’s elect, like the Jews.” (Many Igbos claim to be Jews, a claim, I believe, is predicated on their desire for specialness. To me, Igbos are Africans, not Jews.)
Furthermore, 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. Olaudah said that he was ten and half years old when he and his sister were kidnapped and sold into slavery (first to another African and later shipped overseas into American slavery). Who kidnapped him? Africans, right? And if he is Igbo, Igbos, kidnapped and sold him into slavery, right?
So, some Igbos were roaming around Alaigbo and kidnapping children and selling them into slavery? What does that make them, civilized persons or savages? Savages, of course.
Would Igbos take responsibility for their acts of savagery or would they, as other Africans do, merely blame the white man (interestingly they seldom blame Arabs) for slavery and not take any responsibility for the part they played in selling their people? Africans, for over a thousand years, sold their people to Arabs and beginning around 1500 A D sold their people to Europeans (and, apparently, took pride in doing so since the whole myth of Aro supremacy in Alaigbo was predicated on selling other Igbos into slavery).
If you are going to take praise for producing a literate Igbo, you must also take responsibility for selling that very Igbo.
Since I believed that most Igbos are not ready to accept blame for their crime against humanity in selling their people into slavery, I was not ready to give them the prestige they craved in seeing Olaudah as an Igbo.
Simply stated, given my apriori preconception and presupposition of who Igbos are, I dismissed the claim that Olaudah is Igbo. For all I know, Olaudah probably was not even born in Africa; he could have been born in North America (South Carolina, as some claim) and heard stories from recently arrived slaves from Africa talking about their home land, heard about a place called Essaka and a people called Eboe and employed those in his book. His narration of the middle passage could have been a made up story, conjectured from what he heard surviving slaves say about their coming to America. All said, I was not predisposed to believe that Olaudah Equiano is an Igbo.
That was where things stood until I gave the matter further thought. I reread the book. Reading the book, however, did not shade more light on the origin of Olaudah than I had formulated before. The book did not help me ascertain the veracity of Achebe’s claim or lack of it. Yet, the matter keeps exercising my mind.
In this paper, I make an argument that Olaudah is really Igbo. I do so not because of convincing evidence from the book or secondary sources but because of my understanding of Igbo psychology and how it played out in the Character called Olaudah.
Igbos are like all human beings and are individuals. Each individual has a personality that is unique to him. It is no use categorizing and or stereotyping all the persons from a specific group as this or that. Nevertheless, it is obvious that each human group tends to have a set of character traits that though common in all human beings is exaggerated in them. Those traits could be genetic or learned (whether they are genetic or learned is not our concern here).
Igbos, as a group, tend to be bold and assertive persons. Their culture has what is called “Iwa Anya”, to be bold.
Igbo children are encouraged to be bold and assertive; thus, it came to pass that most Igbos learn to be bold.
Here is an example of how Igbos are encouraged to be bold. Say, a young man is shy and afraid to talk to women lest he is rejected by them, the elders would say to him: “Owu manu na ara ebele otu?” (Is it not a human being that has sex with the most gorgeous woman, and, if so, are you not a human being; and since you are a human being, you go try to have sex with that gorgeous woman.)
Every Igbo person is encouraged to aim at the best of whatever is in his world and to go after it courageously. If a human being can do something there is no reason why one cannot do it; Igbos do not accept excuses from people; they ask people to go do it, do it, now, and don’t just talk about it.
Igbo culture accepts only those who are bold and rejects those perceived to be cowardly, weaklings.
In looking at the character of Olaudah one concludes that he exhibits that uncommon gutsiness found in Igbos. I believe that only an Igbo slave could have been as bold as Olaudah was.
Olaudah said that he came from Eboe. If you think about it, when he wrote his book, 1789, there were no written books in Igbo. I doubt that Igbos had learned to write at that time.
There was no Igbo orthography on how to spell Igbo words. Thus, Olaudah spelled Igbo the way it sounds, which, believe it or not, is Eboe (in Igbo the vowels e and i sound alike.).
I asked my American born and socialized daughter to spell Igbo for me and she spelled it Ebo, based on how she heard me pronounce it.
It should also be noted that English men spelt Igbo Ibo because they could not pronounce the gb (tonal) sound.
Olaudah said that he is from a town called Essaka or Issaka. No one has confirmed the existence of such a town in Alaigbo.
We must remember that he was born around 1745 and according to him was kidnapped when he was only ten and half hears old. The typical ten years old may not know how to spell his town (some may not even know what their towns are called).
Moreover, since there was no written Igbo at that time, what he spelled as Essaka could be Eziaka (good hand, and I am sure that there are Igbo villages by that name…in my town of Umuohiagu we have a village called Eziala).
ARGUMENTS AGAINST OLAUDAH BEEN AN IGBO
What are the possible arguments militating against Olaudah been Igbo? He wrote in excellent English. How could an African slave, a first generation Westerner, write in such excellent prose while many of us who have spent considerable amount of time in the West can not write that well? He appears to have written as if English is his first language? His sentence structure does not reflect West African grammatical structure? (In Igbo adjectives come after what they describe whereas in English they come before what they describe and this causes problems in transposing Igbo into English. Consider: “Obi na ulu ukwu” He lives in a big house. Ukwu, big, is the adjective, and it came after the noun, house, whereas in English it would come before the noun, house.)
He was sold at a very young age, ten. Some persons actually start school at that age, so, he had enough time to learn to speak English.
Because of his small size he was deemed not strong enough to work in the fields and was spared the brute existence of the field nigger and, instead, given the life of the house nigger. The house nigger served his masters in-house and was generally taught manners by the people of the house. House Niggers tended to be more cultured than field niggers (it amounts to today’s factory workers versus office workers; generally, office workers tend to be more civil than factory stiffs).
Olaudah was lucky in the fact that one of his masters was a sea captain. The captain took him around the world as he travelled from one port to another and even had him around during the seven years war between England and France. This traveling around exposed him to life at many places: Barbados; Savannah, Georgia; Virginia, USA; he even accompanied his master to the Arctic region, and, finally, London England. Exposure to different countries tends to broaden folk’s horizon and make them cosmopolitan, urbane, as was apparent in Olaudah.
His sea captain master eventually sold him and since he could read and write was bought by a trader who used him to keep books. He was taught trading. Ultimately, he was allowed to trade on his own right (Igbos are good traders) and acquired enough money to pay off the money his master paid for him and was given his freedom.
To avoid re-enslavement in the Americas he was smart enough to leave and went to England.
In England he joined forces with the abolitionists and became their star speaker on the ordeals of slaves. Indeed, he was planned to be sent to Freetown, Sierra Leon, the freed slave colony to work with the freed slaves and somehow did not make it.
Writing his book gave him some reasonable income to become independent. He was married to an English woman and had two daughters, one of whom survived childhood and was married to a pastor. (Did they have children; are there descendants of this man that we could test their DNA to ascertain his origin?) Apparently, he died early, at age fifty two and was buried in an unmarked grave. (If we knew where he was buried, perhaps, we could do a DNA test on the ruminants of his body and settle the question of his origin once and for all).
The materials written by some Igbos on this man’s origin are not persuasive; in fact, some of them are silly. Consider Catherine Acholonu’s book. She claimed to have interviewed Igbos who knew Olaudah. This was in the 1980s, two hundred years after Olaudah’s death. People do not live two hundred years. If Olaudah died at fifty two in England, where folk probably ate considerably better than they ate in “Eboeland”; those in the “Eboeland” of Olaudah’s time probably did not live to be forty considering that the life span of today’s Nigerians is forty three!
Let us say that there has not been a rational argument proving that Olaudah was an Igbo. I believe that what we can do is make educated guesses, inferences about his nationality by studying his character traits.
Since I have made it my business to understand the Igbo character, I offer the argument that his character argues that he was Igbo.
THE IGBO CHARACTER STRUCTURE AND OLAUDAH
Every human being has a personality. Personality is the individual’s habitual pattern of responding to his social and physical environment.
Many factors go into the formation of personality, including inherited biological factors and social factors.
Each society, at the macro (society wide) and micro (family) level has accepted norms and socializes its people to behaving accordingly. Society generally approves children to the extent that they behave as they are expected to behave. Thus, it comes to pass that people from specific societies tend to have common personality traits.
People come into the world with inherited biological constitutions. People have different genetic structures. People’s genes play a role in the development of their personalities.
As George Kelly pointed out, children seem to take their inherited body and social experiences and combine them to form personalities for them. Each child, by age six, and certainly by adolescence, has formed a personality for himself.
Most children, like most adults, have normal personalities. Generally, a handful of children and adults have personality disorders.
Personality disorders occur when the individual’s habitual pattern of relating to his environment generates conflict for him and for those around him. For example, if the individual is always suspicious of other persons’ motives and does not trust them, whereas this trait exists in just about all people it has becomes a disorder in him. All people seek existential importance but if the individual is over interested in seeming important he has developed a personality disorder.
Psychiatry has ten personality disorders: paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, anti-social, avoidant, and obsessive compulsive, dependent and passive aggressive.
Each human being has some aspects of these personality disorders but some persons have them in excess hence are said to have personality disorders.
Persons with personality disorders are otherwise normal and hold down jobs and have families but they have conflicts with those around them.
My observation shows me that many Igbos tend to have traits of narcissism and paranoia. These observations are really not new. Colonial officials, from Lord Frederick Lugard to district officers, made similar observations and if you have eyes to see you probably have made similar observation. (See Lord Lugard, The Dual Mandate.)
All human beings have some narcissism and paranoia; I doubt that a person can be alive without healthy narcissism and paranoia, the problem ensues when they are exaggerated in the individual.
The narcissistic personality believes that he is special and, as such, ought to be admired by other people. He fancies himself the elect of the gods, as if he is specially created to be different and superior to other people and, as such, deserving other people’s attention and admiration. He tends to work very hard and attain a measure of wealth and social position but he does so with an eye to getting other people to admire him. In some cases, narcissistic persons tend to fancy themselves so special that they feel justified in behaving like antisocial personalities, that is, they have less social conscience and rationalize exploiting other people, they use people to get what they want and then discard them and not feel guilty or remorseful The synonyms for these behaviors is pride, vanity, haughty, arrogance, boastful full and braggadocio etc.
Please evaluate the Igbos that you know and see if many of them do not fit these descriptions. Particularly pay attention to Igbos delusional belief that they are superior to other Nigerians even though there is no iota of evidence that one human being is superior to other human beings; finally, consider their self given right to put other Nigerians down and feel that Nigerians should accept been insulted and not feel angry and attack them (human beings want to feel up and if you put them down they tend to feel angry at you and some could attack you, as folk attack Igbos who put them down).
The paranoid personality feels that he is very important but deep down feels inadequate. He suspects that other people see through his mask of importance and know that beneath that mask of superiority he feels inadequate. He fears been seen as inadequate and demeaned. He closely watches people’s behaviors and if he thinks that he is being demeaned, belittled, humiliated, degraded, disgraced, criticized etc he feels angry. His anger is saying, as it were: how dare you see him as not the grandiose god he wants to be seen as. He does not trust other people and generally is guarded and suspicious. (I am talking about normal-neurotic paranoia; there are psychotic levels of paranoia, such as in delusional disorder and schizophrenia paranoid type; I am not talking about these more serious types of paranoia.)
Please examine the Igbos that you know and see if many of them do not have paranoid traits. Especially see if they do not do what makes other people angry at them. If the individual sees himself as superior to other people and on that arrogant basis puts other people down he is often resented for he has, in effect, attacked people psychologically, which is as painful as physical attack. Since he attacked them and inflicted pain on them they feel defensive and defend against him and may physically attack and even kill him (as Igbos tend to be attacked and killed by those they insult every day of their lives, Hausas).
The paranoid person stimulates attack on him and turns around and sees himself as innocent, as a victim and sees those who attacked him as victimizers and blames them for what they did. Nothing is ever his fault, it is always others fault. He wants to be seen by other people as a perfect person even though his behavior shows him as like the rest of humanity, imperfect. Is this not the habitual behavior of many Igbos?
I will leave it to you to decide whether the Igbos you know do not exhibit the traits that I just described, traits found in all human beings (all people must admire themselves and feel special, unique, to do what life calls on us to do to survive; one must like ones self to work to earn the means of survival; all people must sometimes distrust other people for you never know what is up the sleeves in other persons, they can harm, even kill you; it is when those traits are exaggerated in the individual that they become problematic).
If you agree that these traits are found in many Igbos at a higher level, then evaluate the character of Olaudah as was conveyed in his book. To me, he came across as bold, manipulative and suspicious, a man with narcissistic and paranoid traits. I submit that since these two character structures are more likely to be found in Igbos that Olaudah was an Igbo.
From the assessment of his personality, I reach the conclusion that Olaudah was probably an Igbo man. Evaluating the book itself one cannot definitively conclude that the man was an Igbo. In fact, one can dismiss the book as a work of fiction, a novel by a clever North American slave?
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
June 8, 2008