Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt, eds. The Letters of Ignatius Sancho (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994). Pp. 288.
At last when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready . . . and we were all put under deck. . . . The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspiration, so that the air soon became unfit to respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells and brought on sickness among the slaves of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of the purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains now become insupportable; and the necessary tubs into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. (Carretta, 204-5)
The words of this metaphoric descent into death and hell are those of Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa), a former slave, recalling, in his best selling eighteenth century autobiography: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written By Himself , his experience of being placed in the slave ship's hold in preparation for his journey from Africa through the "Middle Passage," the gateway to western slavery. In the end, what amazes is not the cacophony and endemic stench of death of this "almost inconceivable" "scene of horror," nor even Equiano's survival, along with thousands of fellow slaves who crossed the Atlantic to be "seasoned" and commodified, bought and sold in the slave economy of the West Indies and the Americas. [End Page 239]
Most remarkable is what is evidenced by the four texts reviewed below. In the process of successfully recording their experiences and quest for identity and freedom in a world that, ironically, labeled them incapable of intellectual development--as the most significant ideological and philosophical guides of the Enlightenment relegated African Blacks to the bottom rung of some "Great Chain of Being"--Equiano and his former fellow captives also succeeded in constructing a credible and valuable foundation for a Black Literary Tradition, Afro-British and African-American literatures, despite their status or marginalization, and despite the subsequent historical denial or devaluation of their significance to Western literature.
In Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr focus on the works of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano. The first American edition of Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself (1791) is the centerpiece of Robert J. Allison's work. To this list, Vincent Carretta, in Unchained Voices: Anthology of Black Authors in the English Speaking World of the 18th Century appends fourteen names of Black British and American writers, including Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, Francis Williams, Johnson Green, Belinda, George Liele, David George, Boston King, Venture Smith, and Ignatius Sancho (whose letters are collected and edited by Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt in The Letters of Ignatius Sancho ). Compositely, the narratives, letters, poems, sermons and essays record and celebrate, for the most part, the writers' inevitable struggle for agency, identity, unity, and wholeness during the Age of Reason.
The compiler/editors seek to unravel, as Potkay and Burr note, "a vivid sense of the various contexts necessary for understanding the stories of [the writers'] lives" (ix, emphasis added). Directly and indirectly, each editor examines the relationship between the Black Literary Tradition and the more familiar Western, i.e. British and American, literary traditions. The subtitle of Potkay and Burr's work, Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas , clearly alludes to the well established paradigm of the mission driven Old England Puritans journeying across the Atlantic to fulfill their errand into the wilderness of constructing a heavenly city on earth, a "city upon a hill." The voices of these more (in)visible fallen sons of Ham, Black reluctant slave voyagers, are resurrected to revise the boundaries of this paradigm, and provide a more "panoramic view of the eighteenth-century world" they inhabited (ix).
The Black Atlantic writers inscribe as well the exodus theme: "freedom from the land of enslavement and pilgrimage through the wilderness" (Potkay and Burr, 10). Free born American Marrant is an incessant wayfarer, traveling from the American South and Nova Scotia to London, and ordination at Bath. This roaming reveals, argue Potkay and Burr, that Marrant's "destiny lies in no settled home," much like his counterpart African former slaves. Marrant's narrative, they conclude, "is a biblically inspired life of wonders, a new exodus through the New World" (11). Equiano's claim that the manners and customs of his Igbo community parallel those of the lost tribe of Judah offers, the editors conclude, "the most moving engagement with the narrative pattern of the exodus" (11).
Thus, for four editors, a central organizing issue is the spiritual lives of the writers, evidenced by the recurrence of Christian themes and tropes, particularly those related to the spiritual autobiography and its emphasis on conversion. (The exception is Smith's irony rich dictated "narrative.") For the most part, each writer records a life that moves through a distinct pattern of unregenerate, converted, and regenerated self; from physical and spiritual bondage to freedom and redemption. Equiano's momentous conversion is exemplary: "the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with his bright beams of heavenly light; and in an instant as it were, removing the veil, and letting light into a dark place, I saw clearly with the eyes of faith" (265).
Directly related to the prevailing Christian tropes is each writer's record of indirect or personal contact with the evangelical field preacher Reverend George Whitefield. While Equiano claims to have heard him preach in Philadelphia (this is doubtful), Marrant serves on his proselytizing team, and Wheatley eulogizes him in a poem. Allison discusses the significance of [End Page 240] the evangelical voices of the "Great Awakening" and their relationship to the British Abolitionist Movement, in which several of the writers played meaningful roles. In fact, the editors corroborate Equiano's significant role in this movement. Allison correctly notes that Equiano's maritime life allowed him to "link the world of American antislavery with the simultaneous British movement" (10). However, he also demonstrates through his treatment of Reverend Whitefield, whose Bethesda Orphanage in Georgia benefited from slave labor, that not all evangelical Christians, despite their religious pronouncements, opposed slavery. Allison indictingly writes: "Whitefield's complicity in slavery shows how powerful, how lucrative and how widespread slavery was in the eighteenth century" (6).
Particularly significant are the resonances of Christian hermeneutics debated during the eighteen century that get played out in the selected texts. The editors provide lengthy discussions about the benefits gained by the writers through membership, as Methodists, in the Church of England. For Potkay and Burr, membership meant a way of becoming English. For Carretta, "conversion to Christianity merited emancipation from slavery" (8). Concomitant to the Black's conversion, then, was the Methodist's opposition to slavery and specifically the concept of "new birth" promulgated by Whitefield and "the original Methodist," John Wesley (Potkay and Burr, 5). "Methodists were eager to unite all races and classes of people, and all denominations of Christians, in an experience of the new birth in Jesus Christ," write Potkay and Burr. The Methodists, argues Carretta, "took religion to the people, rather than waiting for the people to come to church, and they saw all levels of society, including slaves, as having a potential share in salvation" (8).
Consequently, Methodism's openness to blacks gives the former bondsmen a meaningful community of dignity and even status. It was an avenue to literacy, given its emphasis on the importance of direct knowledge of the Bible. It succeeded in providing Blacks with voice, allowing them, in their personal narratives, to validate and directly participate in extant scriptural and theological debates about such cardinal issues as "free will" and salvation--a debate grounded in the Calvinist world view of the Reformation. Potkay and Burr write: "The basic drama we find in the spiritual lives of Gronniosaw, Marrant, and Equiano--uncertain despair, quickening, and regeneration--reflect not only Whitefield's influence, but that of the Puritan's world of letters that Whitefield inherited . . . These narratives of 'surprising conversion' . . . all tend to express a Calvinist world view of the election and grace; of saints and sinners, of the just workings of providence through human misery and delight" (8). Hence is clearly established the direct relationship between the Black writers and the Calvinist evangelicals and colonialists settlers, whose "errand into the wilderness" resulted in the transportation of the British literary tradition to the "New World," where the foundation for an American literary tradition was laid.
The indisputable link between the Black writers and the more mainstream body of literature is argued by Vincent Carretta, whose Unchained Voices is the most challenging and exhaustive, both in quality and quantity of research, presentation, scope, and premise of the four texts. Subtitling his work, An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the 18th Century , Carretta seeks to validate what for him is an unbroken link of unshackled black literary voices, shouting for "liberation from either physical or spiritual captivity or both," in Britain and her North American colonies. He challengingly argues that "all African or Creole Black authors (Phillis Wheatley and Briton Hammon, for examples) publishing in North America before the official separation of the thirteenth colonies from Britain in 1783 [must be viewed as] Afro-British writers , though several, including Wheatley, Belinda, Johnson Green, Benjamin Banneker, and Venture Smith, accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the new status of being African Americans" (1, emphasis added).
Needless to say, for Carretta, Equiano's complex narrative offers the best support for his basic premise and arguments. He uses the 1794 edition of The Interesting Narrative of the Life , the final edition edited and corrected by Equiano before his death. Carretta includes three hundred and thirty three footnotes (half the number that appear in his Penguin Classic Edition), through which he leaves no stones unturned to give insight into Equiano's [End Page 241] socio-economic, political, religious, maritime, etc., worlds. His notes offer definitions, explanations, identifications of specific names of historical events, places and people, public records office files, biblical and literary passages invoked by Equiano, and significant corrections made by the author before his death. Through this perspective, Carretta argues that during the eighteenth century, slavery was a more global, human experience. Equiano, Sancho, and others become significant Afro-Britons whose voices must be added to world and human history, in which slavery was a way of life, more the rule than the exception. Equiano, Carretta reminds us, "comments on the brutal treatment of White galley slaves in Italy" (3).
According to Carretta, the eighteenth century slave responded to a slavery that was more an economic institution than a moral problem. In fact, Carretta argues that there is a significant difference in the paradigms employed in the works of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Blacks. Whereas the latter created a more monolithic model based on the relationship between the creolized Black slave and White owners (for example Frederick Douglas' work would fit this model), the former "presents a more varied picture" (1). Unlike the more acculturated American born slave, the native African complicitly sold into slavery perceived freedom as "a memory of the recent past, rather than a dream of a distant future" (2). Carretta writes, "the initial basis of African slavery was predominantly financial rather than racial" (2). However, this does not mean Equiano and his friends, such as Sancho and Cugoano, did not overtly or indirectly challenge slavery. Whereas Cugoano's Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of Slavery . . . (1787) is the "most overt challenge to slavery" (11), Equiano's Interesting Narrative "was structured as a petition against the [slave] trade" (11), argues Carretta. In the end what remains true and important to Carretta is that "By 1789 a recognized tradition of Afro-British authors had been established, with new writers aware of the works of their predecessors." Confirmation of Carretta's premise is offered in part by the vast number of books published in London by British subjects, including Phillis Wheatley, whose Poems on Various Subjects ( 1773) was the first collection of poems published by a slave. Wheatley traveled from Boston to London, where she enjoyed status as a celebrity, although she was still legally owned property. Carretta maintains that "England was obviously a far more receptive environment than North America for Afro-British writers" (12).
Published posthumously and by subscription, The Letters of Ignatius Sancho (1782) supports Carretta's contention. In their Introduction to their edition of Sancho's letters, Edwards and Rewt identify the collection as one of two "exceptional" works published during the eighteenth century by an Afro-Briton. (Equiano's Interesting Narrative , also published by subscription, is the other.) Sancho's early life of "privilege," at least when contrasted to Equiano's decade of bondage, readily paved the way for his assimilation into eighteenth-century British society. Born on board a slave ship, Sancho did not have the memory of traditional African life that Equiano retrospectively reviews "with pleasure." A domestic from childhood, Sancho became a protégé of the 2nd Duke of Montagu which gave him entrance into polite English society as "an amateur of literature, music, and painting" (6). He was a friend of the novelist Sterne and the actor Garrick. To his grocery shop in London's fashionable Mayfair, came London's literati, many of whom considered him "a great judge of literary performances." In this role, he is anything but passive, as this following comment confirms. "From dress-scenery-action-and the rest of playhouse garniture-it may show well and go down-like insipid fish with good sauce" (Letter 41, 90).
Sancho's letters reveal him to be both a direct witness to and participant in every aspect of eighteenth-century British social, political, religious life, like many of the Black writers featured in the projects under discussion here. In fact, as Edwards and Rewt point out, one letter, in particular, shows Sancho to be "a conservative patriotic Englishman troubled by the decline of English power" (9). Sancho writes:
Admiral Barrington is arrived from the West India station-and brings the pleasant news. D'Estaing fell in with five of our ships of the line-with the best part of the fleet. We fought like Englishmen, unsupported [End Page 242] by the rest . . . and at last gave the French enough of it . . . but the consequence was, the immediate capture of the Grenadas . . . Lord S[sandwich] has gone to Portsmouth to be a witness of England's disgrace--and his own shame. In faith, my friend, the present time is rather comique--Ireland almost in as true a state of rebellion as America-Admirals quarreling in the West-Indies-and at home Admirals that do not choose to fight-The British Empire mouldering away in the West, annihilated in the North-Gibraltar going-and England fast asleep. (Letter 105, 186).
His political voice, if not influence, is detectable in his endorsement of Charles Bunbury, MP for Suffolk, in 1780. "I hope Sir Charles Bunbury meets with no opposition--he is so worthy a character that, should he be ill supported, it would impeach the good sense and honesty of his constituents" (Letter 147, 249). Sancho is a veritable news reporter, historian and social commentator, as revealed in this letter to John Spink, describing the Gordon Riots in 1780. "There is at this present moment at least a hundred thousand poor, miserable, ragged rabble . . . all parading the street-the bridge-the Park-ready for any and every mischief" (Letter 134, 231). His solid commitment to the British monarchy is registered when he confides in another letter: "I am pleased with the Tunbridgians for their respectful loyalty-on his Royal Highness's birth-day;-it is too much the fashion to treat the Royal Family with disrespect." (Letter 24, 70-71).
Despite this visible conservatism, Sancho was not afraid to speak out against slavery, although not with the most intrepid voice, as he does in a letter to Sterne. "Consider slavery-what it is-how bitter a draught-and how many have been made to drink it! . . . I think you will forgive me;- I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half-hour's attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.- That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many--but if only one--Gracious God!--what a feast to a benevolent heart" (Letter 36, 85-86)! To Soubise, certainly one of the more pampered and privileged Blacks of the eighteenth century, Sancho writes: "Happy, happy lad! what a fortune is thine!-Look around upon the miserable fate of almost all our unfortunate colour, superadded to ignorance,-see slavery and the contempt of those very wretches who roll in affluence from our labour" (Letter 14, 56). Perhaps more important than any of these topics, however, is the recurring references and love he has for his children, the "Sanchonets," as he called them, and his beautiful West Indian wife, Anne. "She is the treasure of my soul," he confesses in one his letters.
One cannot help but see in the publication of Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century and Unchained Voices, An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century , as well as the republication of several new editions of Equiano's Interesting Narrative and The Letters of Ignatius Sancho the success and fruits of Paul Edwards' lifetime labor. His current work on Sancho, published posthumously, and a host of essays, specifically on Equiano, make Edwards, as David Dabydeen reminds us, the true pioneer of "the study of Black British writing, working diligently on neglected texts with no personal profit to his academic career." His effort was indeed to use these black texts, particularly the slave narrative "as weapons against academic consideration," against "the white academic establishment in Britain and America."
These works also revisit, revise, and enlarge such earlier works as Folarin Shyllon's Black People in Britain 1555-1833 , Angelo Costanzo's Surprising Narrative, Keith Sandiford's Measuring the Moments , William L. Andrews' To Tell A Free Story , Henry L. Gates and Charles Davis' The Slave Narrative , and Anthony Appiah's In My Father's House . Moreover they complement and support Paul Gilroy's more recently published work: The Black Atlantic, Modernity and Double Consciousness , in which he provocatively advances: "I want to develop the suggestion that cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective" (15). [End Page 243]
A clear immediate benefit of this perspective is the solid return gained by applying rigorous critical analysis and solid scholarly study to these long neglected works. Long established "truths" that have prevailed as "facts" can be directly questioned and debunked. For example, particularly challenging is the editors' bold endorsement and acknowledgment that Christian conversion did not necessarily mean the obliteration of the African identity that remains sacred to many of the Afro-British writers, particularly Equiano and Cugoano. Bold, too, is the recognition and acknowledgment, specifically by Potkay, Burr, and Allison, that there might be some connection between what Carretta calls "pagan beliefs" and practices, such as the ecstatic soul possession, and Christian practices, such as the conversion experience. Potkay and Burr conclude: "Surely it was evangelism that gave these Africans an English voice; but, conversely, these voices gave evangelism a new resonance, by making it clear each Christian self is rooted in cultural pasts that cannot and ought not be forgotten " (3, emphasis added). Stated differently, the editors clearly validate the significance and legacy of Equiano's recollection of a "nation of dancers, musicians, and poets" (189), the primordial world of "freedom" which he and the other African born Afro-British writers did not leave completely aborted in the wastetubs described in the passage with which I began this review. This contention is significant. It complicates the far too long debated question of the degree of cultural bifurcation experienced by the Black Atlantics.
However, as should be expected, far more questions will be raised than answered by these works at this juncture of the game. For example, what are the consequences of the more global focus endorsed by these writers and Gilroy? What is lost with the shift from considering the centrality of "race" to viewing slavery as basically an economic system at its core? When it comes to Black slavery, is the dichotomy between race and economics as clearly marked as Carretta suggests? Is Carretta standing on firm ground when he argues: "Nor did Britons believe that to be Black necessarily meant that one was suited for slavery. Social status could supersede race as a defining category" (3)? Indeed, in their rush to validate their arguments of resonance in the black writers' texts and other pivotal writings and ideas of the eighteenth century Potkay, Burr, Allison and Carretta slight, to some degree, the overwhelming and indelible role "race" and writing "race" played in the eighteenth century ennui known by these writers. Gates has correctly reminded us that, during this period, to write "race" was to invoke a trope of "irreducible difference between cultures, linguistic groups, or adherents of specific belief systems" (3). Carretta's discussion of Equiano's British identity supports this argument and points to the dilemma. "Equiano asserts his identity as a Briton more fully than any of his predecessors. African by birth, he is British by acculturation and choice. He can, of course, never be English, in the ethnic sense in which that word was used during the period, as his White wife is English" (9). One wonders, too, if their biracial children were ethnically English? Perhaps closer to the truth is what Anthony J. Parker offers in The African Link: British Attitudes to the Negro in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1550-1807 . Often the status and respect according certain Blacks was due to fraud and romantic idealization. In discussing the benevolent treatment experienced by the likes of Behn's Oronokoo, Parker maintains: "implicit in their privileged treatment was the certainty that such men were foreign visitors neither wishing nor expected to be integrated into British society" (27). This suggests that not even social status could supersede race, as Carretta maintains.
Sufficient evidence that race was the sine qua non of eighteenth-century life is found in Sancho's letters alone. Although Edwards and Rewt confirm the respectability accorded Sancho by the White literati that frequent Sancho's shop, they also provide a letter by George Cumberland in which, despite the adulation, Sancho is still identified by race: as "a Black man" (3). Sancho, recognizing that race matters, described the "unfortunate colour" of his enslaved brothers when writing to another, privileged black, Soubise. In an oft misinterpreted statement, Wheatley chides: "Remember, Christian, Negroes, black as Cain/May be refin'd, and join th'angelic train" (Carretta, 62). The globalization of the Black Atlantic experience obscures the subtle ways in which their marginalization--due directly to race and despite membership in the Church of England, political platforms from which they spoke, and varying degree of economic success--forced the writers to adopt veiled or duplicitous voices to manipulate and revise prevailing paradigms such as the ones [End Page 244] disputed by Jekyll in his introduction to the original publication of Sancho's letters. Jekyll wrote: "he who surveys the extent of intellect to which Ignatius Sancho had attained by self-education, will perhaps conclude, that the perfection of the reasoning faculties does not depend on a peculiar conformation of the skull or the colour of a common integuments" (Edwards and Rewt, 25).
Despite the admirable endorsement of the strong possibility of retention of traditional Africanism in the lived experiences of the Afro-British and African-American writers of the eighteenth century, the editors raise more questions than provide answers here as well. Fundamentally, true acculturation did not take place when one considers the editors' models. Africans seem to take more from England than they bring from Africa. That there is much to be taken from Africa is argued by Jekyll in his introduction to Sancho's letters. "He who could penetrate the interior of Africa, might not improbably discover negro [ sic ] arts and polity, which could bear little analogy to the ignorance and grossness of slaves in the sugar-islands, expatriated in infancy, and brutalized under the whip and the task master" (Edwards and Rewt, 25). The best example is offered by their use of the conversion trope. One must ask, did the Afro-British writers, and specifically Equiano, merely borrow the prevailing trope and structure of unregenerate and regenerated selves provided by Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress ? Perhaps more important, if they borrowed but revised them in any way, do they bring to bear on their revision any relevant, more African grounded tropes or paradigms--such as the use of a more duplicitous voice?
To demonstrate further, for example, one may correctly argue that Equiano's central metaphor of self is that of the "African warrior," a role he reminds us he had been trained since childhood to assume. Even the meaning of his given traditional name: "one who speaks with a loud voice," indicates this destiny. As his narrative reveals, Equiano accepts and gallantly plays this role, creating the most important anecdote of his narrative around it. Given the centrality of this metaphor, one suspects that any valid discussion about Equiano's attraction to Christianity, Methodism, and evangelism, and eventual conversion would benefit from some discussion of how this central metaphor of self directly or indirectly impacts his discourse and text.
Allison's willingness to not represent extirpation as truncation, particularly when dealing with economic issues, adds to the strength of his work. We find this in his brief discussion of the marketplace activities in Equiano's Igbo village market, where direct and indirect contact with a European commercial world took place. Certainly, Essaka, Equiano's home, could not have existed without its own market economy. Victor Uchendu notes that the Igbo had "a long history" of trading. Uchendu also notes that the trading marketplace which occupied particular days of the week "is an important social center with economic and noneconomic functions" (22-23) among the Igbos. The implication of this is integral to any serious discussion of Equiano's entrepreneurial activities (the consequence of what I like to call his secular conversion) while still a slave, his participation in Britain's commercial world, and his proposal at the end of his narrative for active commercial exchange between African and British marketplaces.
Ironically, Allison is not as generous in his discussion of Equiano's identity, the only factor which clearly involves truncation and bifurcation, as he sees Equiano as a straddler of two worlds: Africa and Europe. Despite his suggestion that Equiano's two names are coterminous, he concludes that after years of slavery and life as a free man Equiano's "identity as an African [had to be] forced upon him." Nothing in the narrative bears this out, not even the anecdote involving the youth of Equiano's age who greets Equiano "as if [he] had been his brother" (4). From the frontispiece and title page, to the final pages of his narrative, Equiano never fails to remind us that he is Olaudah Equiano, the African. This raises the question as well of whether or not one can transfer to Equiano DuBois' trope of "double consciousness," which he clearly defined as " two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body " (emphasis added).
These are questions that must be addressed in future projects, questions that surface as a result of the contributions made by Potkay, Burr, Allison, Carretta, Rewt, and above all Paul Edwards. In the end, the larger project is geared towards not only opening up the canon [End Page 245] but also showing the benefits of doing so. It is a (re)constructive process, beneficial to the canonical, not a destructive one. The curriculum is broader, deeper and richer. Potkay, Burr, Allison, Carretta, and Edwards add new longitudes and latitudes to the prevailing critical map to discover and inscribe a space of greater resonance--of similarity if not genuine inclusivity, while simultaneously providing insights into the inferiority and complexity of the world and lives of these writers. The result is clearly meaningful intellectual adventure, as Toni Morrison suggests, not conquest.
Wilfred D. Samuels,
University of Utah