This recent Guardian article details the growing numbers of converts to Judaism in Nigeria, though these Jews are currently not recognised as such by the state of Israel. It notes the history of accounts comparing the Biblical Hebrews with the Igbo people of what is now Nigeria, including The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, published in 1789 and pictured above–one of the first such suggestions of the Jewish ancestry of the Igbo. What led Equiano to compose this interesting Jewish narrative?
Equiano’s narrative is arguably the most prominent and read of slave autobiographies in the 18th century, a genre which expanded in the 19th century. Equiano’s narrative is to some readers a surprising one compared to 19th-century slave autobiographies: while it recounts his kidnapping in Africa, transportation in a slave ship across the Atlantic, and experiences as a slave before he is finally freed, much of it recounts his enforced service to his naval officer master. His enforced labour was not confined to a plantation in the Americas, but consisted of involvement in naval engagements and combat in 18th-century wars fought overseas–constituting a fascinating and complex maritime identity amidst the horrors of the slave trade, one of the topics explored in my new course on Ideas of the Sea and Seafaring: Intercultural Perspectives. As a naval slave, Equiano was forced into aqueous-cence to his watery, ship-bound condition.
After his enforced naval service, Equiano was sold to a sugar plantation owner in the British West Indies in 1762. Four years later, however, he managed to purchase his freedom. Two decades later, he published The Interesting Narrative, which ranges in genre from autobiography to anti-slavery tract and conversion narrative. In the early sections of the work, Equiano states that he was born a member of the Igbo nation. As Sylvester A. Johnson writes in a 2008 article, ‘Equiano alludes to similarities between Igbo religion and ancient Jewish religion such as taboos against touching corpses to avoid ritual contamination, civil adjudication based on lex talionis, and attention toward cleanliness through ritual washing’, suggesting that the Igbo are Jewish in ancestry. In other words, ‘descendants of the biblical Hebrew patriarchs eventually made their way to West Africa, producing the Igbo nation’. Their Igbo-minious origins are far from ignominious.
Why would it be important to trace Igbo ancestry to the ancient Hebrews? Traditionally, it was often supposed that the inhabitants of Africa were descended from Noah’s son Ham. Ham was cursed by Noah, and thus the black complexion of sub-Saharan Africans was commonly interpreted by European theologians as a sign of the Hamite curse. By tracing Igbo ancestry to the Biblical patriarchs, and to Abraham–not Ham–Equiano reinterpreted his nation as stemming from the chosen people. The practice of enslaving Africans such as the Igbo was thus a sin against God not just in terms of human equality but also in relation to the sacred narrative of God’s chosen people. Attempts to justify chattel slavery of Africans on Biblical grounds were, according to Equiano, not just wrong but Ham-fisted and Ham-handed.
Equiano’s strategy of tracing Igbo origins to Abraham was a morally fraught one. Although the Igbo may be descendants of the chosen people, Equiano himself was a fervent convert to Christianity and even sought to carry out missionary work in west Africa. African religion for Equiano, as Johnson points out, had traces of the Jewish religion but was nevertheless inferior to the religion of the Christian New Testament. Furthermore, Equiano’s father, he claimed, owned slaves in Africa; Equiano himself, Johnson writes, ‘worked as a plantation overseer and purchased slaves on behalf of one of his owners’; and the purchase of his freedom conceded his legal status as a chattel slave. Finally, Vincent Carretta argues in a 2005 book that Equiano may not have been of Igbo origin, but was instead born in the Carolinas. In other words, if this is correct, Equiano adopted the guise of a native Igbo in order to argue for his Jewish, non-Hamite ancestry. In these respects, his claims of Jewish ancestry may be rather less than Equiano-dyne.
Till next time,
Early Modern Equiannotation Studies Program