Early in The Interesting Narrative, Olaudah Equiano tries unsuccessfully to reject the name “Gustavus Vassa” and reclaim his former slave name, “Jacob” (64). This is no mere biographic detail; as Adam Potkay shows, Equiano often highlights “the potency of names” (682) as symbols of individual destiny. Vincent Carretta groups “Gustavus Vassa” with other “ironically inappropriate” names given to slaves “to emphasize their subjugation to their masters’ will” (41), but “Jacob” functions no less ironically. Whereas the historic Gustav Vasa liberated Sweden from Danish rule, Jacob, founding leader of a biblical nation, symbolizes predestined salvation in Calvinist biblical commentary. Equiano appropriates the name “Jacob” to support his religious-abolitionist ends. The name “Jacob” appears three times in The Interesting Narrative—in the context of renaming and in an allusion to Genesis 32 that summarizes Equiano's conversion experience: “It pleased God to enable me to wrestle with him, as Jacob did” (Equiano 63, 64, 189). But these scant references are embedded in a broader argument that ties antislavery to predestination in order to envision both earthly and divine salvation for the enslaved.
- Jacob and Esau
- Olaudah Equiano