I’ll never forget my first black history month. In year eight whilst learning about the transatlantic slave trade, our teacher introduced us to Olaudah Equiano. Describing him as the incredible Igbo-African man who bought his freedom, travelled worldwide, and contributed to the abolitionist movement to end slavery. Although the Equiano narrative made me feel proud, I couldn’t help but wonder why his name did not sound like a typical Igbo name. After all, there is no q in the Igbo alphabet.
Of course, now I know there are many reasons why the spelling and pronunciation of his name didn’t follow the patterns I was used to seeing.
1) It was highly likely his name was adapted to suit English pronunciation. Equiano was a child when he was removed from his culture, so after many years of immersion into the English language, this might have affected the pronunciation of his name.
2) He was alive well before the Latin script-based alphabet was established for Igbo. So there would have been no conventional way to spell his name.
How is Oluadah Equiano’s name spelt in standard Igbo and what does it mean?
No concrete conclusion has been made regarding his name’s Igbo spelling and pronunciation. Some have suggested Olaedo Ikwuano or Ekwuano. x But what does this mean?
- Olaedo means gold/something precious
- Ikwuano is made of two words: Ikwu – which refers to the matrelineal relationship within the umunna (kindred) and ano = four.
Other names suggested are:
Since surnames weren’t generally an established part of a person’s name in precolonial Igboland, it’s likely his name was said as a whole and not in two parts (first and surname). x
My rough guess is Olaedoikwuano (ọlaedo ịkwu anọ) which roughly translates to ‘the gold that belongs to four ‘ikwu’ within a kindred’.
*Note: ‘ikwu’ could have a different meaning for example ‘iku’, which is to carry/scoop or ikwu (to speak). This would change the meaning.
Where in Igboland was Oluadah Equiano from?
Lastly, I had always wondered where in Igboland Equiano was from. Although his memoirs state that he was from Essaka, an Igbo village in the Kingdom of Benin (perhaps Western Igboland). Many historians believe he was actually from Isseke, now situated in the southern region of Anambra State. Although there are contentions regarding this theory too.
Regarding Benin, though aspects of Bini culture were disseminated through western Igboland, the kingdom only absorbed a small region around the fringes (see map) and there are also no records of a village called Essaka in the Anioma region, or anywhere in Igboland for that matter.
Have you ever wondered how Olaudah Equiano’s name would be spelt and translated today or where he came from? If so, comment below and tell us what you think.