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Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, was a freed African slave, merchant, seamen, and Caribbean explorer who lived in London and advocated for the end of the slave trade. He published an autobiography titled “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” in 1789 that greatly influenced the passage of the 1807 Slave Trade Act. This ended the African slave trade in Britain and British colonies.

Summary of Olaudah Equiano and His Young Life

Olaudah Equiano provided a summary of his childhood in his controversial autobiography. He was born in 1745 in the Benin Kingdom, next to the Niger River. His father served the Ibo people as a village leader and his family raised him to become a chief. The Ibo people worked with slavers and Equiano’s family owned slaves.[1] They still risked being enslaved themselves, and at age 11, locals captured Equiano and his sister. They sold them to slave traders and the two separated. Equiano reunited with his sister briefly before being transported to the coast and given to European traders.

Equiano then traveled the Middle Passage on a slave ship and arrived in Barbados, West Indies. The slavers sent Equiano to a Virginia colony held by Britain.[2] In the 2005 biography about his life, Vincent Carretta disputes Olaudah Equiano’s facts and suggests he was actually born in South Carolina based on a baptismal record from 1759 and a ship’s muster in 1773.[3]

The facts about Olaudah Equiano and his early years may never be fully reconciled.

In 1754, a Royal Navy lieutenant named Michael Pascal purchased Equiano and renamed him Gustavus Vassa after the Swedish king. The third name change for Equiano, he asked to be called by the same name given by his previous owner, Jacob, but Pascal refused and punished him until he submitted. He only used his original name again in his autobiography. He documented the harsh treatment of a Virginia slave in it, including being subjected to a scold’s bridle that covered a slave’s face so they could not eat or speak.[4]

Pascal brought Equiano to England, where he served as a valet during the Seven Years’ War. He learned how to assist a ship’s crew and Pascal sent him to school in England. In February 1759, Equiano was baptized a Christian in St. Margaret’s in Westminster. Pascal’s cousins, Mary and Maynard Guerin, became his godparents. They supported his claims that he came from Africa.[5]

Freedom and Advocacy

Pascal sold Equiano to Captain James Doran who returned him to the Caribbean. Then Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia purchased him off the Leeward Islands.[6] King learned of Equiano’s history as a seaman and put him to work in his stores and on shipping routes. King promised in 1765 that Equiano could buy his freedom for £40.[7] He practiced reading and writing further under King, who also encouraged Equiano’s Christian conversion and taught him how to trade as a merchant. He sold glass, fruit, and other items which earned him enough money to buy his freedom from King in 1767. King offered Equiano a business partnership, but he turned it down due to the dangers for a free African in the British colonies.[8]

Olaudah Equiano traveled to England around 1767 and continued his life at sea. He joined the British Royal Navy in 1773 to explore the Arctic in an attempt to find a northern Indian trade route. He worked closely with Dr. Charles Irving, inventor of a seawater distillation process that later made him rich. Dr. Irving invited Equiano to join him on an expedition to the Central American Mosquito Coast. He helped Dr. Irving select slaves and translated for him in the Igbo language on the doctor’s sugar cane plantations. They worked together for over 10 years, although the plantation failed.

Equiano became involved in the London Corresponding Society and traveled to Philadelphia in 1785 and New York in 1786. He fought against slavery and became an outspoken abolitionist. Equiano met with Granville Sharp, a famous abolitionist leader in England, in 1783 and informed him about the Zong massacre and the horrors of the slave trade.[9]

Autobiography: The Life of Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789.

Olaudah Equiano’s book detailing his life as a slave pushed the anti-slavery movement forward, especially with the high quality of writing due to his English education.

One of the earliest writings published by an African writer widely known in England, the book influenced the creation of the slave narrative literary genre.

Equiano's accounts differed from many other slaves’ experiences since he did not work in the fields and learned to read, write, and sail.[10] Equiano recounts his capture, the journey on the slave ship, and the harsh realities of slave life in Georgia, Virginia, and the West Indies. He detailed his Christian beliefs and the times where he questioned his faith, but pulled through.[11] This changed many people’s perspectives on Africans who now seemed to be just a complete and complex as Europeans. It also led to the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.[12]

Later Life, Family, and Death

Beginning in 1783, Olaudah Equiano worked with the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor who assisted in the resettlement of African-American slaves freed during the American Revolution.[13] He married on April 7, 1792, to Susannah Cullen in Soham, Cambridgeshire. They bore two children, Maria in 1793 and Joanna in 1795.[14]

On May 28, 1796, Equiano gave one of his last speeches at Plaisterer’s Hall in London and created his will. He moved several times before settling in Middlesex on Paddington Street.[15] His wife died in February 1796.[16] Olaudah Equiano died one year later on March 31, 1797. His eldest daughter died not long afterward and this left his entire estate in the hands of his youngest daughter, Joanna. She inherited £950.[17]

References

Bibliography

BBC. (2011, February 18). Olaudah Equiano (c.1745 - 1797). BBC History.

Carretta, V. (2005). Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Equiano, O. (2014). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. United States: Createspace.

Lovejoy, P. E. (2006). Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African. Slavery and Abolition, 27(3), 317–347. doi:10.1080/01440390601014302


Footnotes

  1. PBS. (2000, August 1). Olaudah Equiano 1745 - 1797. PBS - Africans in America.
  2. Equiano, 2014
  3. Carretta, 2005
  4. Equiano, 2014
  5. Lovejoy, 2006
  6. Equiano, 2014
  7. Walvin, J. (2000). An African’s Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
  8. Equiano, 2014
  9. Lovejoy, 2006
  10. Lovejoy, 2006
  11. Equiano, 2014
  12. The National Archives. Abolition of the Slave Trade. The National Archives.
  13. Lovejoy, 2006
  14. Equiano, 2014
  15. Carretta, 2005
  16. Lovejoy, 2006
  17. Carretta, 2005

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