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Olaudah Equiano

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Background Information

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Olaudah Equiano
Born c. 1745
Essaka, Benin Empire
Died 31 March 1796 (1796-04-01) (age 52)
London, England
Other names Vassa, Gustavus
Ethnicity Igbo
Occupation Slave, Explorer, Writer, seaman
Known for Influence over British lawmakers to abolish the slave trade; autobiography
Spouse(s) Susannah Cullen
Children Joanna Vassa and Anna Maria Vassa

Olaudah Equiano ( c. 1745 – 31 March 1796), also known as Gustavus Vassa, was one of the most prominent Africans involved in the British movement for the abolition of the slave trade. His autobiography depicted the horrors of slavery and helped influence British lawmakers to abolish the slave trade through the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Despite his enslavement as a young man, he purchased his freedom and worked as a seaman, merchant and explorer in South America, the Caribbean, the Arctic, the American colonies and the United Kingdom.

Early life

By his own account, Olaudah Equiano began his early life in the region of "Assaka" (in his spelling) near the River Niger. He was believed to be an Igbo. At the age of eleven, he was kidnapped with a younger sister by kinsmen and forced into domestic slavery in another native village. The region had a chieftain hierarchy tied to slavery. Until then Equiano had never seen a European white man. Equiano lived with five brothers and a sister, and was part of a large family before he and his sister were kidnapped. He was the youngest son with one younger sister.


Equiano and his sister were stolen by African kinsmen and sold to native slaveholders. Equiano was sold again, to white European slave traders. After changing hands a few times, Equiano was transported with other enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the English colony of Virginia.

On arrival, he was bought by Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal British Navy. Pascal decided to rename him Gustavus Vassa, a Latinized form of the name Gustav Vasa, a Swedish noble who had become Gustav I of Sweden, king in the 16th century,. Renaming slaves was common practice among slaveholders when they purchased them. This was but one of many names Equiano had been given by slave owners through his life. This time Equiano refused and told his new owner that he would prefer to be called Jacob. As punishment, Pascal had Equiano cuffed and told him that the shackles would remain until he accepted the new name.

Equiano wrote in his narrative that slaves working inside the slaveholders' homes in Virginia were treated cruelly. They suffered punishments such as an "iron muzzle", used around the mouths to keep house slaves quiet, and leaving them barely able to speak or eat. Equiano conveyed the fear and amazement he experienced in his new environment. He thought that the eyes of portraits followed him wherever he went, and that a clock could tell his master about anything Equiano would do wrong.

A disputed portrait of Equiano in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

Seven Years War

As the slave of a naval captain, Equiano received training in seamanship and traveled extensively with his master. This was during the Seven Years War with France. Although Pascal's personal servant, Equiano was also expected to fight in times of battle; his duty was to haul gunpowder to the gun decks. As one of Pascal's favourites, Equiano was sent to Ms. Guerin, Pascal's sister in England, to attend school and learn to read.

At this time Equiano decided to convert to Christianity. His master allowed Equiano to be baptized in St. Margaret's Church, Westminster, in February 1759. Despite the special treatment, after the British won the war, Equiano did not receive a share of the prize money, as was awarded to the other sailors. Pascal had also promised his freedom but did not release him.

Later, Pascal sold Equiano at the island of Montserrat, in the Caribbean Leeward Islands. His literacy and seamanship skills overqualified him for plantation labour. It also made him less desirable to some slaveholders.

He was purchased by Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean. King set Equiano to work on his shipping routes and in his stores. In 1765, King promised that for forty pounds, the price he had paid, Equiano could buy his freedom. King taught him to read and write more fluently, guided him along the path of religion, and allowed Equiano to engage in profitable trading on his own as well as on his master's behalf. He enabled Equiano to earn his freedom, which he achieved by his early twenties.

King urged Equiano to stay on as a business partner, but Equiano found it dangerous and limiting to remain in the British colonies as a freed black. For instance, while loading a ship in Georgia, he was almost kidnapped back into slavery. He was released after proving his education. Equiano returned to England where, after Somersett's Case of 1772, men believed they were free of the risk of enslavement.

Pioneer of the abolitionist cause

After several years of trading, Equiano traveled to London and became involved in the abolitionist movement. The movement had been particularly strong amongst Quakers, but was by then non-denominational. Equiano was Methodist, having been influenced by George Whitefield's evangelism in the New World.

Front page of Equiano's autobiography

Equiano proved to be a popular speaker. He was introduced to many senior and influential people, who encouraged him to write and publish his life story. Equiano was supported financially by philanthropic abolitionists and religious benefactors; his lectures and preparation for the book were promoted by, among others, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.

His account surprised many with the quality of its imagery, description, and literary style. Some who had not yet joined the abolitionist cause felt shame at learning of his suffering. Entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, it was first published in 1789 and rapidly went through several editions. It is one of the earliest known examples of published writing by an African writer. It was the first influential slave autobiography. Equiano's personal account of slavery and of his experiences as an 18th-century black immigrant caused a sensation when published in 1789. The book fueled a growing anti-slavery movement in England.

Equiano's narrative begins in the West African village where he was kidnapped into slavery in 1756. He vividly recalls the horror of the Middle Passage: "I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me." The young Equiano was taken to a Virginia plantation where he witnessed torture. Slavery, he explained, brutalizes everyone — the slaves, their overseers, plantation wives, and the whole of society.

The autobiography goes on to describe how Equiano's adventures brought him to London, where he married into English society and became a leading abolitionist. His exposé of the infamous slave-ship Zong, whose 133 slaves were thrown overboard in mid-ocean for the owners to claim insurance money, shook the nation. Equiano's book proved his most lasting contribution to the abolitionist movement, as the book vividly demonstrated the humanity of Africans as much as the inhumanity of slavery.

The book not only was an exemplary work of English literature by a new, African author, but it made Equiano's fortune. The returns gave him independence from benefactors and enabled him to fully chart his own purpose. He worked to improve economic, social and educational conditions in Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone.

Equiano recalls his childhood in Essaka (an Igbo village formerly in southeast Nigeria), where he was adorned in the tradition of the "greatest warriors." He is unique in his account of traditional African life before the advent of the European slave trade. Equally significant is Equiano's life on the high seas, including travels throughout the Americas, Turkey and the Mediterranean. He also fought in major naval battles during the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War), and searched for a Northwest Passage, on the Phipps Expedition of 1772–73.

Equiano records his and Granville Sharp's central roles in the British Abolitionist Movement. As a major voice in this movement, Equiano petitioned the Queen of England in 1788. He was appointed to an expedition to resettle London's poor Blacks in Sierra Leone, a British colony on the west coast of Africa. He was dismissed after protesting against financial mismanagement.


Equiano's Interesting Narrative not only traces his path from enslavement to freedom, but his spiritual conversion. This conversion marks a distinctive disruption of the text. It is followed by a chapter of "Miscellaneous Verses", which relate the transformation from Equiano's enslaved "orphan state" to an "epiphany" that his "soul and Christ were now as one---." Scholars have debated the degree of Equiano's "conversion". Some critics read Equiano's conversion as an adoption of christian discourse, which inevitably leads him towards assimilation in English society. Another calls Equiano's Christianity "nominal." Another claims that Equiano's Christianity is rhetorical, used to “situate himself at the heart of Englishness.”

Scholars also read his account as portraying his life and conversion in terms of the old testament and new testament model. This type of christian time-wasting shows how Equiano could "read his life as a progress, without closing off the paths that circle back to where he began." Another critic suggests Equiano's conversion is serious, and his "search for true religion stands as a central organizing principle of the life that he narrated, and it was in his second birth as a christian that he believed himself to have archived true freedom.” Equiano's spiritual freedom related to his desire for emancipation. This directs attention to the differences between the freedom of soul and body. Other scholars have tied an examination of Turkey and the muslim world to analysis of Equiano's treatment of Christianity in the narrative. Equiano clearly used Christian theological elements to show how they shaped him. His conversion demonstrated the paradox of enslaving fellow Christians. Further, he expressed the question of whether a black subaltern person could assimilate into a church controlled by a colonizing nation.

Family in Britain

At some point, after having travelled widely, Equiano decided to settle in Britain and raise a family. Equiano is closely associated with Soham, Cambridgeshire, where, on 7 April 1792, he married Susannah Cullen, a local girl, in St Andrew's Church. The original marriage register containing the entry for Equiano and Susannah is today held by Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies at the County Record Office in Cambridge.

He announced his wedding in every edition of his autobiography from 1792 onwards, and it has been suggested his marriage mirrored his anticipation of a commercial union between Africa and Great Britain. The couple settled in the area and had two daughters, Anna Maria, born 16 October 1793, and Joanna, born 11 April 1795.

Susannah died in February 1796 aged 34, and Equiano died a year after that on 31 March 1796, aged 51 (some historians will say otherwise). Soon after, the elder daughter died, age four years old, leaving Joanna to inherit Equiano's estate, which was valued at £950: a considerable sum, worth approximately £100,000 today. Joanna married the Rev. Henry Bromley, and they ran a Congregational Chapel at Clavering near Saffron Walden in Essex, before moving to London in the middle of the nineteenth century. They are both buried at the Congregationalists' non-denominational Abney Park Cemetery, in Stoke Newington.

Last days and will

Although Equiano's death is recorded in London, 1797, the location of his burial is unsubstantiated. One of his last London addresses appears to have been Plaisterer's Hall in the City of London (where he drew up his will on 28 May 1796).

Having drawn up his will, Olaudah Equiano moved to John Street, Tottenham Court Road, close to Whitefield's Methodist chapel. (It was renovated for Congregationalists in the 1950s. Now the American Church in London, the church recently placed a small memorial to Equiano.) Lastly, he lived in Paddington Street, Middlesex, where he died. Equiano's death was reported in newspaper obituaries.

In the 1790s, at the time of the excesses of the French Revolution and close on the heels of the American Revolution, British society was tense because of fears of open revolution. Reformers were considered more suspect than in other periods. Equiano had been an active member of the London Corresponding Society, which campaigned to extend the vote to working men. His close friend Thomas Hardy, the Society's Secretary, was prosecuted by the government (though without success) on the basis that such political activity amounted to treason. In December 1797, apparently unaware that Equiano had died nine months earlier, a writer for the government-sponsored Anti-Jacobin, or Weekly Examiner satirised Equiano as being at a fictional meeting of the Friends of Freedom.

Equiano's will provided for projects he considered important. Had his daughter Joanna not have died before reaching the age of inheritance (twenty-one), half his wealth would have passed to the Sierra Leone Company for continued assistance to West Africans, and half to the London Missionary Society, which promoted "education" overseas. This organization had formed the previous November at the Countess of Huntingdon's Spa Fields Chapel. By the early nineteenth century, The Missionary Society had become well known worldwide as non-denominational, though it was largely Congregational.

Modern views

Controversy of origin

Scholars have disagreed about Equiano's origins. Some believe Equiano may have fabricated his African roots and his survival of the Middle Passage not only to sell more copies of his book, but also to help advance the movement against the slave trade.

Equiano was certainly African by descent. The circumstantial evidence that Equiano was also African American by birth and African British by choice is compelling but not absolutely conclusive. Although the circumstantial evidence is not equivalent to proof, anyone dealing with Equiano's life and art must consider it.

Baptismal records and a naval muster roll appear to link Equiano to South Carolina. Records of Equiano's first voyage to the Arctic state he was from Carolina, not Africa. Equiano may have been the source for information linking him to Carolina, but it may also have been a clerk's careless record of origin. Scholars continue to search for evidence to substantiate Equiano's claim of birth in Africa. Currently, no separate documentation supports this story.

For some scholars, the fact that many parts of Equiano's account can be proven lends weight to accepting his story of African birth. "In the long and fascinating history of autobiographies that distort or exaggerate the truth. ...Seldom is one crucial portion of a memoir totally fabricated and the remainder scrupulously accurate; among autobiographers... both dissemblers and truth-tellers tend to be consistent."

A recent work claimed that, in a Nigerian town known as Isseke, there was local oral history that told of Equiano's upbringing.. Prior to this work, however, no town bearing a name of that spelling had been recorded. Other scholars, including Nigerians, have pointed out grave errors in the research.

"Historians have never discredited the accuracy of Equiano's narrative, nor the power it had to support the abolitionist cause [...] particularly in Britain during the 1790s. However, parts of Equiano's account of the Middle Passage may have been based on already published accounts or the experiences of those he knew."

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