Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano
(Olauda Ikwuano)
Born c. 1745
Essaka, Benin Empire
Died March 31, 1797 (aged 51-52)
Other names Gustavus Vassa, Graves
Ethnicity Eboe
Occupation Explorer, Writer, Merchant, Slave, Abolitionist
Known for Influence over British abolitionists; autobiography
Spouse Susannah Cullen
Children Joanna Vassa and Anna Maria Vassa

Olaudah Equiano [1](c. 1745 – March 31, 1797)[2] also known as Gustavus Vassa, was a prominent African involved in the British movement towards 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. [3] Despite his enslavement as a young man, he purchased his freedom and worked as an author, merchant and explorer in South America, the Caribbean, the Arctic, the American colonies, and the United Kingdom.


Early childhood

According to his own account, Olaudah Equiano was born in an area called "Eboe" in what is now Nigeria, in 1745. He lived with five brothers and a sister; he was the youngest son with one younger sister. At the age of eleven, he and this sister were kidnapped. At this time he endured the Middle Passage to the New World, where he was forced to work as a slave. [4] Some writers, however, claim Equiano was born in colonial South Carolina, not in Africa.[5]


When their parents were out, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped by two men and a woman, African kinsmen, and sold to native slaveholders. After changing hands several times, Equiano found himself on the coast, in the hands of European slave traders. He was transported with 244 other enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to Barbados in the West Indies, from where he and a few others were soon transferred to the British colony of Virginia.

Soon after arrival, he was bought by Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He decided to give him a more understandable name, a Latinised form of the name Gustavus Vassa, a Swedish noble who had become Gustav I of Sweden, king in the 16th century.[citation needed] Renaming slaves was common practice among slaveholders when they purchased them. Equiano had already been renamed twice: Michael on the slave ship that brought him to the Americas, and Jacob by his first owner. This time Equiano refused and told his new owner that he would prefer to be called Jacob. His refusal, he says, "gained me many a cuff," that is, he was slapped or smacked, and eventually he submitted to 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" (scold's bridle), used around the mouths to keep house slaves quiet, 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. In fact, Equiano was so shocked by this culture that he tried washing his face in an attempt to change its color.[6]

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

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 he was Pascal's personal servant, Equiano was also expected to assist in times of battle; his duty was to haul gunpowder to the gun decks. As one of Pascal's favorites, Equiano was sent to his wife's sister in Britain, 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, 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.[citation needed]

Later, Pascal sold Equiano to Captain James Doran of the "Charming Sally" at Gravesend, where he was transported to Montserrat, in the Caribbean Leeward Islands. He was sold on to Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean. Pascal had instructed Doran to ensure that he sold Equiano "to the best master he could, as he told him I was a very deserving boy, which Captain Doran said he found to be true".

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.[7] 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 freedman. 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 Britain where, after Somersett's Case of 1772, men believed they were free of the risk of enslavement.

Pioneer of the abolitionist cause

Equiano traveled to London and became involved in the abolitionist movement, which had been particularly strong amongst Quakers, but was by 1787 non-denominational. Equiano was Methodist, having been influenced by George Whitefield's evangelism in the New World.

Front page of Equiano's autobiography

Equiano was befriended and supported by abolitionists, many whom 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 to be widely read in England. It was the first influential slave autobiography. Equiano's personal account of slavery and of his experiences as a black immigrant caused a sensation on publication. The book fueled a growing anti-slavery movement in Great Britain.

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 became his most lasting contribution to the abolitionist movement, as it vividly demonstrated the humanity of Africans as much as the inhumanity of slavery.

Equiano records his and Granville Sharp's central roles in the movement. As a major voice in this movement, Equiano petitioned the Queen 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.[8]

The book not only was an exemplary work of English literature by a new, African author, but it also increased Equiano's personal revenue. He traveled extensively throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland promoting the book. 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.

Related to the abolitionist cause, Equiano was also a leader of the Poor Black community in London. Because of his connections, he was a prominent figure in the political realm, and he oftentimes served as a voice for his people. Equiano's reactions and remarks were frequently published in newspapers like the Public Advertiser and the Morning Chronicle. He had more of a voice than most Africans, and he seized various opportunities to utilize it.[9]

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 Susan 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 (1793 - 1797), and Joanna (1795 - 1857).

Susannah died in February 1796 aged 34, and Equiano died a year after that on 31 March 1797,[2] aged 52 (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.[10] 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 War for Independence, 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 longer-surviving daughter Joanna 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. According to Vincent Carretta,

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.[11]

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.[12] 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. Carretta shares the point of view that Equiano was born in South Carolina, and the documents he used to prove his statement were Equiano's baptismal record and his royal navy muster roll. [13]

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."[14]

Nigerian writer Catherine Obianuju Acholonu argues that Equiano was born in a Nigerian town known as Isseke, where there was local oral history that told of his upbringing.[15] 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.[who?]

"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."[16]

Portrayal in mass media

  • A BBC production in 2005 employed dramatic reconstruction, archival material and interviews with scholars such as Stuart Hall and Ian Duffield to provide the social and economic context of the 18th-century slave trade.
  • Equiano was portrayed by the Senegalese singer and musician Youssou N'Dour in the 2006 film Amazing Grace.
  • African Snow, a play by Murray Watts, takes place in John Newton's mind. It was first produced at the York Theatre Royal as a co-production with Riding Lights Theatre Company in April 2007 before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios in London's West End and a National Tour. Newton was played by Roger Alborough and Equiano by Israel Oyelumade.
  • Stone Publishing House published a children's book entitled Equiano: The Slave with the Loud Voice. Illustrated by Cheryl Ives, it was written by Kent historian Dr. Robert Hume.
  • Poetry group: Sir Mask, have a dance poem entitled Yes You Know Equiano. Released independently Gigagroove the dance poem covers the life of Equiano.
  • In 2007, David and Jessica Oyelowo appeared as Olaudah and his wife in Grace Unshackled – The Olaudah Equiano Story, a radio adaptation of Equiano's autobiography. This was first broadcast on BBC 7 on Easter Sunday 8 April 2007.[17]
  • The British Jazz artist Soweto Kinch first album contains a track called "Equiano's Tears".
  • He was portrayed by Danny Sapani in the BBC series Garrow's Law in 2010 as giving evidence in a trial of the captain of the Zong. The captain had died shortly after the incident and so his trial for fraud never took place. Equiano did not appear as a witness in either of actual cases.

See also


  1. ^ (Olauda Ikwuano correct spelling of name by modern standards) http://emeagwali.com/letters/dear-professor-emeagwali-onye-igbo-ka-nbu.htm
  2. ^ a b "Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 - March 31, 1797)". BBC. 31 October 2006. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/equiano_olaudah.shtml. "Equiano was an African writer whose experiences as a slave prompted him to become involved in the British abolition movement." 
  3. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (1999). The life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. ISBN 048640661X. 
  4. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (2005). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Gutenberg Project. http://books.google.com/books?id=4GM6AAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover. 
  5. ^ "The True Story of Equiano". The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051121/blackburn. 
  6. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (1789). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. (p. 109)
  7. ^ Walvin, James (2000). An African's life: the life and times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 71. ISBN 9780826447043. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Nwv0y3PUuVAC 
  8. ^ Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2A: The Romantics and Their , p. 211.
  9. ^ Shyllon, Folarin (September 1977). "Olaudah Equiano; Nigerian Abolitionist and First Leader of Africans in Britain". Journal of African Studies 4 (4): 433–451. 
  10. ^ Based on the retail prices index, £950 in 1796 would be worth £81,000 in 2008 using the calculator at measuringworth.com.
  11. ^ Carretta,2005
  12. ^ "The True Story of Equiano". The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051121/blackburn. 
  13. ^ Nwokeji, G. Ugo; Carretta, Vincent (1 December 2006). Journal of American History 93 (3): 840. doi:10.2307/4486431. 
  14. ^ Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 467 pp., paperback: ISBN 978-0-618-61907-8, p. 372.
  15. ^ Catherine Obianuju Acholonu, The Igbo Roots Of Olaudah Equiano: An Anthropological Research (1989)
  16. ^ "Olaudah Equiano". Soham. http://www.soham.org.uk/history/olaudahequiano.htm. 
  17. ^ "Grace Unshackled: The Olaudah Equiano Story". BBC. 15 April 2007. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007k3kk. Retrieved 15 January 2009. 

External links

Dramatic recreations

Birthplace dispute

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