Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (1745-ca. 1801) was an African slave, freedman, and author who wrote the first outstanding autobiography in slave narrative literature.

Olaudah Equiano was born at Essaka, an Ibo village (not now known) in the Benin Province of present-day Nigeria. At age 11 he was kidnaped into domestic slavery. After short service in African households he was sold to British slavers in 1756 and sent to Barbados in the West Indies. Transshipped immediately to Virginia, Olaudah, who said his African name meant "vicissitude" or "fortune," became the personal slave of Lt. Michael Henry Pascal of the Royal Navy, who gave him his second name, Gustavus Vassa.

Thus spared the fate of plantation laborer, Equiano spent the next 30 years as servant, barber, seaman, and trader, traveling widely to such varied places as Turkey, the Arctic, Honduras, North America, and London. In the process he became a literate and articulate observer of the slave trade, slavery, and his own condition.

After service in the Seven Years War, including the siege of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island and the capture of Belle Isle, Lt. Pascal surprisingly disappointed Equiano's expectation of freedom and sent him back to the West Indies for resale in 1763. Equiano's new master, a Quaker merchant of Montserrat and Philadelphia named Robert King, gave him both recognition for his abilities and the opportunity for manumission. Employed as a clerk and captain's assistant on vessels trading in the islands and carrying slaves to the American colonies, Equiano was allowed to trade on his own account and bought his freedom in 1766 for £40, the price King had paid for him. Equiano went to London, where he qualified as a barber and musician and improved his education before taking to the sea again as a free servant in 1768.

Equiano had been baptized as a youth in 1759, but Christian religion did not deeply influence his life until during or just after participating in an Arctic expedition in search of the Northeast Passage in 1773 which nearly ended in disaster. At that time he experienced profound depression and soul-searching that resulted in his conversion to Evangelicalism in 1774. Living in London again after 1777, he petitioned the bishop of London to ordain him a missionary for service in Africa, but he failed.

Subsequently Equiano rose to prominence in London's society of free blacks, became a close friend of Ottobah Cugoano, and associated with the British humanitarians opposed to the Atlantic slave trade. In 1783, for example, he brought the famous case of the ship Zong to Granville Sharp's attention. Sharp made it a cause célèbre in the parliamentary battle for abolition. One hundred thirty-two sick and shackled slaves had been thrown overboard alive and then claimed for cargo insurance. In this connection also, late in 1786 Equiano was appointed by Charles Middleton, the comptroller of the navy, to be commissary steward of Granville Sharp's subsidized expedition to repatriate London's "Poor Blacks" in Sierra Leone. However, the scheme was beset with delays and mismanagement, and in a letter which his friend Cugoano published in London before their departure, Equiano charged his superior, Joseph Irwin, with theft of stores and ill treatment of the blacks. Middleton supported Equiano, but Irwin and several colleagues, acting through London businessmen interested in the venture, engineered his dismissal by Treasury authorities.

Equiano's famous autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African was then written in 1787-1788 partly to vindicate his role in the Sierra Leone affair, as well as to recount his exemplary rise from slavery to freedom and to argue the case for abolition of the slave trade. Although one critic (G. I. Jones, 1967) has doubted Equiano's sole authorship because of its stylistic felicities, there is little doubt that the work was essentially his own. Unlike Ottobah Cugoano's sophisticated Bible-based discourse, Equiano's is an account of action in which the realities and iniquities of slavery and the trade emerge eloquently in the telling of his own story. Besides its importance as "the first truly notable book in the genre" of slave narratives (Arna Bontemps, 1969) and its value as one of the few genuine personal recollections of the slave trade as seen by the victims themselves (Philip Curtin, 1967), Equiano's account is especially interesting in two respects: first, for its extensive recollections of the author's African childhood and his retention of an African point of view in judging experience and, second, for its rational economic argument against the slave trade. Not only did he argue the moral transgressions of the trade but also its economic insanity. On the basis of demographic projections he urged the potential of legitimate commerce for British manufactures in Africa as an economic alternative to the trade in lives. This was a view shared with Cugoano's book, and it figured prominently in the ideological preparation for abolition.

Despite his sense of mission, Equiano was destined never to return to Africa. He lectured extensively in Britain against the slave trade during the 1790s and married an English girl, Susan (or Susanne) Cullen of Ely, in April 1792. He is believed to have died in London in 1801.


Further Reading on Olaudah Equiano

Equiano's own The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African was first published in two volumes in London, 1789, with eight new editions to 1795 and several more thereafter. Recently it has appeared in an abridged edition by Paul Edwards, Equiano's Travels: His Autobiography (1967), and in full in Arna Bontemps, ed., Great Slave Narratives (1969), with a useful literary introduction by the editor.

Equiano's place in the intellectual history of the slave trade, and African-European relations generally, is discussed in Philip Curtin's introduction to his collection, Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade (1967), which contains Equiano's description of his African homeland with commentary by G. I. Jones. Robert W. July, The Origins of Modern African Thought: Its Development in Western Africa during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1967), also discusses Equiano's career and the importance of his book. Christopher Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone (1962; rev. ed. 1963), narrates Equiano's involvement in the Sierra Leone settlement scheme, while Christopher Fyfe, ed., Sierra Leone Inheritance (1964), uses a letter of Equiano to Lord Hawkesbury in 1788 to exemplify the economic argument against the slave trade.