Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), known in his lifetime as Gustavus Vassa (/ˈvæsʔ/), was a prominent African in London, a freed slave who supported the British movement to end the slave trade. His autobiography, published in 1789, helped in the creation of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which ended the African trade for Britain and its colonies.
In London, Equiano (identifying as Gustavus Vassa during his lifetime) was part of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group composed of prominent Africans living in Britain, and he was active among leaders of the anti-slave trade movement in the 1780s. He published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), which depicted the horrors of slavery. It went through nine editions and aided passage of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the African slave trade.
As a free man, Equiano had a stressful life; he had suffered suicidal thoughts before he became a Protestant Christianand found peace in his faith. After settling in London, Equiano married an English woman named Susannah Cullen in 1792 and they had two daughters. He died in 1797 in London; it’s unknown where he was laid to rest. Equiano’s death was recognized in Britain as well as by American newspapers. Plaques commemorating his life have been placed at buildings where he lived in London. Since the late 20th century, when his autobiography was published in a new edition, he has been increasingly studied by a range of scholars, including many from his supposed homeland of Nigeria.
Early life and enslavement
Equiano recounted an incident when an attempted kidnapping of children was foiled by adults in his villages in near Bini, Africa. When he was around the age of eleven, he and his sister were left alone to look after their family’s compound, as was common when adults went out of the house to work. They were both kidnapped and taken far away from their hometown of Essaka, separated, and sold to slave traders. After changing ownership several times, Equiano met his sister again, but they were separated and he was taken across a large river to the coast, where he was held by European slave traders. He was transported with 244 other enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to Barbados in the West Indies. He and a few other slaves were sent further away to the British colony of Virginia. Literary scholar Vincent Carretta argued in his 2005 biography of Equiano; that the activist could have been born in colonial South Carolina rather than Africa based on Carretta’s discovery of a 1759 parish baptismal record that lists Equiano’s place of birth as Carolina and a 1773 ship’s muster that indicates South Carolina. A number of scholars agree with Carretta, while his conclusion is disputed by other scholars who believe the weight of evidence supports Equiano’s account of coming from an area near Bini.
In Virginia, Equiano was bought in 1754 by Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Pascal renamed the boy “Gustavus Vassa,” after the Swedish noble who had become Gustav I of Sweden, king in the sixteenth century. Equiano had already been renamed twice: he was called Michael while onboard 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” – and eventually he submitted to the new name.:62 He used this name for the rest of his life, including on all official records. He only used Equiano in his autobiography.
Pascal took Equiano with him when he returned to England, and had him accompany him as a valet during the Seven Years’ War with France. Also trained in seamanship, Equiano was expected to assist the ship’s crew in times of battle; his duty was to haul gunpowder to the gun decks. Pascal favoured Equiano and sent him to his sister-in-law in Great Britain, so that he could attend school and learn to read and write.
At this time, Equiano converted to Christianity. He was baptised in St Margaret’s, Westminster, in February 1759. His godparents were Mary Guerin and her brother, Maynard, who were cousins of his master Pascal. They had taken an interest in him and helped him to learn English. Later, when Equiano’s origins were questioned after his book was published, the Guerins testified to his lack of English when he first came to London.
Pascal sold Equiano to Captain James Doran of the Charming Sally at Gravesend, from where he was transported back to the Caribbean, to Montserrat, in the Leeward Islands. There he was sold to Robert King, an American Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean.
Robert King set Equiano to work on his shipping routes and in his stores. In 1765, when Equiano was about 20 years old, King promised that for his purchase price of 40 pounds (worth £6000 in the present day), the slave 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 for his own account, as well as on his owner’s behalf. Equiano sold fruits, glass tumblers, and other items between Georgia and the Caribbean islands. King allowed Equiano to buy his freedom, which he achieved in 1767. The merchant urged Equiano to stay on as a business partner, but the African found it dangerous and limiting to remain in the British colonies as a freedman. While loading a ship in Georgia, he was almost kidnapped back into enslavement.
By about 1767, Equiano had gained his freedom and went to England. He continued to work at sea, travelling sometimes as a deckhand based in England. In 1773 on the British Royal Navy ship Racehorse, he travelled to the Arctic in an expedition to find a northern route to India. On that voyage he worked with Dr. Charles Irving, who had developed a process to distill seawater and later made a fortune from it. Two years later, Irving recruited Equiano for a project on the Mosquito Coast in Central America, where he was to use his African background and Igbo language to help select slaves and manage them as labourers on sugar cane plantations. Irving and Equiano had a working relationship and friendship for more than a decade, but the plantation venture failed.
Equiano expanded his activities in London, learning the French horn and joining debating societies, including the London Corresponding Society. He continued his travels, visiting Philadelphia and New York in 1785 and 1786, respectively.
Pioneer of the abolitionist cause
Equiano settled in London, where in the 1780s he became involved in the abolitionist movement. The movement to end the slave trade had been particularly strong among Quakers, but the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787 as a non-denominational group, with Anglican members, in order to directly influence parliament. At the time, Quakers were prohibited from being elected as MPs. Equiano had become a Methodist, having been influenced by George Whitefield‘s evangelism in the New World.
As early as 1783, Equiano informed abolitionists such as Granville Sharp about the slave trade; that year he was the first to tell Sharp about the Zong massacre, which was being tried in London as litigation for insurance claims. (It became a cause célèbre for the abolitionist movement and contributed to its growth.)
Equiano was befriended and supported by abolitionists, many of whom encouraged him to write and publish his life story. He was supported financially in this effort by philanthropic abolitionists and religious benefactors. His lectures and preparation for the book were promoted by, among others, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.
Entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), the book rapidly went through nine editions in his lifetime. It is one of the earliest-known examples of published writing by an African writer to be widely read in England. By 1792, it was a best seller: it has been published in Russia, Germany, Holland, and the United States. It was the first influential slave narrative of what became a large literary genre. But Equiano’s experience in slavery was quite different from that of most slaves; he did not participate in field work, he served his owners personally and went to sea, was taught to read and write, and worked in trading.
Equiano’s personal account of slavery, his journey of advancement, and his experiences as a black immigrant caused a sensation on publication. The book fueled a growing anti-slavery movement in Great Britain, Europe, and the New World.His account surprised many with the quality of its imagery, description, and literary style. Some readers felt shame at learning of the suffering he had endured.
In his account, Equiano gives details about his hometown Essaka and the laws and customs of the Eboe people. After being captured as a boy, he described communities he passed through as a captive on his way to the coast. His biography details his voyage on a slave ship, and the brutality of slavery in the colonies of West Indies, Virginia, and Georgia
Equiano commented on the reduced rights that freed people of colour had in these same places, and they also faced risks of kidnapping and enslavement. Equiano had embraced Christianity at the age of 14 and its importance to him is a recurring theme in his autobiography; he identified as a Protestant of the Church of England. He was baptized while in London.
Several events in Equiano’s life led him to question his faith. He was severely distressed in 1774 by the kidnapping of his friend, a black cook named John Annis, who was taken forcibly off the English ship Anglicania on which they were both serving. His friend’s kidnapper, a Mr. Kirkpatrick, did not abide by the decision in the Somersett Case (1772), that slaves could not be taken from England without their permission, as common law did not support the institution. Kirkpatrick had Annis transported to Saint Kitts, where he was punished severely and worked as a plantation labourer until he died. With the aid of Granville Sharp, Equiano tried to get Annis released before he was shipped from England, but was unsuccessful. He heard that Annis was not free from suffering until he died in slavery. Despite his questioning, he affirms his faith in Christianity, as seen in the penultimate sentence of his work that quotes the prophet Micah: “After all, what makes any event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser, and learn ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God?'”
In his account, Equiano also told of his settling in London. He married an English woman and lived with her in Soham, Cambridgeshire, where they had two daughters. He became a leading abolitionist in the 1780s, lecturing in numerous cities against the slave trade. Equiano records his and Granville Sharp‘s central roles in the anti-slave trade movement, and their effort to publicize the Zong massacre, which became known in 1783.
Reviewers have found that his book vividly demonstrated the full and complex humanity of Africans as much as the inhumanity of slavery. The book was considered an exemplary work of English literature by a new African author. Equiano did so well in sales that he achieved independence from his benefactors. He travelled extensively throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland promoting the book. He worked to improve economic, social and educational conditions in Africa. Specifically, he became involved in working in Sierra Leone, a colony founded in 1792 for freed slaves by Britain in West Africa.
During the American Revolutionary War, Britain had recruited blacks to fight with it by offering freedom to those who left rebel masters. In practice, it also freed women and children, and attracted thousands of slaves to its lines in New York City, which it occupied, and in the South, where its troops occupied Charleston. When British troops were evacuated at the end of the war, its officers also evacuated these American slaves. They were resettled in the Caribbean, in Nova Scotia and in London. Britain refused to return the slaves, which the United States sought in peace negotiations.
In the years following United States’ gaining independence, in 1783 Equiano became involved in helping the Black Poor of London, who were mostly those African-American slaves freed during and after the American Revolution by the British. There were also some freed slaves from the Caribbean, and some who had been brought by their owners to England, and freed later after the decision that Britain had no basis in common law for slavery. The black community numbered about 20,000. After the Revolution some 3,000 former slaves had been transported from New York to Nova Scotia, where they became known as Black Loyalists, among other Loyalists also resettled there. Many of the freedmen found it difficult to make new lives in London and Canada.
Equiano was appointed to an expedition to resettle London’s Black Poor in Freetown, a new British colony founded on the west coast of Africa, at present-day Sierra Leone. The blacks from London were joined by more than 1,200 Black Loyalists who chose to leave Nova Scotia. They were aided by John Clarkson, younger brother of abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. Jamaican maroons, as well as slaves liberated from illegal ships after Britain abolished the slave trade, also settled at Freetown in the early decades. Equiano was dismissed from the new settlement after protesting against financial mismanagement and he returned to London.
Equiano was a prominent figure in London and often served as a spokesman for the black community. He was one of the leading members of the Sons of Africa, a small abolitionist group composed of free Africans in London. They were closely allied with the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Equiano’s comments on issues were frequently published in newspapers such as the Public Advertiser and the Morning Chronicle. He had much more of a public voice than most Africans or Black Loyalists, and he seized various opportunities to use it.
Marriage and family
After settling in England, Equiano decided to marry and have a family. On April 7 1792, he married Susannah Cullen, a local woman, in St Andrew’s Church in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The original marriage register containing the entry for Vassa and Cullen is held today by the Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies at the County Record Office in Cambridge. He included his marriage in every edition of his autobiography from 1792 onwards. Critics have suggested he believed that his marriage symbolised an expected 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, aged 52 (sources differ on his age.[who?]). Soon after, the elder daughter died at the age of four, leaving the younger child Joanna Vassa to inherit Equiano’s estate. It was valued at £950: a considerable sum, worth more than £80,000 in 2008. A guardianship would have been established for her. Joanna Vassa married the Rev. Henry Bromley, and they ran a Congregational Chapel at Claveringnear Saffron Walden in Essex. They moved to London in the middle of the 19th century. They are both buried at the Congregationalists‘ non-denominational Abney Park Cemetery, in Stoke Newington North London.
Last days and will
Although Equiano’s death is recorded in London in 1797, the location of his burial is undocumented. One of his last addresses appears to have been Plaisterers’ Hall in the City of London, where he drew up his will on 28 May 1796. He moved to John Street, Tottenham Court Road, close to Whitefield’s Methodist chapel. (It was renovated in the 1950s for use by Congregationalists, now the site of the American International Church.) Lastly, he lived in Paddington Street, Middlesex, where he died. Equiano’s death was reported in newspaper obituaries.
At this time, due to having lost the British colonies after long warfare and especially the violent excesses of the French 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.
Equiano’s will provided for projects he considered important. In case of his surviving daughter’s death before reaching the age of majority (21), he bequeathed half his wealth 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 in November 1796 at the Spa Fields Chapel of the Countess of Huntingdon in north London. By the early 19th century, The Missionary Society had become well known worldwide as non-denominational; many of its members were Congregational.
Controversy related to memoir
Following publication in 1967 of a newly edited version of his memoir by Paul Edwards, interest in Equiano was revived; additional editions of his work have been published since then. Nigerian scholars have also begun studying him. He was especially valued as a pioneer in asserting “the dignity of African life in the white society of his time.”
In researching his life, some scholars since the late 20th century have disputed Equiano’s account of his origins. In 1999, Vincent Carretta, a professor of English editing a new version of Equiano’s memoir, found two records that led him to question the former slave’s account of being born in Africa. He first published his findings in the journal Slavery and Abolition. At a 2003 conference in England, Carretta had to defend himself against Nigerian academics, like Obiwu, who accused him of “pseudo-detective work” and indulging “in vast publicity gamesmanship”. In his 2005 biography, Carretta suggested that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina rather than Africa, as he was twice recorded from there. Carretta wrote:
According to Carretta, Vassa’s baptismal record and a naval muster roll document him as from South Carolina. Carretta interpreted these anomalies as possible evidence that Equiano had made up the account of his African origins, and adopted material from others. But, Paul Lovejoy, Alexander X. Byrd, and Douglas Chambers note how many general and specific details Carretta can document from sources that related to the slave trade in the 1750s as described by Equiano, including the voyages from Africa to Virginia, sale to Captain Michael Henry Pascal in 1754, and others. They conclude he was more likely telling what he understood as fact than creating a fictional account; his work is shaped as an autobiography.
Lovejoy wrote that:
Lovejoy uses the name of Vassa in his article, since that was what the man used throughout his life, in “his baptism, his naval records, marriage certificate and will”.He emphasizes that Vassa only used his African name in his autobiography.
Other historians also argue that the fact that many parts of Equiano’s account can be proven lends weight to accepting his account of African birth. As historian Adam Hochschild has written: “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.” He also noted that “since the ‘rediscovery’ of Vassa’s account in the 1960s, ‘scholars have valued it as the most extensive account of an eighteenth-century slave’s life’ and the difficult passage from slavery to freedom.”
Legacy and honors
- The Equiano Society was formed in London in November 1996. Its main objective is to publicise and celebrate the life and work of Olaudah Equiano.
- Equiano lived at 13 Tottenham Street, London, in 1788; in 1789 he moved to what was then 10 Union Street and is now 73 Riding House Street. A City of Westminster commemorative green plaque was unveiled there on 11 October 2000 as part of Black History Month celebrations. Student musicians from Trinity College of Music played a fanfare specially composed by Professor Ian Hall for the unveiling.
- Equiano is honoured as a holy man in the Anglican Church, and honoured annually in a lesser festival on 30 July, along with Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, who all worked for abolition of the slave trade and slavery.
- In 2007, the year of the celebration in Britain of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, Equiano’s life and achievements were included in the National Curriculum, together with William Wilberforce. In December 2012 it was reported, by The Daily Mail newspaper, that both would be dropped from the curriculum, along with other social reformers, in favour of a “back to basics” curriculum. In January 2013 Operation Black Vote launched a petition to request Education Secretary Michael Gove to keep both Equiano and Mary Seacole in the National Curriculum. American Rev. Jesse Jackson and others wrote a letter to The Times protesting against the mooted removal of both figures from the National Curriculum.
- A statue of Equiano, made by pupils of Edmund Waller School, was erected in Telegraph Hill Lower Park in 2008.
- The head of Equiano is included in Martin Bond’s 1997 the sculpture Wall of the Ancestors in Deptford, London
- U.S. author Ann Cameron adapted Equiano’s autobiography for children, leaving most of the text in Equiano’s own words; the book was published in 1995 the U.S. by Random House as The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equinano, with an introduction by the U.S. historian, Henry Louis Gates.
Representation in other media
- A 28-minute documentary, Son of Africa: The Slave Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (1996), produced by the BBC and directed by Alrick Riley, uses dramatic reconstruction, archival material and interviews to provide the social and economic context for his life and the slave trade.
Numerous works about Equiano have been produced for and since the 2007 bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade:
- Equiano was portrayed by the Senegalese singer and musician Youssou N’Dour in the film Amazing Grace (2006).
- African Snow (2007), a play by Murray Watts, takes place in the mind of John Newton, a captain in the slave trade who later became an Anglican cleric and hymnwriter. It was first produced at the York Theatre Royal as a co-production with Riding Lights Theatre Company, 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.
- Kent historian Dr. Robert Hume wrote a children’s book, Equiano: The Slave with the Loud Voice (2007), illustrated by Cheryl Ives.
- David and Jessica Oyelowo appeared as Olaudah and his wife in Grace Unshackled – The Olaudah Equiano Story (2007), a BBC 7 radio adaptation of Equiano’s autobiography.
- The British jazz artist Soweto Kinch‘s first album, Conversations with the Unseen (2003), contains a track entitled “Equiano’s Tears”.
- Equiano was portrayed by Jeffery Kissoon in Margaret Busby‘s 2007 play An African Cargo, staged at the Greenwich Theatre.
- Equiano is portrayed by Danny Sapani in the BBC series Garrow’s Law (2010).
On 16th October 2017, Google showed a Doodle for the Olaudah Equiano’s 272nd Birthday.