Olaudah Equiano was born an Igbo around 1745, in what is now eastern Nigeria. He came from a prosperous home; his father was a local elder. He was kidnapped with his sister at around the age of 11, dragged to the African coast and sold by local slave traders.
Equiano was first shipped across the Atlantic to Barbados and then Virginia, where he was sold to a Royal Navy officer who renamed him ‘Gustavus Vassa’ after the 16th-century Swedish king. During the eight years he was enslaved by the Navy officer, Equiano travelled the oceans, was baptised and learned to read and write. He was then sold to a ship captain in London, who took him to Montserrat, where he was again sold to a prominent merchant. He worked at various enslaved jobs before arriving in England and buying his freedom.
Equiano then spent much of the next 20 years travelling the world, including trips to Turkey and the Arctic. In the last decade of his life, he established his fame as a literate, devout political activist. As an abolitionist, he lobbied for the interest of the local Black community, campaigning in print and and in public for an end to the Maafa (slavery). In 1792, Equiano married an Englishwoman and they had two daughters.
In 1789 he published his autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African’, providing us with one of the few first-hand African accounts of the details of contemporary African life. His account of the Maafa, the grotesqueness of life on the infernal Atlantic crossing, and terrors of enslavement in the Americas, has captured the historical imagination.
Despite all the suffering that the Atlantic system of the Maafa (enslavement/slavery) heaped on him, and against all the odds he managed to create a great life for himself and a respected position in contemporary British society.
Equiano died on 31 March 1797.
Ten Things To Know About Olaudah Equiano:
- Equiano’s enslavement was fashioned at sea on Royal Navy ships. His adventures included service in the Seven Years War. In the 1760s and 1770s he saw action in the Mediterranean, the Channel and North America. He voyaged to the Arctic with the Phipps expedition and spent six months among the Miskito Indians in Central America.
- As a young sailor, he earned a few pennies shaving other sailors. In his travels he noticed that glassware was cheaper in St. Eustasius than in Montserrat, so he bought cheap and sold dear between voyages. He carried oranges and limes from one island to another and sold barrels of pork in the same ways. In a month he had made a dollar from an initial investment of three penny. When he signed off from a ship in London in 1767, Equiano had £37 in his pocket.
- After ten years of enslavement, at the age of twenty-one, Equiano had saved enough cash to buy his own freedom – at a cost of £70. To celebrate his freedom he spent another £8 on a new suit of clothes and threw a party for his African friends.
- From 1767 onwards, Equiano’s homebase was England where he became the spokesman for London’s eighteenth-century Black community. He came to public prominence in the unhappy events surrounding the Sierra Leone scheme, where Black people were shipped to West Africa. He accepted the post of commissary for the expedition but was dismissed when he raised issues of corruption.
- Equiano was a prominent member of the ‘Sons of Africa’, a group of 12 Black men who campaigned for abolition.
- Equiano was a friend of Granville Sharp and brought issues of injustices and grievances to Sharp’s attention. In 1783 he alerted Sharp to the infamous Zong case, where 130 Africans had been drowned, thrown overboard from a Liverpool slave shop.
- Equiano petitioned the Queen in March 1787, seeking her support on behalf of the “millions of my African countrymen who groan under the lash in the West Indies.”
- In 1789 he published his autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African’. Between 1789 and 1794, his autobiography was one of the best selling books in Britain. He travelled widely promoting the book, which became immensely popular, and helped the abolitionist cause. Between 1789 and his death in 1797 he supervised nine different editions, making changes to each successive edition. The book was published in Dutch, Russian, German, In New York as well as Dublin, Edinburgh and Norwich.
- Equiano was extraordinarily well read. His self-confident way of writing led one critic to ask whether “some English writer” had participated in writing the Narrative.
- When Equiano died in Cambridgeshire in his early sixties, he left an estate valued at almost £1,000 – perhaps £80,000 at today’s values. He was famous enough to attract obituaries in the London press.