Olaudah Equiano

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Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano - Project Gutenberg eText 15399.png
Essaka, Eboe (claimed)
Died31 March 1797 (aged 51–52)
Other namesGustavus Vassa, Graves
EthnicityIgbo (pronounced as Eboe)
OccupationExplorer, writer, merchant, slave, abolitionist
Known forInfluence over British abolitionists; his autobiography
Spouse(s)Susannah Cullen
ChildrenJoanna Vassa and Anna Maria Vassa
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Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano - Project Gutenberg eText 15399.png
Essaka, Eboe (claimed)
Died31 March 1797 (aged 51–52)
Other namesGustavus Vassa, Graves
EthnicityIgbo (pronounced as Eboe)
OccupationExplorer, writer, merchant, slave, abolitionist
Known forInfluence over British abolitionists; his autobiography
Spouse(s)Susannah Cullen
ChildrenJoanna Vassa and Anna Maria Vassa

Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797)[1] also known as Gustavus Vassa, was a prominent African involved in the British movement for the abolition of the slave trade. He was enslaved as a child, 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, where he settled by 1792. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, depicts the horrors of slavery and influenced the enactment of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.[2]

Early life and enslavement[edit]

According to his own account, Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 to the Igbo people in the region now known as Nigeria. The youngest son, he had five brothers and a younger sister. When he was eleven, he and his sister were kidnapped and sold to native slaveholders. After changing hands several times, Equiano was taken to the coast where he was held by European slave traders.[1][3] 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. Literary scholar Vincent Carretta argued in a 2005 biography that Equiano may have been born in colonial South Carolina, not in Africa.[4][5]

He was bought by Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Pascal renamed the boy as Gustavus Vassa, after the Swedish noble who had become Gustav I of Sweden, king in the 16th century.[1] Equiano had already been renamed twice: he was called Michael while 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" – and eventually he submitted to the new name.[3]:62

Equiano wrote in his narrative that domestic slaves in Virginia were treated cruelly, suffering punishments such as an "iron muzzle" (scold's bridle), used around the mouth to keep house slaves quiet, leaving them unable to speak or eat. He thought that the eyes of portraits followed him wherever he went, and that a clock could tell his master about anything Equiano did wrong. Shocked by this culture, Equiano tried washing his face in an attempt to change its colour.[6]

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

As the slave of a naval captain, Equiano was trained in seamanship and traveled extensively with his master during the Seven Years War with France. Although Pascal's personal slave, Equiano was expected to assist the 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, to attend school and learn to read.

At this time, Equiano converted to Christianity. His master allowed Equiano to be baptized in St Margaret's, Westminster, on 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 promised his freedom, but did not release him.[citation needed]

Pascal sold Equiano to Captain James Doran of the Charming Sally at Gravesend, from where he was transported to Montserrat, in the Caribbean Leeward Islands. He was sold 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 Equiano was a very deserving boy, which Captain Doran said he found to be true."[7]


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 forty pounds, the slave could buy his freedom.[8] 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 buy his freedom, which he achieved by his early twenties. King urged Equiano to stay on as a business ]]. 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 the ruling in Somersett's Case of 1772, men believed they were free of the risk of enslavement. He was released in 1789

Pioneer of the abolitionist cause[edit]

Equiano travelled to London and became involved in the abolitionist movement, which had been particularly strong amongst Quakers, but was by 1787 non-denominational. As early as 1783 he had been passing information about the slave trade to abolitionists such as Granville Sharp, and the publicisation of the Zong massacre (a cause célèbre for the abolitionist movement) can ultimately be attributed to Equiano.[9] Equiano was a 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 of 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. 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 King 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.[10]

The book was not only 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 often 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 use it.[11]

Marriage and family[edit]

At some point, after having travelled widely, Equiano decided to settle in Britain and raise a family. On 7 April 1792, he married Susannah Cullen, a local girl, in St Andrew's Church in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The original marriage register containing the entry for Equiano and Cullen is held today by the 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. 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,[1] aged 52 (some historians will say otherwise[who?]). 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 over £80,000 today.[12] 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 north London.

Last days and will[edit]

Although Equiano's death is recorded in London in 1797, the location of his burial is unsubstantiated. One of his last addresses appears to have been Plaisterer's Hall in the City of London, where he drew up his will on 28 May 1796. He then 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 majority (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 in north London. By the early nineteenth century, The Missionary Society had become well known worldwide as non-denominational, though it was largely Congregational.

Controversy of origin[edit]

Historians have disagreed about Equiano's origins. Some believe he 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.[4]

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.[13] 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. Historians continue to search for evidence to substantiate Equiano's claim of birth in Africa. Currently, no separate documentation supports this story. Carretta holds that Equiano was born in South Carolina, based on the documents mentioned above.[14]

For some historians, the fact that many parts of Equiano's account can be proven lends weight to accepting his story of African birth. As 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."[15]

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.[16] Before this work, however, no town bearing a name of that spelling had been recorded. Other historians, including Nigerians, have pointed out grave errors in the research.[who?]

Another point of contention is the detail of his account of the ocean crossing. "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."[17]

Some modern scholars reason that the level of detail Equiano gave while writing about his place of birth makes it clear that he was born in Africa. According to his narrative,

Of these the most considerable is the kingdom of Benen, both as to extent and wealth, the richness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its king, and the number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants. It is situated nearly under the line, and extends along the coast about 170 miles, but runs back into the interior part of Africa to a distance hitherto I believe unexplored by any traveller; and seems only terminated at length by the empire of Abyssinia, near 1500 miles from its beginning. This kingdom is divided into many provinces or districts: in one of the most remote and fertile of which, called Eboe, I was born, in the year 1745, in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka. The distance of this province from the capital of Benin and the sea coast must be very considerable; for I had never heard of white men or Europeans, nor of the sea: and our subjection to the king of Benin was little more than nominal; for every transaction of the government, as far as my slender observation extended, was conducted by the chiefs or elders of the place.[citation needed]


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.[18]

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, where a commemorative plaque was unveiled on 11 October 2000 in the presence of Paul Boateng MP, Professor Carretta from the University of Maryland and Burt Caesar, as part of Black History Month celebrations. Student musicians from Trinity College of Music played a fanfare specially composed for the unveiling by Professor Ian Hall.[19]

His life and achievements were made part of the National Curriculum in 2007 but it has been reported (at the end of 2012) that these will be dropped.[20] In January 2013 Operation Black Vote launched a petition to request Education Secretary Michael Gove not to drop both Equiano and Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum.[21] Rev. Jesse Jackson and others wrote a letter to The Times protesting against the mooted removal of both figures from the National Curriculum.[22][23]

In horse racing, the champion sprinter and dual winner of the King's Stand Stakes was named after Equiano.

A statue of Equiano, made by pupils of Edmund Waller School, was erected in Telegraph Hill Lower Park in 2008

Media portrayal[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797)". BBC History. 
  2. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (1999). The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-40661-X. 
  3. ^ a b Equiano, Olaudah (2005). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Gutenberg Project. 
  4. ^ a b Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0820325716. 
  5. ^ "The True Story of Equiano". The Nation. 21 November 2005. 
  6. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (1789). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. p. 109. 
  7. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (1789). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. 
  8. ^ Walvin, James (2000). An African's Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745–1797. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-8264-4704-3 
  9. ^ Lovejoy, Paul E. (2006). "Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African". Slavery & Abolition 27 (3): 337, 344. doi:10.1080/01440390601014302. 
  10. ^ David Damrosch, Susan J. Wolfson, Peter J. Manning (eds), The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2A: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries (2003), p. 211.
  11. ^ Shyllon, Folarin (September 1977). "Olaudah Equiano; Nigerian Abolitionist and First Leader of Africans in Britain". Journal of African Studies 4 (4): 433–451. 
  12. ^ Based on the retail prices index, £950 in 1796 would be worth £81,000 in 2008 using the calculator at measuringworth.com.
  13. ^ "The True Story of Equiano". The Nation. 
  14. ^ Nwokeji, G. Ugo; Carretta, Vincent (1 December 2006). Journal of American History 93 (3): 840. doi:10.2307/4486431. 
  15. ^ Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 372. ISBN 978-0-618-61907-8. 
  16. ^ Acholonu, Catherine Obianuju (1989), The Igbo Roots Of Olaudah Equiano: An Anthropological Research 
  17. ^ "Olaudah Equiano". Soham. 
  18. ^ Equiano Society website
  19. ^ City of Westminster green plaques
  20. ^ Petre, Jonathan (29 December 2012). "Gove faces war with equality activists as he axes Labour's PC curriculum that dropped greatest figures from history lessons". Daily Mail. 
  21. ^ "OBV initiate Mary Seacole Petition". Operation Black Vote (OBV). 3 January 2013. 
  22. ^ Hurst, Greg (9 January 2013). "Civil rights veteran Jesse Jackson joins fight against curriculum changes". The Times. 
  23. ^ "Open letter to Rt Michael Gove MP". Operation Black Vote (OBV). 9 January 2013. 
  24. ^ Son of Africa: The Slave Narrative of Olaudah Equiano at newsreel.org
  25. ^ "Grace Unshackled: The Olaudah Equiano Story". BBC. 15 April 2007. Retrieved 15 January 2009. 

External links[edit]