Equiano, Olaudah 1745–1797

In 1789, the English reading public had their first opportunity to read an account of slavery from the perspective of a former slave in the American colonies, Olaudah Equiano. He described the terror of capture, the horror of the Middle Passage, and the aspirations of the enslaved for freedom. Equiano was born in 1745 into the Ibo tribe in the prosperous agricultural village of Isseke in what is now Nigeria. Slave traders captured Equiano, along with his sister, when he was only 11. After several months’ travel, during which time he was traded multiple times and separated from his sister, he arrived at the coast and was sold to European slave traders. Equiano then endured the horrors of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean. After a few days on the West Indian island of Barbados, he was taken to Virginia, where he was sold to a tobacco planter named Campbell. In 1757, Michael Pascal, an English naval officer, purchased the 12-year-old and renamed him Gustavus Vassa after a sixteenth-century Swedish king. Equiano accompanied Pascal with English forces in their conflict against France in the French and Indian War, participating in the successful 1758 siege of Louisbourg, a fortress on Cape Breton Island in Canada. Besides becoming a skilled sailor, while a slave for Pascal, Equiano also learned to read and write and was baptized in the Church of England. In 1763, Pascal sold Equiano to Robert King, a Quaker slave trader living on Montserrat in the West Indies. King permitted Equiano not only to earn money but also to invest in trading voyages between the West Indies and Georgia and South Carolina. In three years, he earned enough to buy his freedom. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) was a first-hand account of his capture by slavers, the Middle Passage, and ten years of enslavement. Equaino became a prominent figure in the English antislavery movement. (Library of Congress, LCUSZ62-54026) Equiano continued to work for King for a couple of years before returning to London in 1768. Over the next three decades, he continued to travel. From the Arctic (where he participated in a quest to find a Northwest Passage) to Turkey, Genoa, Spain, Nicaragua, Pennsylvania, New York, and England, Equiano saw much of the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds. In those locales, he held a variety of jobs. He was a hairdresser, a merchant, a personal servant, an author, and a lecturer. Although a free man, Equiano only slowly took up the antislavery cause. For two years, he worked with Robert King in the slave trade, and, in the mid- 1770s, he was an overseer on a slave plantation in Nicaragua. The brutality he had experienced and facilitated, along with a profound spiritual conversion in 1774, led Equiano to seek ways first to ameliorate the condition of slaves and then to attack the slave trade and slavery itself. After the Anglican Church rejected his offer to serve as a missionary to Africa in 1779, Equiano took up his pen against slavery. He published letters and reviews critical of proslavery advocates, particularly West Indian planter James Tobin, challenging Tobin’s assertions of black inferiority. Equiano was briefly involved in a project to relocate poor blacks from England in Sierra Leone, and, in 1788, he submitted an antislavery petition to the queen. He came to advocate interracial marriage as a solution to the multitude of problems associated with differences of color. This was not just a rhetorical effort. Equiano married Susan Cullen, an Englishwoman, in 1792, and the couple had two daughters. Yet it was his 1789 autobiography that made Equiano a truly influential figure in the antislavery crusade. Entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself, the book was part spiritual narrative, part adventure tale, and part travel account. Most importantly, it was a powerful indictment of the slave trade and slavery, drawing upon his experiences as both a victim and one who, for a time, contributed to the horrors of the pernicious labor system. Before his death in 1797, Equiano’s autobiography became a bestseller. Going through eight editions in England, the book was translated and appeared in five other nations. For eight years, Equiano traveled throughout the British Isles campaigning against slavery and selling his book, and his efforts attracted support for the growing campaign to end the English slave trade. Besides his becoming one of the most effective antislavery voices in England, Equiano’s autobiography became the prototype of a new literary genre, the slave narrative, which became very important in America. By the time of the American Civil War, there were, including Frederick Douglass’s classic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, over a hundred such narratives. These works told of a cruel system of bondage and stood as testimony to the widespread urge for freedom among slaves. Larry Gragg See also: Slave Trade; Slavery, African American; Document: On Being Brought from Africa to America (early 1770s). Bibliography Allison, Robert J. “Olaudah Equiano: An African in Slavery and Freedom.” In The Human Tradition in Colonial America, edited by Ian K. Steele and Nancy L. Rhoden. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999. Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself. Edited by Robert J. Allison. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1995. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: New American Library, 1987. equiano Tumblr The Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano Buy at Cosimo Olaudah Equiano Aka Gustavus Vassa (1745-1797). Prominent Stock …

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