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Black history >> UK

Olaudah Equiano

In his book, The Interesting narrative, Equiano said he was born in an Igbo village in the kingdom of Benin around 1745. When he was about eleven, he was kidnapped along with his sister, and after six months of captivity he was brought to the West African coast.

Sold to slave-traders, Equiano was transported to Barbados. After a two-week stay in the West Indies Equiano was taken to the English colony of Virginia. He was later purchased by Captain Henry Pascal, a British naval officer, and served in the seven-year war with France.
  Olaudah Equiano

He was renamed Gustavus Vassa, and was beaten until he answered to his new name. Pascal took him to London, and he stayed with two relatives of his master, two women who helped him to read and write. He was sold at Deptford without warning to a Captain James Doran, who took him to the island of Montserrat, and sold him to a merchant called Robert King. Equiano saved whatever money he could, and in 1766 purchased his freedom for £40. £40 was a more than the average labourer’s yearly pay at the time. In 1767 he return to London, and found work as a hairdresser in Coventry Court, Haymarket. The following year Dr. Charles Irving, who was well known for his successful experiments in making fresh water from seawater, employed him at Pall-Mall.

Equiano reported the Zong disaster to Granville Sharp, asking Sharp to seek justice for the 133 slaves who were thrown overboard by Slave traders. The traders later claimed insurance for the dead Slaves. Sharp took the trader to court, but was unable to gain justice for the Slaves. It was this case that raised Equiano awareness that he ought to work for the abolition of the Slave Trade. But, there were many obstacles. The trade laws had to be abolished. It was in the 1780s that brought matters to a head. Other individuals also dedicated their time and energies to abolition. Among them were Ottobah Cugoano, Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and many. Equiano formed a group called The Sons of Africa, and they lobbied Members of Parliament: MPs and Lords.

In 1787, Equiano was appointed Commissary for a project to settle former black slaves in Sierra Leone. He was later sacked because he was outspoken against corruption among some of the white people who were involved. During that year Equiano helped one of the Sons of Africa, Ottobah Cugoano to edit and publish a book published a book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery. Cugoano was the first African to put in writing a formal and bold attack on the Slavery, and Equiano was the co-laborator.

The following year Equiano (1789) published his autobiography The Interesting Narrative, the most important single literary contribution to the campaign for the abolition of Slavery. It was highly effective in arousing public opinion, assisting William Wilberforce’s campaign within the House of Commons. In 1791 the Reverend John Wesley, after reading the book, urged Wilberforce to do his best to bring about abolition. Equiano travelled throughout Britain promoting the book and lobbying for abolition. It became a bestseller and was also published in Germany (1790), New York (1791) and Holland (1791). He also visited Ireland where he made several speeches on the evils of the Slave Trade. In Equiano's lifetime, his Narrative went through nine British editions; many other editions followed after his death in 1797.

A part of the book's great popularity can be attributed to the timing of its initial publication at the height of the movement in Britain to abolish the Slave Trade. Equiano's was the only account by a former Slave, of slavery in Africa, on the Middle Passage, as well as in the West Indies, North America, the Mediterranean, Holland, Russia, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Britain. His first reviewers quickly acknowledged the significance of the Narrative, which also greatly influenced the development of the nineteenth-century African-American slave narrative.

Equiano married Susannah Cullen on 7 April 1792 at St Andrews Church, Soham, Cambridgeshire, and they had two children. Anne Marie, aged four, died in July 1797, and Joanna at aged 21 was left property and £950 cash (about £100,000 in today currency) in his Will. In spite of the popularity and power of The Inrteresting Narrative, and the cause it promoted, Equiano did not live to see the abolition of the transatlantic Slave Trade, which was not legislated until 1807, ten years after his death in March 1797.

Click for information on the Equiano Society and Equiano Project.
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Wednesday 23rd April 2014
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