Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), known in his lifetime as Gustavus Vassa was a prominent African in London, a freed slave who supported the British movement to end the slave trade. His autobiography, published in 1789 and attracting wide attention, was considered highly influential in gaining passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807, which ended the African trade for Britain and its colonies.
Since the late 20th century, there has been some debate on his origins, but most of his account has been extensively documented. His last master was Robert King, an American Quaker merchant who allowed Equiano to trade on his own account and purchase his freedom in 1766. Equiano settled in England in 1767 and worked and traveled for another 20 years as a seafarer, merchant, and explorer in the Caribbean, the Arctic, the American colonies, South and Central America, and the United Kingdom.
In London, Equiano (identifying as Gustavus Vassa during his lifetime) was part of the Sons of Africa, a black group who opposed the slave trade, 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. The first-known slave narrative, it went through nine editions and aided passage of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the African slave trade. Since 1967, his memoir has been regarded as the “true beginning of modern African literature”.
As a free man, Equiano had a stressful life; he had suffered suicidal thoughts before he became a born-again Christian and found peace in his faith. After settling in London, in 1792 Equiano married an English woman named Susannah Cullen and they had two daughters. He died in 1797 in London; his gravesite is unknown. 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 Nigeria.
Early life and enslavement
According to his own account, Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 to the Igbo people in the region now known as Nigeria. His name, Olaudah, means “one who has a loud voice and is well spoken”, and signifies good fortune. He was the youngest son, with six brothers and sisters. His father was a man of dignity, given the title “Embrenché” (modern Igbo: mgburichi), a man whom he remembers bearing scarifications on his forehead, which signified his father’s status. Equiano expected to receive such scarification when he came of age among the males of his community. Equiano recollects his mother teaching him self-defence, and he witnessed her taking part in communal wars. His mother particularly impressed on him the religious rites of his community. She often carried him along to an ancestral shrine in the wild where his maternal grandmother was buried; she would give offerings to the shrine and weep by its side. Equiano said his early life was filled with what his people considered good omens or mysterious signs; for instance, he was on a path in his village when he accidentally stood on a large snake but was left unharmed.
Equiano recounted an incident when an attempted kidnapping of children was thwarted by adults in his villages. 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 for work. They were both kidnapped and taken far away from their hometown, separated, and sold to slave traders. After changing hands several times, Equiano met his sister again, but they were separated and he was taken over 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 on to the British colony of Virginia. Literary scholar Vincent Carretta argued in his 2005 biography of Equiano that the activist may have been born in colonial South Carolina rather than Africa based on Carretta’s discovery of a 1759 parish baptismal record and a 1773 ship’s muster, both of which list Equiano’s place of birth as 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 Igboland.
In Virginia, Equiano was bought in 1754 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. 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. He used this name for the rest of his life, including on all official records. He only used Equiano in his autobiography.
Equiano wrote in his narrative that domestic slaves in Virginia were treated cruelly and suffered punishments such as the “iron muzzle” (scold’s bridle), which was used 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.
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 the youth could attend school and learn to read and write.
At this time, Equiano converted to Christianity. He was baptized in St Margaret’s, Westminster, on 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 Vassa’s origins were questioned after his book was published, the Guerins testified to his lack of English when he first came to London. Despite some special treatment, after the British won the war, Equiano did not receive a share of the prize money, as was awarded to the regular crew. Pascal had promised his freedom, but did not release him.
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.
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, 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 master’s behalf. Equiano sold fruits, glass tumblers, and other items between Georgia and the Caribbean islands. King enabled 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 slavery.
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 Vassa for a project on the Mosquito Coast in South 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. It was the first influential slave narrative of what became a large literary genre. But Vassa’s experience in slavery was quite different from that of most slaves; he did not participate in field work, he served his masters personally and went to sea, was taught to read and write, and he 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. 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 (Igbo) 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. Using a published database of slave ships, Vincent Carretta believes the boy may have been on the “1753 voyage of the Ogden, a mid-sized two-masted “snow” from Liverpool trading at Bonny on the Calabar coast.” As Carretta notes, this ship was “the most probable vessel bearing Equiano from the Bight of Biafra to Barbados.” The Ogden arrived at Bridgetown, Barbados, on 9 May 1754. Equiano said he was kept a short time there, then put aboard “a sloop for North America,” and “landed up a river a good way from the sea, about Virginia county [sic]”. Carretta documented a sloop, the Nancy, that cleared Barbados on 21 May 1754 and arrived in Virginia on 13 June, going up the York River.
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 Vassa’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 master 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 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 masters 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
As part of settling in Britain, Equiano/Vassa decided to marry and have 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 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 mixed-race 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). Soon after, the elder daughter died at the age of four, leaving the youngest 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 Clavering near 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 Church in London, the church recently installed a small memorial to Equiano.) 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. 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. 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 Equiano’s memoir by Paul Edwards, interest in the African was revived; additional editions of his work have been published since then. Nigerian scholars have also become involved in studying him, and there has been debate about the extent to which his work was fact or fiction. He was especially valued as a pioneer writer 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. 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:
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.
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, as are all such works.
Lovejoy wrote that:
“circumstantial evidence indicates that he was born where he said he was, and that, in fact, The Interesting Narrative is reasonably accurate in its details, although, of course, subject to the same criticisms of selectivity and self-interested distortion that characterize the genre of autobiography.”
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.”
In her book on Equiano and what she says are his Igbo origins, Nigerian writer Catherine Obianuju Acholonu wrote in 1989 that he was born in a Nigerian town known as Isseke, where she said local oral history told of his upbringing. In his 1991 review of her work, O.S. Ogede criticized the lack of intellectual rigor and noted serious errors in her research, beginning with how she determined Isseke as the village of origin and claimed she saw people with features traditionally associated with his family, although he had left there 250 years ago. He also criticized her effort to determine Equiano’s origins based on analysis of language that she interpreted through his transcriptions. He argued for the memoir being considered “literary biography” and noted that she did not refer to the current debate on whether Equiano’s account “should be considered fiction or fact”.
Lovejoy summarized his argument by saying:
“As in other autobiographical accounts, the account of his childhood was filtered through additional information learned later in life, as well as reflections on what he remembered and how he attempted to understand his early experiences. That there should be variance in detail between what is stated and what probably happened is a methodological problem that faces anyone working in autobiography.”
Byrd examines Equiano’s changing ways for referring to the Eboe people, nations, and communities in his account, related both from his memory of his perspective as a child and later as an adult with wider knowledge of the world. He says,
“At times The Interesting Narrative presents an author whose understanding of himself appears firmly based in the experiences of a youth raised in the Biafran interior. At other times it presents an author whose self-consciousness was quite obviously affected by a long time in the British Atlantic world. At other moments, still, the book offers a protagonist whose self-awareness is clearly indicative of someone intimately familiar with and socialized within and between Africa, the Americas, and Europe.”
Byrd believes that the ethnographic language of references as noted above, “reflects…a deep connection to the social consequences of enslavement in the Biafran interior.” In the mid-18th century, Byrd says, ideas of the Ibo people, or nations and communities in the sense they later accrued, were not yet formed. He believes that Equiano’s account reflects the more fluid concepts at that time of what constitute connections and barriers among the peoples: language, shared practices and culture, but these varied as Equiano tried to describe them. He also thought this was appropriate given the boy’s young age when he left home, as his most important ties were family and village. Byrd thinks the concept of an Ibo “nation,” was a new social formation. He suggests that “notions of self and ethnicity developed and were expressed historically across the Atlantic world,” some developing in the Americas after people left their homelands.