Olaudah Equiano

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This article is about Gustavus Vassa. For the Swedish king, see Gustav I of Sweden.
Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano - Project Gutenberg eText 15399.png
Born c. 1745
Essaka,(Isseke, Ihiala LGA Anambra state) Eboe (claimed)
Died 31 March 1797 (aged 51–52)
Other names Gustavus Vassa, Graves
Occupation Explorer, writer, merchant, abolitionist
Known for Influence over British abolitionists; his autobiography
Children Joanna Vassa and Anna Maria Vassa

Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797)[1] also known as Gustavus Vassa, was a prominent African abolitionist and freed slave; he supported the British movement to end the slave trade. As a child he was enslaved in his village of Essaka, in what is now Igboland Nigeria, and shipped to the West Indies, being sold in Virginia. With his master, an officer in the Royal Navy, he eventually moved to England, where he purchased his freedom. Throughout his life Equiano worked as an author, a seafarer, merchant, hairdresser, and explorer in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and 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 British Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the African slave trade.[2]

In his account, Equiano gives details about his hometown Essaka and the laws and customs of the Igbo people (written Eboe), he described some of the communities he passed through as he was forcibly taken to the coast. His biography details his voyage on a slave ship, the brutality of slavery in the colonies of West Indies, Virginia, and Georgia, and the disfranchisement of freed people of colour (including kidnapping and enslavement) in these same places. Equiano was particularly attached to his Christian faith; he embraced it in 1759 at the age of 14 and its importance is a recurring theme in his autobiography; he identified as a Protestant of the Church of England. Several events in his life drew him to question his faith, as well as almost losing it completely after a black cook named John Annis was kidnapped from a ship in England and tortured on the island of Saint Kitts.[3]

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. Earlier in his freedom, he resolved never to visit the West Indies or the Americas again because of their racial brutality, but was drawn back there because of his duties to various captains. Later in his life, Equiano married an English woman named Susannah Cullen and they had two children. He died in 1797 in London; the exact location of his gravesite is unknown. Plaques commemorating his life have been placed at buildings where he lived in London. Nigerian scholars have studied to learn more about the history of his birthplace and home town, Essaka. Several brief death notices appeared in American papers, including this one from the Weekly Oracle (New London, CT), 12 August 1797, p. 3: ---DEATHS--- In London, Mr. Gustavus Vassa, the African, well known to the public for the interesting narrative of his life.

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. His name, Olaudah, means one who has a loud voice and is well spoken, and signifies good fortune. He was the youngest son, with five older brothers and a younger sister. His father was a man of dignity, given the title "Embrenché" (modern Ibo: "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 remembered an incident when an attempted kidnapping of children was thwarted by adults in his villages. Around the age of eleven, he and his sister were left alone to look after their families compound living quarters as was usually done when adults went out of the house for work. Before they could act they were both kidnapped and taken far away from their hometown, separated, and sold to slaveholders. After changing hands several times, he met his sister again, but they were separated for the last time and he was taken over what he described as a large river, which he had never seen, to the coast where he was held by European slave traders.[1][4] 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.[5][6]

In Virginia Equiano 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.[4]:62

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.[7]

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. Equiano was also 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.

At this time, Equiano converted to Christianity. His master allowed Equiano to be baptized in St Margaret's, Westminster, on February 1759. 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.[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. There 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."[8]


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.[9] 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 by his early twenties. 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.

Pioneer of the abolitionist cause[edit]

Equiano travelled to London, where he became involved in the abolitionist movement; it had been particularly strong amongst Quakers, but was by 1787 non-denominational. 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. (It became a cause célèbre for the abolitionist movement and a stimulus to its expansion).[10]

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 readers felt shame at learning of his harsh suffering. Entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, the book 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 narrative of what became a large literary genre. Equiano's personal account of slavery and his experiences as a black immigrant caused a sensation on publication. The book fueled a growing anti-slavery movement in Great Britain.

He described how he finally reached London, where he married an English woman and became a leading abolitionist, lecturing in numerous cities. His book can be seen as his most lasting contribution to the abolitionist movement. Equiano records his and Granville Sharp's central roles in the movement.

His book vividly demonstrated the full and complex humanity of Africans as much as the inhumanity of slavery. 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.

In the years following United States' gaining independence in 1783, Equiano had become involved with the Black Poor of London, mostly African-American slaves freed during and after the American Revolution by the British, who had promised them freedom. The British had transported the former slaves to England and its other colonies as promised, but many found it difficult to make new lives there. 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 1,000 Black Loyalists who had first settled in Nova Scotia, and later by Jamaican maroons and slaves liberated from illegal ships after Britain abolished the slave trade. Equiano was dismissed from the new settlement after protesting against financial mismanagement and returned to London.[11]

Because of his connections, he was a prominent figure and often served as a spokesman for his people. His reactions and remarks 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.[12]

Marriage and family[edit]

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

At some point, 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 (sources differ on his age.[who?]). Soon after, the elder daughter died at the age of four, leaving the youngest child Joanna to inherit Equiano's estate. It was valued at £950: a considerable sum, worth over £80,000 in 2008.[13] 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 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 the violent excesses of the French Revolution and the lengthy warfare 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. If his daughter Joanna had 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 in November 1796 at the Spa Fields Chapel of the Countess of Huntingdon in north London. By the early nineteenth century, The Missionary Society had become well known worldwide as non-denominational; many of its members were 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.[5]

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.[6] 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]


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 in 2008 and 2010 was named after Equiano.

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

Representation in other media[edit]

  • A 28-minute documentary, Son of Africa: The Slave Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (1996), produced by BBC and directed by Alrick Riley, uses dramatic reconstruction, archival material and interviews to provide the social and economic context for his life and the slave trade.[24]

Numerous works about Equiano have been produced for and since the 2007 centenary of Britain's abolition of the slave trade:

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. ^ [1]
  4. ^ a b Equiano, Olaudah (2005). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Gutenberg Project. 
  5. ^ a b Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0820325716. 
  6. ^ a b Robin Blackburn (21 November 2005). "The True Story of Equiano". The Nation. Archived from the original on 4 July 2008. 
  7. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (1789). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. p. 109. 
  8. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (1789). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. 
  9. ^ 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 
  10. ^ Lovejoy, Paul E. (2006). "Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African". Slavery & Abolition 27 (3): 337, 344. doi:10.1080/01440390601014302. 
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Shyllon, Folarin (September 1977). "Olaudah Equiano; Nigerian Abolitionist and First Leader of Africans in Britain". Journal of African Studies 4 (4): 433–451. 
  13. ^ Based on the retail prices index, £950 in 1796 would be worth £81,000 in 2008 using the calculator at measuringworth.com.
  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, 1996, sale at California Newsreel
  25. ^ Robert Hume (2007) Equiano: The Slave with the Loud Voice, Stone Publishing House, ISBN 978-0954990916
  26. ^ "Grace Unshackled: The Olaudah Equiano Story". BBC. 15 April 2007. Retrieved 15 January 2009. 

External links[edit]