The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, is a bestselling slave narrative which was first published in 1789. By his own admission, Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in Nigeria and belonged to the Igbo tribe. At age 11 he was captured by slave-traders and trafficked to Barbados in the West Indies and then Virginia in America.
Equiano stood out from the rest because unlike many other slaves he was not put to work on the plantations but instead on board slave ships. As a slave he travelled across the West Indies, North America, Central America and Europe and was sold on 3 different occasions – the most notable of these being to a Michael Henry Pascal – an officer in the British Navy. Pascal is noted as being responsible for renaming Equiano after a 16th century Swedish king called Gustavus Vassa. Under Pascal’s ownership Equiano learned to read and write as well as pick up some valuable skills which would work to his favour later on in life. Having impressed his slave owner with his high work ethic and industriousness, Pascal promised to free Equiano but at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1762 would break Equiano’s heart by selling him on to West Indian slave owners. However, the education he had received during his travels along with the practical skills he had learned and embraced under his slave owners, plus a degree of good fortune, led to Equiano saving enough money which enabled him to purchase his own freedom in 1766. He moved to London where he would embrace John Wesley’s teachings of the bible which led to his baptism into the Methodist Church in 1773.
Having developed a strong spiritual life, Equiano would then make it his life mission, based on his earlier experiences, to heavily involve himself in the early abolitionist movement. The stories he would hear of African slaves being severely whipped, beaten and then the weakest of them being tossed overboard into the ocean would lead to him becoming a full-time anti-slavery activist. It was during this time that he would meet and marry Susannah Cullen – a white English woman from Soham in Cambridgeshire with their union producing two daughters – Ann Marie – born on 16th October 1793 and Joanna – born on 11th April 1795.
Along with the publication of his autobiography and letters to newspapers, Equiano would unite with other famous former slaves such as Octobah Cugoano and Ignatius Sancho in the formation of a group called The Sons of Africa – which aimed to put a stop to slavery through its exposure in the form of speeches, letters, lobbying and publications by those who had experienced the horrific act themselves.
Equiano worked tirelessly to put an end to slavery though he would not see its end result having died on 31st March 1797, a year after the death of his wife – Susannah. It would be ten years after his death (1807) that the abolition of the slave trade would be legislated before its full abolishment by law in all the British colonies in the Americas in 1838.
As a result of his industriousness, tireless campaigning and important publishing of his personal testimony (which is said to have been read by John Wesley on his death bed and given a favourable review by famous author Mary Wollstonecraft), Equiano had, in his will, left his surviving daughter – Joanna, an inheritance of £950 (on her 21st birthday in 1816) which today is the equivalent of £80,000 or $120,000. Olaudah Equiano is truly a unique hero in Black British history.
Darell J Philip is a freelance writer who also blogs at: darellphilip.wordpress.com