Olaudah Equiano | Biography
Olaudah Equiano | Biography

Quick Information

  • Full Name Olaudah Equiano
  • Nickname Gustavus Vassa
  • Occupation Writer, Abolitionist
  • Nationality British
  • Birthplace Two possible places have been debated: Osaka, Eboe, Kingdom of Benin (now Nigeria) and South Carolina, British North America
  • Born Year And Birthday 1745
  • Death Date 1797-03-31

Quotes

Anti-slavery Pioneer

Olaudah Equiano | Biography

According to his account, he was kidnapped at the age of eleven and was taken to be sold for slavery. While he was being transported out of Africa, he visited multiple places and crossed oceans. He later wrote about his voyage from Africa to Virginia (where he was sold) later in his memoir 'The Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African.'


Quick Information
  • Full Name Olaudah Equiano
  • Nickname Gustavus Vassa
  • Occupation Writer, Abolitionist
  • Nationality British
  • Birthplace Two possible places have been debated: Osaka, Eboe, Kingdom of Benin (now Nigeria) and South Carolina, British North America
  • Birth Date 1745
  • Death Date 1797-03-31

Olaudah Equiano was a writer and abolitionist enslaved in his childhood and resold to numerous owners before he could purchase his freedom by 1767.

Who was Olaudah Equiano?

Olaudah Equiano was the first publishing writer in Britain of African descent. He later penned as Gustavus Vassa in the late 1780s.  

According to his account, he was kidnapped at the age of eleven and was taken to be sold for slavery. While he was being transported out of Africa, he visited multiple places and crossed oceans. He later wrote about his voyage from Africa to Virginia (where he was sold) later in his memoir.

He worked in a plantation in Virginia before he was bought by a British Navy Soldier who taught him to read, write and introduced him to religion. He traveled through many oceans with British soldiers and then was sold to a prosperous merchant from Philadelphia.

The merchant, Robert King, provided Equiano freedom to trade during their work and travel in commercial vessels. Through trading, Equiano bought himself freedom from King but kept on working as a business partner with King. After getting freedom, he also worked as a sailor in the British Navel Vessels and other commercial vessels.

As such, he traveled for 20 years until finally settling in London. There he joined the Abolitionist movement and funded the Black Lobbyist group ‘Sons of Africa’ and also published the memoirs of his experiences with slavery. The book became immensely popular, which attracted him royalties and fame. In his later years of life, Equiano conducted lectures throughout the country and actively advocated against slavery, which was eventually abolished in Britain in 1807, while he passed away in 1797.

Early Life & Way Out Of Slavery

 Equiano wrote in his autobiography ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African’ (1789) that he was the youngest son born in the Kingdom of Benin (now in Nigeria) in 1745. He stated, “My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up.” He recalled his childhood among the people of his village, Esaka, Eboe, in the memoir. According to his account, his father was one of the elders or chiefs who could give verdicts on disputes and crimes or initiate the slave trade.

“Sometimes indeed we sold slaves to them, but they were only prisoners of war, or such among us as had been convicted of kidnapping, or adultery, and some other crimes, which we esteemed heinous.” He Wrote. “When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares ... and accepts the price of his fellow creature’s liberty with as little reluctance as the enlightened merchant.” 

The memoir also describes a kidnapping incident that occurred in his village. He wrote that he and his sister were eventually kidnapped when they were at home looking after the premises when their parents had gone to work. He recalls that he was separated from his sister, both of whom were sold to the slave traders and were eventually onboarded on a European slave ship alongside 244 enslaved Africans to reach Barbados, British West Indies, before being sent to the Colony Of Virginia to be sold. 

However, scholar Vincent Caretta has opined that Euaino could have been born in Colonia, South Carolina. He 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.”

Caretta based his claim on Equiano’s baptismal record and a navy muster roll that deem him as a South Carolinian. He alleged that Equiano could have made up his narrative about his African origins. But scholars such as Alexander X. Byrd, Paul Lovejoy, and Douglas Chambers have written in support of Euaino’s account based on its richness and contextual interpretations of historical contexts. 

Serving Michael Pascal

Then in Virginia, he was sold to Lieutenant Michael Pascal, a Royal Navy Officer. Pascal renamed Equiano after the 16th century Swedish King’ Gustavus Vassa’. Equiano spent a short time in Virginia and went on to serve Pascal in his journey on the British trading vessel. He spent eight years traveling across the oceans visiting, visiting England, Holland, Scotland, Gibraltar, Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and South Carolina. Pascal, throughout their voyage, taught him to read and write while also baptized him.

Pascal then sold Equiano to Captain James Doran, who later sold him to a prosperous merchant from Philadelphia, Robert King. From King, Equiano learned about trading, while King also allowed Equiano to make trades in a small amount. They worked on trading vessels in the Caribbean and North America. By 1767, Equiano had collected enough money to buy his freedom from King and freed himself from slavery.

Life After Gaining Freedom

Equiano had gained his freedom, but it was relatively dangerous for an unclaimed African-American person to sustain without being kidnapped back into slavery. King had suggested Equiano remain with him and work on their trade as business partners.

Equiano then moved to Britain, worked in the Royal Navy as a sailor along with commercial vessels. While working, he was almost kidnapped in Georgia. He traveled the world for the subsequent 20 years after gaining freedom. In his memoir, he wrote about exotic places such as Turkey, Central America’s Mosquito Coast, and the Arctic.

Arctic Expedition

Upon return, he settled in London, England, where he converted to Christianity in 1759. Later, he became a member of the Phipps expedition in 1773. During the expedition, he went to the Arctic while attempting to discover the Northwest Passage and reach the North pole.

He wrote about his Arctic expedition, “And thus ended our Arctic voyage, to the no small joy of all on board, after having been absent four months; in which time, at the imminent hazard of our lives, we explored nearly as far towards the Pole as 81 degrees north, and 20 degrees east longitude; being much farther, by all accounts, than any navigator had ever ventured before; in which we fully proved the impracticability of finding a passage that way to India.”

After his return from the Arctic, he participated in Abolitionists movements campaigning against the Slave Trade. Through their encouragement, Equiano published his memoirs in 1789.

Fighting Slavery

Equiano was in a Black lobbyist group enhancing the Abolitionist movements called ‘Sons of Africa’ alongside his fellow activist Ottobah Cugoano and eleven others. His publications were indeed a part of campaigning against slavery.

Equiano’s first autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,’ was published in 1789. Its publications incidentally coincided with the prominent parliamentary debate of the time on ‘Salve Trade.’ 

The book garnered immense popularity and was translated into many languages. The book went through eight editions of publications while Equiano was alive. And during the fame of his writings, he traveled to many countries to give lectures on the Abolitionist Cause. He advanced the anti-slavery movements through his writings.

Connoting his words, “But is not the slave trade entirely a war with the heart of man? And surely that which is begun by breaking down the barriers of virtue involves in its continuance destruction to every principle, and buries all sentiments in ruin.”

Equiano also actively advocated against the cruelty induced by the British slave owners in Jamaica during his lectures. He was also a commissary for the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in Sierra Leone. He worked in companying the settlement of 500 to 600 previously enslaved people and also for their treatment.

Personal Life and Death

Equiano married Susanna Cullen, an Englishwoman, in 1792 at a Soham Church. They had two daughters, Anna Maria and Joanna.

He did not live to see the abolishment of slavery which the British government formally abolished in 1807. He eventually passed away on 31 March 1797 approximately the age of 52. His daughter Anna Maria also did not survive to the age of adulthood.

While Joanna, at the age of 21, inherited his estate of 950 Euro Pounds. She later married a Congregational minister, Henry Bromly, in 1821.

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