Shin-Kickers From History: Olaudah Equiano

The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano

Most accounts of the slave trade were written by slave traders, or by people dedicated to abolishing the slave trade. Few accounts were written by the slaves themselves. One important exception is The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, published in 1789.

Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in what is now Nigeria. When he was ten or eleven, he was kidnapped and sold as a slave in Barbados. He did not remain in Barbados long. He was sold first to a planter in Virginia and three months later to a British naval officer. He spent most of his time as a slave working on British slave ships and naval vessels. One of his owners, Henry Pascal, the captain of a British trading ship, gave Equiano the name Gustavas Vassa, which he used for most of his life.

In 1762, Equiano was sold to Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia. King allowed Equiano to trade small amounts of merchandise on his own behalf. He earned enough money to buy his freedom in 1766.

Once free, Equiano settled in England, where he worked as a merchant and became active in the abolition movement there. At the urging of his abolitionist friends, he wrote a memoir describing his capture and his experiences as a slave. The book was clearly designed as part of the movement: it began with a petition to Parliament and ended with an antislavery letter addressed to Queen Charlotte.* Although he included horrifying tales of the middle passage and West African slavery, he focused on his personal story–countering the popular image of the African slave as a heathen savage with that of a middle-class Englishman who improved his fortunes with hard work and just happened to be black.

The time of its publication in 1789 was good. William Wilberforce had brought his first bill for the abolition of the slave trade before Parliament. Abolitionist committees were flooding the country with copies of the shocking diagram of the slave ship The Brookes. With abolition in the air, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself became an international best seller. ** Equiano did his part to make that happen. He traveled across the British Isles for five years promoting his book and his cause.***

Equiano died in 1797. It was 1807 before Parliament declared the slave trade illegal in Britain.

* No point in addressing it to the king. George III was known to be pro-slavery, or at least anti-abolition. The man always backed the wrong historical horse.

**It’s still in print today.

***Speaking as an author who has tried to actively promote a book for a period of months, this exhausts me just to think about.

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