This is the extraordinary and little-known 18th Century story of an African child captured, enslaved and shipped to the New World. Unlike that of most of his compatriots, his story did not end there. Olaudah Equiano gained his freedom, an education and skills and eventually lent his support to the abolitionist movement in England.
We know so much about Olaudah Equiano because he wrote his autobiography in 1789: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African1. It was a best-seller and was published in nine editions before his death and a further nine times in later years. The book was one of the first works written in English by a former slave and, as well as throwing light on that life, it also gives us a unique record of African life prior to the European slave trade and colonialism. All the quotations in this tale are taken from Equiano's autobiography.
Early Life in Africa
Equiano was born around 1745 into the Ibo2 tribe in the village of Isseke in Benin3. Slavery was part of the culture in which he grew up. His family owned slaves and he faced the constant possibility of being enslaved himself, although most slaves were prisoners or war booty.
At the age of 11, Equiano and his younger sister were abducted from their home while the rest of the family were working in the fields. Several days later, the siblings were separated. Equiano was passed from master to master in western Africa and seems to have been treated well, as he described some of his African masters as being like second families. Six or seven months after his abduction, Equiano was delivered to the coast, where he saw the sea for the first time, as well as his first white man and first slave ship:
The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship... These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew.
Equiano then had to endure the trials notoriously associated with the slave ship voyage across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage. It was a nightmare for all the slaves. Equiano wrote of merciless floggings, the stench below-decks, the shrieks of women, the groans of the dying and his desire to die rather than suffer further. He seems to have been relatively fortunate as he was kept on deck for much of the passage. This certainly helped his chances of survival.
The ship eventually berthed in Barbados, where most of the slaves were sold. There was no buyer for Equiano, however, and in less than two weeks he was on board another slave ship, bound for Virginia, where he was bought by a Mr Campbell, on whose plantation he now worked. The experiences of this time made a big impression on Equiano. He wrote of the iron muzzle worn by the female slave cook, the branding of slaves, thumbscrews applied as punishment and more floggings.
Soon Equiano had a new master: Michael Henry Pascal, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, with whom he remained for seven years. Soon after being bought by Pascal, they were on their way to England. Equiano was fortunate to have a master who treated him well, almost as a friend. They served together in the Royal Navy, fighting in the Seven Years War against France. In England, Equiano was hired to wait upon various families and made contacts that were to be useful later in his life. It was a pleasant period of his life:
[I] began to consider myself as happily situated, for my master treated me always extremely well, and my attachment and gratitude to him were very great.
He learned English and got to know the ways and culture of the people he now found himself among. He was even sent to school by the Misses Guerin, who he served for a time, and he learned to read and write. He was also baptised and spent the rest of his life striving to be a good Christian.
After seven years in Pascal's service Equiano was sold, for no apparent reason, to Captain James Doran and was returned to the West Indies. Upon arriving at Montserrat, he was sold again to the Quaker merchant Robert King. He served on king's merchant ships, becoming an accomplished seaman. The ships delivered food and cattle to the West Indies in exchange for carrying freshly-arrived African slaves to South Carolina and Georgia. Equiano himself was beaten by white seamen who were jealous of his status as a sailor. However, this was nothing compared to the experiences of other Africans, and he witnessed some of the cruellest treatment of slaves during this time. His own words describe it best:
It was very common in several of the islands...for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master's name, and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks...and often instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumb-screws, &c, were sometimes applied for the slightest faults. I have seen a Negro beaten until some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over.
Free Man and Abolitionist
Equiano began small-scale trading himself, selling glasses and fruit at various ports of call. He managed to save £40. With this he was able to buy his freedom and on 11 July, 1766 he was confirmed a free man. He continued working as a paid sailor on king's merchant ships until his former master died.
Though he was a free man, attitudes towards him in Georgia and the West Indies had not changed, so Equiano returned to Europe in search of true liberty. In Europe, he found it hard to find work and a life that suited him, but he eventually returned to the sea, working on trading ships sailing in the Mediterranean and to Jamaica, and was also involved in a voyage to find the Northwest Passage4.
Although Equiano was free and was no longer in the New World, he continued to experience prejudice and racism everywhere he went. It drove him to lend his experiences, learning, and the aforementioned English contacts, to Granville Sharp's British Abolitionist Movement. He lectured against the cruelty of British slave owners and against the slave trade as a whole. He also worked to resettle freed slaves. In 1788, Equiano petitioned Queen Charlotte on behalf of his fellow Africans:
That they may be raised from the condition of brutes, to which they are at present degraded, to the rights and situation of freemen.
The most significant part of Equiano's work, though, was the writing and publication of his autobiography. He seems to have been reluctant to tell his story, claiming that he was 'a private and obscure individual... neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant'. However, he did realise that he had an important story to tell. One of his fellow abolitionists said that Equiano was 'of more use to the Cause than half the People of the Country'. His book was published in 1789 and became an instant sensation, rivalling the decade's other bestseller, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Nine editions were published in the following eight years for different international markets.
Equiano hoped that his book would 'promote the interests of humanity'. It more than succeeded. He influenced the thinking of those in power in England and he helped to bring the Slave Trade to an end.
Olaudah Equiano died in 1797 in England. Ten years later the English slave trade was abolished. His book remains a damning testimony to a damning chapter in European history.