Equiano, Olaudah (1745–31 March 1797), sailor, abolitionist, and writer, also known as Gustavus Vassa, was born in eastern Nigeria, the son of an Ibo village chief. When he was eleven, people from another Ibo village captured Equiano and his sister, beginning a six-month period during which he was separated from his sister and sold from one master to another until he reached the coast. There Equiano’s African masters sold him to white slave traders headed for Barbados. From Barbados he traveled to Virginia, where he was bought by Henry Pascal, the captain of a British trading vessel. During the spring 1757 voyage to England, Pascal gave Equiano the name Gustavus Vassa, which he used throughout his life, yet Equiano still included his African name on the title page of his autobiography.
In his autobiography, Olaudah Equiano writes that he was born in the Eboe province, in the area that is now southern Nigeria. He describes how he was kidnapped with his sister at around the age of 11, sold by local slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic to Barbados and then Virginia. In the absence of written records it is not certain whether Equiano’s description of his early life is accurate. Doubt also stems from the fact that, in later life, he twice listed a birthplace in the Americas. Apart from the uncertainty about his early years, everything Equiano describes in his extraordinary autobiography can be verified. In Virginia he was sold to a Royal Navy officer, Lieutenant Michael Pascal, who renamed him ‘Gustavus Vassa’ after the 16th-century Swedish king. Equiano travelled the oceans with Pascal for eight years, during which time he was baptised and learned to read and write.
Pascal then sold Equiano to a ship captain in London, who took him to Montserrat, where he was sold to the prominent merchant Robert King. While working as a deckhand, valet and barber for King, Equiano earned money by trading on the side. In only three years, he made enough money to buy his own freedom. Equiano then spent much of the next 20 years travelling the world, including trips to Turkey and the Arctic. In 1786 in London, he became involved in the movement to abolish slavery. He was a prominent member of the ‘Sons of Africa’, a group of 12 black men who campaigned for abolition.
In 1789 he published his autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African’. He travelled widely promoting the book, which became immensely popular, helped the abolitionist cause, and made Equiano a wealthy man. It is one of the earliest books published by a black African writer. In 1792, Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, and they had two daughters. Equiano died on 31 March 1797.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in Eboe, in what is now Nigeria. When he was about eleven, Equiano was kidnapped and sold to slave traders headed to the West Indies. Though he spent a brief period in the state of Virginia, much of Equiano’s time in slavery was spent serving the captains of slave ships and British navy vessels. One of his masters, Henry Pascal, the captain of a British trading vessel, gave Equiano the name Gustavas Vassa, which he used throughout his life, though he published his autobiography under his African name. In service to Captain Pascal and subsequent merchant masters, Equiano traveled extensively, visiting England, Holland, Scotland, Gibraltar, Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and South Carolina.
He was purchased in 1763 by Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia, for whom he served as a clerk. He also worked on King’s trading sloops. Equiano, who was allowed to engage in his own minor trade exchanges, was able to save enough money to purchase his freedom in 1766. He settled in England in 1767, attending school and working as an assistant to scientist Dr. Charles Irving. Equiano continued to travel, making several voyages aboard trading vessels to Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Jamaica, Grenada, and North America.
In 1773 he accompanied Irving on a polar expedition in search of a northeast passage from Europe to Asia. Equiano published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789 as a two-volume work. It went through one American and eight British editions during his lifetime. Following the publication of his Interesting Narrative, Equiano traveled throughout Great Britain as an abolitionist and author. He married Susanna Cullen in 1792, with whom he had two daughters. Equiano died in London in 1797.
Volume I opens with a description of Equiano’s native African culture, including customs associated with clothing, food, and religious practices. He likens the inhabitants of Eboe to the early Jews, and offers a theory that dark African skin is a result of exposure to the hot, tropical climates. In so doing, Equiano hints that Africans may be the indirect relatives of Christian Europeans through their Jewish ancestry and argues against slavery as an affront to all humans: “Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous. Did Nature make them inferior to their sons? and should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, No”.
Equiano’s journey begins when he is kidnapped from his village with his sister, from whom he is eventually separated. He describes a long voyage through various African regions, marked by brief tenures as a slave to “a chieftain, in a very pleasant country” and a wealthy widow who resides in “a town called Tinmah, in the most beautiful country I had yet seen in Africa”. Ultimately, Equiano is sold back to traders who bring him “sometimes by land, sometimes by water, through different countries and various nations, till . . . [he] arrive[s] at the sea coast”.
Equiano is sold to the owner of a slave ship bound for the West Indies, and he goes on to describe the “Middle Passage”—”the journey across the Atlantic Ocean that brought enslaved Africans to North America. His descriptions of extreme hardships and desperate conditions are punctuated by his astonishment at new sights and experiences. The narration occasionally reflects the childish wonder of the young Equiano at the time of his journey, but it also highlights his culture shock at his introduction to European culture and European treatment of slaves.
Though he witnesses the sale of slaves in the West Indies, Equiano himself is not purchased, and he stays with the Dutch ship, traveling from the West Indies to North America. There he is purchased and put to work on a Virginia plantation, doing light field work and household chores. He is not in Virginia long before Michael Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the British royal navy and captain of a merchant ship, purchases him as “a present to some of his friends in England”. During their spring 1757 voyage to England, Pascal renames the eleven-year-old Equiano Gustavus Vassa, and Equiano forges a friendship with a white American boy named Robert Baker, which lasts until Baker’s death two years later.
After the ship’s arrival in England, Equiano is exposed to Christianity. When he asks questions about his first encounter with snow, he is told it is made by “a great man in the heavens, called God.” He attends church, and receives instruction from his new friend, Robert. Equiano describes the various battles and ship transfers that take place after his return to sea with Pascal. He also expresses his growing ease with the European culture he initially found so strange and frightening: “I ceased to feel those apprehensions and alarms which had taken such strong possession of me when I first came among the Europeans”.
As his time with Pascal progresses, Equiano professes a growing attachment to his master and a desire to “imbibe” and “imitate” the English culture in which he is immersed. He can “now speak English tolerably well” and “embrace[s] every occasion of improvement . . . [having] long wished to be able to read and write”. During stopovers in England, Captain Pascal sends Equiano to wait upon two sisters known as the Miss Guerins. They become, in a sense, patrons to Equiano, not only treating him kindly but also supporting his education and his interest in Christianity by sending him to school. The Guerins are also instrumental in persuading Pascal to allow Equiano to be baptized into the church.
Equiano continues his studies and his religious development independently whenever possible, but his visits to England are always temporary, as he returns to sea with his captain whenever Pascal and the ship are ready for a new voyage. The journeys are always fraught with danger, and he describes numerous skirmishes and sieges throughout the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and West Indian Oceans. Equiano faithfully serves Pascal for several years and, believing that Pascal’s kindness implies a promise to free him, he is shocked at an abrupt betrayal during a layover in England, when Pascal has him roughly seized and forced into a barge. Pascal sells Equiano to Captain James Doran, the captain of a ship bound for the West Indies.
Dazed by his sudden change in fortunes, Equiano argues with Captain Doran that Pascal “could not sell me to him, nor to any one else . . . I have served him . . . many years, and he has taken all my wages and prize-money . . . I have been baptized; and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me”. After Doran tells Equiano he talks “too much English” and threatens to subdue him, Equiano begins service under a new master, for he is “too well convinced of his power over me to doubt what he said”.
Dejected at the situation in which he now finds himself, Equiano begins to believe his new situation is a result of God’s punishment for his sins and soon resigns himself to his new life. Doran takes him back to the West Indies, and Equiano is horrified at the sight of Montserrat, because he is fearful of being sold into this “land of bondage . . . misery, stripes, and chains”. Instead, he is purchased by Mr. Robert King, a “charitable and humane” Quaker merchant who employs him in a variety of positions, from loading boats to clerking and serving as a personal groom, in addition to occasionally hiring out Equiano”s services to other merchants.
One of King’s boat captains, an Englishman named Thomas Farmer, relies heavily on Equiano and frequently hires him for voyages from the West Indies to North America. Proud of being singled out, Equiano remarks that he “became so useful to the captain on shipboard, that . . . [he would] tell my master I was better to him on board than any three white men he had”.
At this time, Equiano begins buying and selling goods and fruit and starts his own side trading enterprise during each voyage. Although he faces setbacks and insults from white buyers who refuse to pay for goods, use “bad coin,” or demand fraudulent refunds, Equiano acquires a small amount of savings and is “determined to . . . obtain my freedom, and to return to Old England”. King encourages him in his entrepreneurial pursuits, proposing that when Equiano has saved enough money “to purchase my freedom . . . he would let me have it for forty pounds sterling money, which was only the same price he gave for me”.
After briefly recounting a violent assault while trading in Savannah, Georgia, and his subsequent recovery and return to Montserrat, Equiano closes the first volume of the Interesting Narrative somewhat abruptly, noting that “This ended my adventures in 1764; for I did not leave Montserrat again till the beginning of the following year”. DocSouth has published a summary of the second volume of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, in which Equiano describes his life as a freeman, his adventures as a world-traveling tradesman, and his spiritual transformation.
Olaudah Equiano Biography and Profile (UNC/BBC)