Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797) was an eighteenth-century African writer whose experiences as a slave prompted him to become involved in the British abolition movement.
Equiano was born in c1745 in what is now Nigeria to an Ibo chief. He was captured by slave traders and sold into slavery at the age of 11. He had several masters of the years and after spells in Barbados and Virginia (North America) he spent eight years travelling the world as a slave to British Royal Navy officer Michael Henry Pascal who renamed him Gustavus Vassa.
Equiano spent his teenage years’ onboard Naval ships engaged in the Seven Years War against France. During that time Equiano educated himself, learning to read and write.
Olaudah buys his freedom
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 in 1777 at the age of 32.
After that, Equiano worked as an explorer and merchant for 20 years, and eventually settled in England where 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 1782 he brought the Zong massacre, in which 133 slaves were thrown overboard, to the attention of campaigner Granville Sharp.
First Black civil servant
Equiano became the first person of African ancestry to hold a post in the British Government when in 1787 he was appointed to the post of Commissary for Stores to the Expedition for Freed Slaves. This abolitionist-supported venture created the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Equiano was initially happy with the position then he began to witness fraud and corruption among those responsible for providing supplies for the expedition. He was dismissed from the post due to his unwillingness to tolerate the wrongdoings he witnessed.
Equiano writes a Bestseller
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. It was the first slave narrative to become an international best-seller. The book helped the abolitionist cause and made Equiano a wealthy man. It is one of the earliest books published by a black African writer. The first known book was written by Ukawsaw Gronniosaw in 1772.
In 1792, Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, and they had two daughters. Susanna died in February 1796 and just over a year later on 31 March 1797 Equiano passed away in London, he was about 52. Ann Maria, the eldest daughter, died just months after Equiano; the younger daughter Joanna went on to inherit Equiano’s fortune of £950 (worth perhaps £100,000 today) and survived into adulthood.
Olaudah Equiano didn’t live to see the abolition of slavery but he is remembered for his work to this day.
In 2015 a plaque was unveiled at 73 Riding House Street, London where he lived in 1789 and wrote part of his book. Another plaque was unveiled in 2020 at 37 Tottenham Street, London where Equiano lived in 1788 and started writing his book.