Who was Olaudah Equiano – and why was his story of slavery so important?
Kidnapped, torn from his family as a child, and sold as a slave, Olaudah Equiano's story would become a bestseller of its time, and a catalyst for the abolition of slavery in Britain. Jonny Wilkes explores his story for BBC History Revealed
Somewhere on the coast of what is now Nigeria, 11-year-old Olaudah Equiano trembles with fear as he is thrown aboard a slave ship. The year is around 1756, and the vessel is crammed to bursting with men, women and children from all over Africa. Confused and terrified, Equiano is placed below deck, where the hot stench of sickness, chained bodies and filth assails him.
“The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us”, he later wrote. “The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”
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As the huge boat creaked its way out to sea, Equiano, denied fresh air and surrounded by bleak, sorrowful faces, came to a bitter realisation. He would never again inhale the sweet air of his beloved Africa.
Who was Olaudah Equiano?
Equiano was born in Essaka, a small province in the Kingdom of Benin, in Guinea – the youngest of seven children. Little detail is known of his early life, but it is likely that Equiano’s childhood in Essaka was simple and happy.
Agriculture was the province’s primary source of income, buildings favoured practicality over extravagance, and life was lived to an established system of law and marriage. “I had never heard of white men or Europeans, nor of the sea”, he recalled later in life.
In his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (first published in 1789), Equiano recalled that he and the other village children would spend their afternoons keeping a lookout for the kidnappers, who would often steal unattended children to sell on as slaves.
It was during one of these raids, in fact, that Equiano and his sister were seized, and carried far away from their village.
A few days later, the siblings were separated and Equiano was sold to a new master. His recollection of the parting is heart wrenching: “My sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms … It was in vain that we besought them not to part us; she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually…"
Like most slaves, Equiano was sold and re-sold a number of times during those early weeks of imprisonment, but he eventually found himself in the town of Tinmah, “the most beautiful country I had yet seen in Africa”.
My sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms … It was in vain that we besought them not to part us
There, he was purchased for 172 of the small white shells that constituted the currency of the town. His new mistress was a wealthy African widow with a young son, both of whom treated Equiano as one of the family. But his relative happiness lasted just two short months, as Equiano was again loaded onto a slave ship, this time bound for Barbados.
At first, Equiano feared the “white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair,” and he wrote later of the terror he felt as the ship pulled away from his homeland, and he was forced to come to terms with his uncertain future. Death permeated the voyage to Barbados: he described children as nearly suffocating in “necessary tubs”, while fatalities caused by flogging and starvation were frequent.
The fate of those sold into slavery lay in the hands of the masters, who “rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best”.
Equiano, after failing to secure a bidder in Barbados, was quickly transported to Virginia, where he was purchased by Lieutenant Michael Pascal of the Royal Navy, for around £30-£40. After a further 13 weeks at sea, Equiano set foot on English soil for the first time, aged just 12.
What was Olaudah Equiano's life like in England?
Upon his arrival in Falmouth, Equiano – who had been renamed Gustavus Vassa (after the 16th-century Swedish King) by his new master – began to adjust to his new life, observing English customs and discovering a deep interest in literacy.
Books were a constant source of curiosity to him. Believing that he could converse with them, Equiano later described how he had “often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me”.
Snow, too, fascinated the young African, who, upon seeing it covering the deck of the ship on which he’d sailed to England, declared that someone had thrown salt over the vessel during the night.
Books were a constant source of curiosity to Equiano
But Equiano’s new life on land was to be a short-lived affair. War had broken out in 1754 – primarily between Britain and France – over competition for colonies and trading rights (known later as the Seven Years’ War), and Equiano was soon summoned to assist his master on board his ship, the Roebuck.
Equiano sailed the oceans with Pascal for some eight years, travelling to Holland, Nova Scotia, Pennsylvania, Scotland and the Caribbean in his service. Life on board was often hard for the slave – Equiano wrote of how he was made to fight with white men for sport – and he saw combat in a number of battles, including the Siege of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia in 1758.
But it was during his time spent in London between naval engagements that Equiano gained the skills that were to change his life. Able to speak English, and no longer fearful of the white-skinned strangers who surrounded him, Equiano – now 14 – was sent to school, where he learned to read and write.
And it was during this period that Equiano discovered Christianity – a faith that was to guide him for the rest of his life. He was baptised in February 1759.
“I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen,” he later wrote, “but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners…”
Equiano retained a firm belief that Pascal – the master who had shown him such kindness - would eventually free him from slavery, and he saved money in preparation for the event. But Equiano’s dreams were to be shattered.
Pascal accused him of planning an escape, and he was subsequently sold to James Doran, Captain of the Charming Sally, a ship bound for the West Indies. Equiano was devastated at being forced into yet further slavery, and upon landing in Montserrat in February 1763, the young African “called on death to relieve me from the horrors I felt and dreaded”.
There, beneath the blazing West Indian sun, Equiano experienced the true misery of slavery. Robbed of his precious savings, Equiano’s body was “mangled and torn” as he unloaded and loaded the ship of its cargo.
Three months later, Equiano’s physical ordeal ended when he was sold again – this time to a prominent Quaker merchant named Robert King, under whose care he flourished. King even allowed Equiano to retain some of his wages and often utilised him as a clerk, as well as a valet.
Although his new life offered a relative comfort, Equiano remained horrified at the atrocities he saw inflicted upon his fellow slaves by their masters: rape – often involving children as young as 10 – violence, abuse and murder were all commonplace.
“I have seen a negro man staked to the ground, and cut most shockingly, and then his ears cut off bit by bit… I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for even letting a pot boil over”, he wrote. These were images that would haunt him his whole life.
Equiano worked as a deckhand, valet and barber for King for some three years, quietly earning extra money by trading goods on the side until finally, in 1766, aged 21, he had earned enough money to buy his freedom.
As a free man, Equiano spent much of the next 20 years of his life travelling the world. He made several voyages aboard trading vessels, making trips to Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Jamaica, Grenada, North America, and even the Arctic – the latter as assistant to scientist Dr Charles Irving.
How did Equiano help abolish slavery?
Equiano never forgot the plight of his fellow slaves, and, after returning to London in 1786, added his voice to the growing movement to abolish slavery.
Equiano, together with members of London’s black community, formed an abolitionist group: the Sons of Africa. The group campaigned tirelessly for abolition, working hard to dispel the many misconceptions of the day held about Africans.
In 1788, the former slave found himself standing before Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. He presented her with a petition on behalf of his enslaved African brethren, beseeching her to take note of the tyranny and oppression of slavery in the West Indies.
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The publication of Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in 1789, also did much to publicise the horrors of slavery, and he spent several months travelling and promoting his book.
Equiano finally settled down to raise a family in 1792, when he married Englishwoman Susannah Cullen in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The pair went on to have two daughters. His death in 1797, at the age of around 52, put an end to a truly remarkable life. Just ten years later, the Slave Trade Act was passed, making it illegal for British ships to carry enslaved peoples between Africa, the West Indies and America.
This content first appeared in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Revealed
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.