David Olusoga on the extraordinary story of Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano’s dramatic biography of his perilous journey from slavery to freedom added a powerful black voice to the burgeoning abolition movement. David Olusoga reflects on his extraordinary story
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The history of black people in Britain during the 18th century is a series of unknowns. We don’t know the size of the black “community”, or even if black Georgians formed discrete communities. We only have fleeting glimpses as to how they interacted with one another and are unsure what proportion of them were free and what proportion lived in forms of unfreedom. While some were clearly servants, others were undoubtedly enslaved. Instead of detail, we have passing references which hint at lives that can never be better understood.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that black Georgians themselves, despite these gaps in the historical record, are literally visible to us. They appear in hundreds of portraits, as servants, footmen, maids and stable-boys. Usually pushed up against the picture frames, they were painted not as individuals but as fashionable accessories, the exotic property of the main sitters, their masters and mistresses. Only a handful of black Georgians were the subjects of their own portraits.
Yet despite this mountain of unknowns and frustrations, there are a tiny number of black Georgians who emerge from the historical record, not as fleeting apparitions, but fully formed characters. Those few were men and women who left behind their own words, in the form of letters, memoirs and biographies. The most significant of those rare texts was written by the most famous black person to appear in Britain of the late 18th century – Olaudah Equiano.
Although the exact circumstances of his birth are the subject of a historical controversy, which will be discussed in more detail later in the feature, what is certain is that Equiano experienced slavery and was able to escape from it. In 1789, having been a freeman for 23 years he published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself.
In the early chapters Equiano describes his childhood in Africa and how it was brought to a sudden end when he and his sister were abducted by African slave traders. Marched to the coast they were separated, which devastated Equiano: “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; and for several days I did not eat any thing but what they forced into my mouth.” He was then shipped across the Atlantic on a British slave ship to Barbados. From there he went to Virginia and was sold to a tobacco planter, who in turn sold him on to Michael Pascal, a British naval captain.
Although the legal property of Michael Pascal, Equiano experienced slavery in a form very different to that of most enslaved Africans. Escaping the brutal life of sugar fields he instead was employed on board ships, working for Pascal while travelling across the British empire of the mid-18th century. These travels took him to England and into battle, serving in the Royal Navy, under Pascal, during the Seven Years’ War.
In 1762 Equiano was sold again, and by 1763 he was the property of Robert King, a Quaker merchant with interests in Monserrat. Again Equiano was employed at sea. In this stage of his life he was however permitted a life-changing liberty. Equiano was allowed to trade whatever goods he was able to acquire and keep the profits.
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Over the next three years he slowly accumulated a growing stash that he carefully used to buy goods in one part of the empire that could be sold at a profit in another. Astonishingly, and despite various moments in which he was swindled, robbed and short-changed, he was able to gather together the sum of £40, the price Robert King had set for the purchase of his freedom.
In 1766 King was persuaded to allow Equiano to buy his manumission from slavery. Describing the moment he secured his freedom, Equiano said: “I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master, and completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced.”
As a freeman Equiano continued to work as a sailor and by 1767 had settled in London, returning to sea when financial circumstances dictated. By the early 1770s he was well established in London, becoming a leading black figure in the city, able to use his connections to campaign for the rights of other black Londoners. This was at a time when the legality of slavery in England and Scotland was being contested, and men and women brought to Britain as human property were being kidnapped on the streets of London and other cities and forcibly shipped back to the plantations.
In 1783 Equiano began a campaign to draw attention to the Zong Massacre of 1781 – the murder of around 130 Africans who had been thrown overboard the slave ship Zong so as to enable a claim for their loss to be registered against the ship’s insurance policy.
He was also a key figure in a bizarre and disastrous scheme to create a new colony – dubbed the “Province of Freedom” – on the shores of Sierra Leone. There Britain settled the so-called “Black Poor”, destitute former slaves who had served with British forces during the American Revolution. Brought to Britain they were then largely abandoned by the authorities. When the scheme to resettle them in Africa descended into a spiral of corruption, Equiano became a whistle blower. Although his letters condemning the scheme did not prevent it from going ahead, they did make Equiano moderately famous, and that fame became the springboard that led to him writing the Interesting Narrative.
Other black Georgians had already written and published their memoirs and letters (Ignatius Sancho posthumously in 1782, and Ottobah Cugoano in 1787, with the help of Equiano), and others such as Mary Prince did so later. But Equiano’s narrative was to be the most significant of them all, in part because of the skill and lucidity with which it was written, but also because of the timing of its publication.
The book was released in the spring of 1789, two years after the Society For Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade had been founded, and during a year in which abolitionists – led in parliament by William Wilberforce – launched their first parliamentary bid to bring about the abolition of the slave trade. The Interesting Narrative, the biography of a man who had himself been enslaved, was a key element in that great surge of abolitionist activity of that year. Equiano was keenly aware of his position, writing that the text was “the production of an unlettered African, who is actuated by the hope of becoming an instrument towards the relief of his suffering countrymen”.
The biography of a man who had himself been enslaved became a key element in the great surge of abolitionist activity
Yet while the book had a profound impact upon those who read it, 1789 was not to be the year in which the slave trade was abolished. The revolution in France so horrified the British elite that any form of radical political or commercial change was dismissed as dangerous and destabilising.
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Deploying the skills he had acquired while trading between the Caribbean Islands, Equiano built the Interesting Narrative into an ongoing business. After publishing the first edition himself he retained the rights to his words, at a time when it was often deemed wiser to license books to publishers. With Equiano committed to promoting his book, the Interesting Narrative went through eight further English editions – a huge number for the late 18th century – and each new edition contained new passages that expanded the book, keeping it up-to-date with ongoing developments in the struggle against slavery.
Every edition also contained an expanding list of subscribers: wealthy and influential figures who supported Equiano in the writing of the Interesting Narrative by purchasing copies before that edition’s completion. Succeeding editions attracted further subscribers, with their names printed at the front of the book. Among them were aristocrats and celebrities. The most notable were John Wesley the Methodist preacher, and members of the royal family.
Equiano not only constantly refreshed the contents of the Interesting Narrative, but he also promoted sales through an intermittent speaking tour that lasted from 1789 to 1794.
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Tapping into the growing network of abolitionist supporters and sympathisers, he trekked across Britain and Ireland. Yet this was not a book tour in the modern sense: it was a feature of the great abolitionist campaign, as everywhere Equiano went he spoke against slavery, doing so with the authority of a man who had escaped its clutches and witnessed its horrors. This way Equiano contributed to the movement for abolition not just as an author, but also as a campaigner and public speaker.
It was in the 1790s, as his fame grew, that Equiano married. In 1792 Susanna Cullen, who hailed from Cambridgeshire, became his wife. Two daughters followed in 1793 and 1795, before tragedy consumed the young family. Three years into their marriage, Susanna died. The following year the couple’s elder daughter also passed away, as did Equiano himself. His surviving daughter, Joanna Vassa, was left an orphan, although eight years of sales and her father’s energetic promoting of the Interesting Narrative meant she was left an estate worth around £1,000.
The margins of history
Despite being widely celebrated at the time of his death, Equiano’s fame rapidly faded. After his passing the abolitionist movement advanced and evolved. In 1807 an act for the abolition of the slave trade passed through parliament. In the 1830s, after rebellions in the Caribbean led by the enslaved themselves, slavery as an institution was swept away.
The histories of the abolition movement that were later written focused on the lives of the white abolitionists. William Wilberforce was the subject of a secular canonisation that meant his story eclipsed the contributions of others. Olaudah Equiano, along with many of the female abolitionists who had been central to the campaign against slavery in the 1820s, were brushed to the margins of history and largely forgotten.
Since the 1960s Equiano’s fame has ballooned to proportions that arguably exceed that of his own lifetime
It was only in the 1960s that historians began to recover the story of Equiano, and the Interesting Narrative was once again reprinted. Since then Equiano’s fame has grown to proportions that arguably exceed that of his own lifetime. The site of his London home now carries a heritage plaque, and the Interesting Narrative is a set text on university courses across the world. There is also an Equiano Society that celebrates his life and his writing, and even a brand of rum that carries his name.
Olaudah Equiano left us with a powerful, first-hand account written by a man who had experienced slavery, but he also bequeathed historians with a mystery – there is one aspect of the Interesting Narrative that complicates his story. In the Narrative Equiano asserts to have been born in what is today Nigeria. Yet there are some historians and literary scholars who now call that claim into question.
Fact or fiction?
Back in the 1980s the Nigerian academic SE Ogude suggested that the early chapters of the book are a work of fiction. He argued that Equiano’s description of the society from which he said he had been stolen was based on literary sources available at the time of writing rather than firsthand experience.
A decade later another literary expert, Dr Vincent Carretta, uncovered two tiny details in the archives that might suggest that Equiano was not born in Africa, but was instead born into slavery in Britain’s North American colonies. When as a child in 1759 Equiano had been brought to England by Michael Pascal he was baptised at Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster, and in the records of that ceremony he was described as “Gustavus Vassa, a Black [man] born in Carolina 12 years old”. However, critically, that information was not provided by Equiano himself. Over a decade later in 1773, Equiano – by then a freeman resident in London – signed on as a crewman in a famous expedition to the Arctic. In the documents of the expedition he is described as having been born in South Carolina. Although again, there are doubts about the veracity of that evidence.
However, other historians suggest that Equiano’s account of Africa appears flawed not because it is fictional, but because it is built upon the memories of a young child. And it is uncertain how much can be read into the two archival entries that suggest he was born in Carolina.
While these questions of Equiano’s place of birth remain unanswered, what is certain is that Equiano’s words, both in the Interesting Narrative and in his many speeches, were those of a man who had lived as a slave and felt its brutality. As such they were enormously powerful at the time, and are enormously valuable today.
David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster. He has written the foreword for a new edition of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, out now from Hodder & Stoughton. He is also presenting a new series of A House Through Time, which is streaming now via BBC iPlayer
This article was first published in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster
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