A slave who bought his freedom and wrote compellingly about his experiences, Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745–1797) was an extraordinary man who became a prominent figure associated with the campaign to abolish slavery.
Equiano was born in what is now Nigeria and sold into slavery aged 11. After spells in Barbados and Virginia he served eight years travelling the world as slave to a British Royal Navy officer, who renamed him Gustavus Vassa. His final master, an English merchant in Montserrate, let him buy his freedom for £40 – almost a year’s salary for a teacher, but Equiano made it in three years of trading on the side.
Equiano worked as an explorer and merchant for 20 years, and eventually settled in England, the country where he had converted to Christianity in 1759. With the encouragement of the Abolitionists, who campaigned against the slave trade, he published these memoirs in 1789.
This book – one of the first in Europe by a Black African writer – was an enormous success, selling out immediately. This, the second edition, was published the same year. Equiano travelled widely to promote the book, and became wealthy from its royalties.
The ability of this cultured and intelligent man to relate first-hand the horrors of slavery helped sway public opinion, and by 1807 Britain had formally abolished the trade. Equiano did not live to see it; he died in 1797, leaving his English wife and two daughters.