Source 16 - Olaudah Equiano

This is an extract from the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano describing his capture in Nigeria as a young boy of about eleven and the subsequent journey to the Caribbean on a slave ship. It is a compelling and well-written source which describes the 'middle passage' - the terrible journey from Africa to the West Indies. The autobiography continues to tell the tale of his survival and how he eventually came to buy his freedom.

There is evidence that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina and not Africa. Nevertheless, his book was a very important part of the campaign to abolish slavery in the late 18th century. People at the time believed it was accurate and after it was published in 1789, it sold several thousand copies and was popular with the political elite.

The story of his passage into slavery arrived just at a moment when the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade were circulating slave ship diagrams around the country. Between 1789 and 1794, there were nine editions and it was translated and printed in many European countries. Although not the first account of slavery from an African point of view, his book became the most popular and widely read.

Equiano was also a very active anti-slavery campaigner in late 18th century London. He wrote many forceful letters to newspapers condemning slavery and appeared at public debates on the matter.

  • Look at how Equiano is presented on the frontispiece portrait? What is he wearing? How would his image have helped the appeal of his story?
  • What is unique about Equiano's account? Why do you think it became a best seller?
  • How does Equiano's age (about 11) affect how you feel about his story?
  • What message as a campaigner do you think Equiano is trying to get across by telling his personal story?
  • There is some historical debate about Equiano's origins. To explore further click here .

Taken from: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O. Equiano or G. Vasa, the African.... written by himself
Author / Creator: Olaudah Equiano
Publisher: London
Date: 1789
Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board
Shelfmark: 615.d.8