An enslaved man 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 the slave trade.
Equiano was born in what is now Nigeria and sold into slavery aged 11. After spells in Barbados and Virginia he spent 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 Montserrat, 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.
In 2007, the first edition of Equiano's book was carried in procession at a special service in Westminster Abbey, London, to commemorate the bicentenary of Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.
Which extracts are digitised here?
- pp. iii–v: ‘To the Lord Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain’. Equiano uses this preface to frame his work as Abolitionist literature, writing that his ‘chief design’ ‘is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen’. Specifically, he is addressing those in positions of authority, who have parliamentary power to abolish the slave trade.
- The first page of the ‘List of Subscribers’. Equiano self-published his Narrative, funded by subscribers who ordered copies of the book in advance of its publication.
- pp. 45–50, Chapter II: Equiano’s account of his birth and early life, and how he and his sister were kidnapped and enslaved.
- pp. 69–75, Chapter II: Equiano’s account of the ‘Horrors of a slave ship’, including his first impressions of the white men on board and their treatment of him and other enslaved Africans. He writes,
I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shewn towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves. (p. 75)
- Print entitled ‘Bahama Banks, 1767’. This illustration depicts the shipwreck of the Nancy, which was caught in a hurricane in the Caribbean. As an enslaved man, Equiano sailed and worked on the Nancy under the direction of his master, Mr Robert King.
- Article by:
- Paterson Joseph
- Satire and humour, Politics and religion, Travel, colonialism and slavery
Paterson Joseph describes how his research into Black British history led him to write his first play, Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. In this one-man show, Paterson Joseph inhabits the life of Ignatius Sancho, the 18th-century composer, aspiring actor, letter-writer and anti-slavery campaigner, who became the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election.
- Article by:
- Abdul Mohamud, Robin Whitburn
- Politics and religion, Travel, colonialism and slavery
With a focus on the 17th and 18th centuries, Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn trace the history of Britain’s large-scale involvement in the enslavement of Africans and the transatlantic slave trade. Alongside this, Mohamud and Whitburn consider examples of resistance by enslaved people and communities, the work of abolitionists and the legacy of slavery.
- Article by:
- Tim Youngs
- Power and politics
Professor Tim Youngs considers how Victorian authors chronicled and questioned Britain’s imperial expansion.
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