Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano, the first political leader of Britain’s black community was born in Essaka, an Igbo village in the kingdom of Benin, in 1745. His father was one of the province’s elders who decided disputes. When he was about eleven, Equiano was kidnapped along with his sister, and after six months of captivity he was brought to the coast where he encountered white men for the first time.

Sold to slave-traders, Equiano was transported to Barbados. After a two-week stay in the West Indies Equiano was sent to the English colony of Virginia. He was later purchased by Captain Henry Pascal, a British naval officer. He was renamed Gustavas Vassa, and was beaten until he answered to his new name. He stayed in London with two relatives of his master, two women who taught him to read and sent him to school. He was sold without warning to a Captain James Doran, who took him to Montserrat, and sold him to a merchant called Robert King. Equiano saved whatever money he could, and in 1766 purchased his freedom. In 1767 he went back to London, and worked closely with Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Equiano spoke at a large number of public meetings where he described the cruelty of the slave trade.

Equiano was also a close friend of Thomas Hardy, secretary of the London Corresponding Society. Equiano became an active member of this political society that campaigned in favour of universal suffrage.

In 1787 Equiano helped his friend, Ottobah Cugoano, to publish an account of his experiences, Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of America. Copies of his book were sent to George III and leading politicians. He failed to persuade the king to change his opinions and like other members of the royal family remained against abolition of the slave trade.

Equiano published his own autobiography, The Interesting Narative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African in 1789, ‘a detailed account of an African’s movement out of slavery’, and the most important single literary contribution to the campaign for abolition. It was highly effective in arousing public opinion. He travelled throughout England promoting the book. It became a bestseller and was also published in Germany (1790), America (1791) and Holland (1791). He also spent over eight months in Ireland where he made several speeches on the evils of the slave trade. While he was there he sold over 1,900 copies of his book. In Equiano’s lifetime, his narrative went through eight British editions; six more followed in the 22 years following his death. He had won widespread recognition as principal spokesman of Britain’s black community.

On 7th April 1792 Equiano married Susannah Cullen from Fordham, Cambridgeshire at St Andrew’s Church, Soham in Cambridgeshire. The couple had two children, Anna Maria and Johanna. However, Anna Maria died when she was only four years old.

Olaudah Equiano was appointed to the expedition to settle former black slaves in Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa. However, he died on 31st March, 1797 before he could complete the task. Equiano, for his time, was exceptionally widely travelled. He had a shrewd grasp of the political realities of his day. He had a fluent pen, a persuasive tongue and absolute integrity. He was committed to the abolition of the slave trade, which he felt would move his community out of degradation to dignity. He put all his gifts and energy to the service of his community in their struggle against slavery. He made and outstanding contribution to that struggle.

Read more about Olaudah Equiano