Childhood & Early Life
Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in the region now known as Nigeria. He was the youngest of the seven children born to his parents who belonged to the Igbo tribe.
At the age of 11, while looking after the family compound, he was kidnaped along with his sister. The two were then taken far from their hometown, separated and sold to the local slave traders.
Following a brief period of stay in Africa, Equiano was sold to the European slave traders, who in turn shipped him across the Atlantic to Barbados in the West Indies along with 244 other enslaved Africans. From Barbados, a handful of African slaves including him were sent to the British colony of Virginia.
In Virginia, Equiano was bought by Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Pascal gave Equiano the name of Gustavus Vassa, which stayed with him for the better part of his lifetime.
Domestic slaves in Virginia were treated brutally by their owners. Often iron muzzle was employed to keep the slaves quiet. The state of Equiano was no less.
Equiano accompanied his master to England where he served as a valet in the Seven Years’ War against France. Additionally, Pascal trained him in seamanship so that the latter could assist the ship crew in the times of battle. His duty included hauling gunpowder to the gun decks.
Impressed by Equiano dutiful obedience, Pascal shipped him to his sister-in-law in Great Britain with the intention that young Equiano would be able to attend school and learn to read and write.
Upon reaching Great Britain, Equiano was converted to Christianity. Mary Guerin and her brother, Maynard, cousins of his master Pascal, served as his godparents. In February 1759, he was baptized in St Margaret's, Westminster. Mary and Maynard helped young Equiano learn English.
Following British victory in war, Equiano hoped to be free, as promised by his master. However, Pascal did not conform to his word and instead sold Equiano to Captain James Doran of the Charming Sally at Gravesend.
His new master, Captain James Doran transported Equiano back to the Caribbean, in the Leeward Islands. Therein, he found a new master in Robert King, an American Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean
Under the new master, Equiano worked on shipping routes and in stores. It was King who augmented Equiano’s knowledge by teaching him to write and read fluently.
In 1765, King promised to set Equiano free if the latter paid him 40 pounds, price that he paid to purchase Equiano. To set himself free, Equiano engaged in profitable trade, selling fruits, glass tumblers, and other items between Georgia and the Caribbean islands. Two years later, in 1767, he finally bought back his freedom
In 1767, upon setting himself free, Equiano travelled to England. He continued to work in the sea, travelling as a deckhand based in England.
In 1773, he befriended Dr. Charles Irving, the man who developed a process to distil seawater. The two started a business of selecting and managing slaves. Though the business eventually failed, the friendship between the two thrived.
Equiano did not limit his life to work only. Instead, he started learning the French horn and expanded his knowledge by joining the debating societies, including the London Corresponding Society.
In 1780s, he settled in London and became a Methodist. He actively involved himself in the abolitionist movement that intended to end the slave trade for good. Together with Granville Sharp, a fellow abolitionist, he publicized the Zong massacre.
Following the end of American Revolutionary War in 1783, Equiano involved himself in re-establishing the Black Poor of London along with Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia in Freetown, a new British colony founded on the west coast of Africa. However, following his protests against financial mismanagement, he was dismissed and eventually returned to London.
Stimulated by the overwhelming support and encouragement by fellow abolitionists, Equiano agreed to pen his life story and publish the same. Financially supported by philanthropic abolitionists and religious benefactors, he started penning his autobiography.
In 1789, he released his autobiography ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African’. The book caused a sensation on publication and served as an impetus to the growing anti-slavery movement in Britain. It gave details of his life before slavery, his captivity, the brutality that slaves went through, his adoptive religion and the risk of enslavement that free blacks faced.
His book was widely appreciated and was so much in demand that it went through nine publications in his lifetime. Being the first slave narrative, it led to the commencement of a new genre in English literature. Critics praised the book as it skilfully demonstrated the inhumanity of slavery.
Following his efforts to reinstate the status of blacks and the publication of his autobiography, Equiano gained a reputed status in the high society of London. He became a leading spokesperson for the black community and one of the members of the free-Africans abolitionist group, Sons of Africa. His speeches, comments and articles were frequently published in newspapers
Personal Life & Legacy
Olaudah Equiano married Susannah Cullen on April 7, 1792, in St Andrew's Church in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The couple was blessed with two daughters, Anna Maria and Joanna.
He breathed his last on March 31, 1797 a year after his wife Susannah Cullen who passed away in February 1796. His eldest daughter, Anna Maria too died in 1797 leaving Joanna as the legitimate heir to Equiano's estate.
Posthumously, in 1996, The Equiano Society was formed to celebrate the life and work of Olaudah Equiano.