An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
Few figures in our Author Bank have life stories as dramatic as Olaudah Equiano's—an "interesting narrative" indeed ...
❧ Full name and titles: Olaudah Equiano [ø-lo͡w-dà ĕ-kwē-ä-nō], given the slave names Michael, Jacob, and Gustavus Vassa [gü-stäv-üs vä-sä; see our pronunciation guide for details]
❧ Dates: c. 1745-31 Mar. 1797
❧ Areas active: Kingdom of Benin (modern southern Nigeria) and neighboring parts of West Africa, the Thirteen Colonies (modern US Atlantic coastal states), Great Britain, Quebec, the Mosquito Coast (modern Honduras and Nicaragua); the Atlantic Ocean
❧ Original language of writing: English
❧ Exemplary or important works: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African
Slavery is one of the most ancient institutions in the world; it appears in the records of societies as ancient as Mesopotamia and Egypt as something already colossally old. Many people are shocked to learn that the last country in the world to legally abolish slavery only did so well within living memory, in 1981,* but from a broader perspective, the fact it got legally abolished at any point is by far the more shocking reality. For this, we naturally have the abolitionist movement to thank; and abolitionism was heard, in large part, because of the indomitable spirit of men and women who escaped from slavery—people like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, and a man known for most of his life as Gustavus Vassa, but who in his autobiography reasserted the name given to him by his own family: Olaudah Equiano.
Equiano was born to a prosperous family in West Africa.** The slave trade within that continent was a distasteful but familiar reality—familiar in the double sense that people were used to it and in the sense that it was a largely domestic affair. Around the age of eleven, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped and sold, in a village far enough from home that their parents were unable to simply trace them and reclaim them, but near enough that the local dialect was not difficult to pick up. Unfortunately, this was not their final destination, and they were not kept together. Equiano changed hands multiple times, and was ultimately sold to a British slaving vessel.
Hereafter, Equiano endured the infamous horrors of the transatlantic slaving voyage, known as the “Middle Passage.” (The “First” and “Final Passages” were a captive’s initial transport from their own homes to the African coast where they were sold, and their transport from sale in the American markets to the plantations where they would be put to work.) The Middle Passage improved in certain ways over the three centuries of its existence—for example, technological improvements shortened it from a journey of months to one of weeks—but conditions remained ghastly throughout, and mortality rates were high. Hundreds of people were routinely packed into the cargo holds of slave ships, typically chained together, given food and water once per day or not at all; disease was rampant, many people attempted suicide, and it was not uncommon for slavers to murder some of their “cargo” if conditions such as weather or mutiny made it the safest policy (whether the safety under consideration were that of the slavers’ necks, or only of their wallets).
Equiano survived, and was sold and resold in the Colony of Virginia, eventually passing into the hands of a Lieutenant Pascal of the Royal Navy. It was he who gave Equiano the name Gustavus Vassa (in honor of the first Protestant King of Sweden), and forced him to accept it over his desire to be called by a previous re-name by beating him. Pascal kept the boy as his personal attendant through the course of the Seven Years’ War, which meant that, unusually for a slave, most of Equiano’s servitude was spent working not as a field hand but a sailor. Pascal apparently took something of a shine to him; he eventually sent him to stay with his sister-in-law in England to learn to speak, read, and write in English. After this, in 1762, Equiano was again sold, this time in the Caribbean and, counterintuitively to say the least, to a Quaker.†
Thanks to this stint with a fair-minded and humane master, Equiano was able to purchase his freedom in 1766. He settled in Britain thereafter, where he made the acquaintance of Dr. Charles Irving, a Scottish inventor—or rather, to be precise, he met Dr. Irving while the two were both participating in an Arctic expedition! The two remained associates for several years and in literally all weathers: by 1775 or ’76, the two men were working together on a plan to set up a British colony in Central America. However, the venture failed, and Equiano settled in London thereafter.
It was here that he became involved in the abolitionist movement. Up to this date, he seems to have simply acquiesced to the social system that included not only the domestic slavery he had known even as a child, but the chattel slavery he had personally endured. Perhaps striving to survive had left him without the mental space to reflect. Or perhaps, having endured the nightmare of the Middle Passage, he at first felt merely powerless to do anything but try to be a good person living in a bad system (a motive any of us could understand). In any case, Equiano now joined the abolitionist cause, establishing ties with the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and also with the Sons of Africa, a freedmen’s group. In 1783, he brought leading abolitionist Granville Sharp’s attention to the Zong massacre, in which the crew of a slave ship of that name, due to a shortage of drinking water, had drowned one hundred and thirty Africans … and then had the gall to attempt to collect the insurance they had place on their “cargo.” Though their suit for reimbursement was initially granted, the insurers appealed, and the decision was reversed by the Lord Chief Justice himself.
Fellow abolitionists encouraged Equiano to tell his own story; with the patronage of the Countess of Huntingdon, an abolitionist and early Methodist, he wrote The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, publishing it in 1789. That “Gustavus Vassa” was how he had been known for nearly forty years, and remained his name legally; he reclaimed his birth name only in the memoir itself. The book went through nine editions in his lifetime, selling magnificently not only in Great Britain but in Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, and the US.
Equiano spent the 1790s, as he had spent the previous decade, devoting himself to philanthropic causes—both connected and unconnected with abolition. He also married and had two daughters; sadly, he died in 1797, while his younger daughter was still just four years old, and ten years before Britain would abolish the slave trade within its own borders (the empire as a whole coming later).
*1981 saw the legal abolition of slavery in Mauritania, the last state that still legally permitted it. Most countries effected the change without civil war, though rarely without turmoil; Princess Isabel of Brazil abolished slavery by decree in 1888, and was given the popular nickname the Redemptress, but in so doing lost the backing of the land-owning classes and ultimately the throne itself.
**Some scholars have disputed this, based on a small amount of documentation listing the South Carolina Colony as his birthplace. However, this hypothesis has not gained widespread acceptance. It would be fairly natural for slave traders to falsify a slave’s country of origin, whether out of mere ignorance (especially for slaves who spoke little English), or in an attempt to sanitize the business by feigning that the slaves at their disposal had not been subjected to the Middle Passage.
†The Quakers (or the Society of Friends) are a radical Protestant group originating in seventeenth-century England; William Penn, the founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, was a Quaker, and they had significant populations in Rhode Island and New Jersey as well. Their fervent belief in the equal dignity of all human beings made them some of the earliest abolitionists in Europe and the Americas.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, and lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other author profiles—we have posts on Thucydides, Averroës, Christine de Pizan, Blaise Pascal, Jonathan Edwards, and many more. Thank you for reading the Journal.
Published on 20th November, 2023. Page image of The Capture of the Slaver “Formidable” by the H.M.S. Buzzard, painted by William John Huggins in 1834 (source); abolitionism did not prevail in Britain until after Equiano’s death, but from 1811 onward, the British Empire became a worldwide force against the slave trade.