Slave Narrative of Olaudah Equiano 1789 By Maya Angelou:
|Born||May 7, 1745
Essaka, Benin Empire
|Died||31 March 1797 (aged 51-52)|
|Other names||Gustavus Vassa, Graves|
|Occupation||Explorer, writer, merchant, slave, abolitionist|
|Known for||Influence over British abolitionists;his autobiography|
|Children||Joanna Vassa and Anna Maria Vassa|
Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797) also known as Gustavus Vassa, was a prominent African involved in the British movement for the abolition of the slave trade. He was enslaved as a young man, purchased his freedom, and worked as an author, merchant, and explorer in South America, the Caribbean, the Arctic, the American colonies, and the United Kingdom. His autobiography,The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, depicts the horrors of slavery and influenced the enactment of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
According to his own account, Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in the region inhabited by the Igbo people in what is now Nigeria. He lived with five brothers and a sister; he was the youngest son with one younger sister. At the age of eleven, he and his sister were kidnapped to be taken to America as slaves. At this time, he endured the Middle Passage to the New World, where he was forced to work as a slave. Some writers, however, claim Equiano was born in colonial South Carolina, not in Africa.
When their parents were out, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped and sold to native slaveholders. After changing hands several times, Equiano found himself on the coast, in the hands of European slave traders. He was transported with 244 other enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to Barbados in the West Indies, from where he and a few others were soon transferred to the British colony of Virginia.
Soon after arrival, he was bought by Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He decided to give him a more understandable name, a Latinised form of the name Gustavus Vassa, a Swedish noble who had become Gustav I of Sweden, king in the 16th century. Renaming slaves was common practice among slaveholders when they purchased them. Equiano had already been renamed twice: Michael, on the slave ship that brought him to the Americas; and Jacob, by his first owner. This time Equiano refused and told his new owner that he would prefer to be called Jacob. His refusal, he says, “gained me many a cuff” – that is, he was slapped or smacked, and eventually he submitted to the new name.
Equiano wrote in his narrative that slaves working inside the slaveholders’ homes in Virginia were treated cruelly. They suffered punishments such as an “iron muzzle” (scold’s bridle), used around the mouths to keep house slaves quiet, leaving them barely able to speak or eat. Equiano conveyed the fear and amazement he experienced in his new environment. He thought that the eyes of portraits followed him wherever he went, and that a clock could tell his master about anything Equiano did wrong. In fact, Equiano was so shocked by this culture that he tried washing his face in an attempt to change its color.
As the slave of a naval captain, Equiano received training in seamanship and traveled extensively with his master. This was during the Seven Years War with France. Although he was Pascal’s personal servant, Equiano was also expected to assist in times of battle; his duty was to haul gunpowder to the gun decks. As one of Pascal’s favorites, Equiano was sent to his wife’s sister in Britain, to attend school and learn to read.
At this time, Equiano decided to convert to Christianity. His master allowed Equiano to be baptized in St Margaret’s, Westminster, in February 1759. Despite the special treatment, after the British won the war, Equiano did not receive a share of the prize money, as was awarded to the other sailors. Pascal had also promised his freedom, but did not release him.
Later, Pascal sold Equiano to Captain James Doran of the Charming Sally at Gravesend, where he was transported to Montserrat, in the Caribbean Leeward Islands. He was sold to Robert King, a Quakermerchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean. Pascal had instructed Doran to ensure that he sold Equiano “to the best master he could, as he told him I was a very deserving boy, which Captain Doran said he found to be true.”
King set Equiano to work on his shipping routes and in his stores. In 1765, King promised that for forty pounds, the price he had paid, Equiano could buy his freedom. King taught him to read and write more fluently, guided him along the path of religion, and allowed Equiano to engage in profitable trading on his own, as well as on his master’s behalf. He enabled Equiano to earn his freedom, which he achieved by his early twenties.
King urged Equiano to stay on as a business partner, but Equiano found it dangerous and limiting to remain in the British colonies as a freedman. For instance, while loading a ship in Georgia, he was almost kidnapped back into slavery. He was released after proving his education. Equiano returned to Britain where, after Somersett’s Case of 1772, men believed they were free of the risk of enslavement.
Pioneer of the abolitionist cause
Equiano travelled to London and became involved in the abolitionist movement, which had been particularly strong amongst Quakers, butwas by 1787 non-denominational. Equiano was Methodist, having been influenced by George Whitefield’s evangelism in the New World.
Equiano was befriended and supported by abolitionists, many of whom encouraged him to write and publish his life story. Equiano was supported financially by philanthropic abolitionists and religious benefactors; his lectures and preparation for the book were promoted by, among others, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.
His account surprised many with the quality of its imagery, description, and literary style. Some who had not yet joined the abolitionist cause felt shame at learning of his suffering. Entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, it was first published in 1789 and rapidly went through several editions. It is one of the earliest known examples of published writing by an African writer to be widely read in England. It was the first influential slave autobiography. Equiano’s personal account of slavery and of his experiences as a black immigrant caused a sensation on publication. The book fueled a growing anti-slavery movement in Great Britain.
The autobiography goes on to describe how Equiano’s adventures brought him to London, where he married into English society and became a leading abolitionist. His exposé of the infamous slave-ship Zong, whose 133 slaves were thrown overboard in mid-ocean for the owners to claim insurance money, shook the nation. Equiano’s book became his most lasting contribution to the abolitionist movement, as it vividly demonstrated the humanity of Africans as much as the inhumanity of slavery.
Equiano records his and Granville Sharp’s central roles in the movement. As a major voice in this movement, Equiano petitioned the Queen in 1788. He was appointed to an expedition to resettle London’s poor Blacks in Sierra Leone, a British colony on the west coast of Africa. He was dismissed after protesting against financial mismanagement.
The book not only was an exemplary work of English literature by a new, African author, but it also increased Equiano’s personal revenue. He traveled extensively throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland promoting the book. The returns gave him independence from benefactors and enabled him to fully chart his own purpose. He worked to improve economic, social and educational conditions in Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone.
Related to the abolitionist cause, Equiano was also a leader of the Poor Black community in London. Because of his connections, he was a prominent figure in the political realm, and he oftentimes served as a voice for his people. Equiano’s reactions and remarks were frequently published in newspapers like the Public Advertiser and theMorning Chronicle. He had more of a voice than most Africans, and he seized various opportunities to utilize it.
Family in Britain
At some point, after having travelled widely, Equiano decided to settle in Britain and raise a family. Equiano is closely associated with Soham, Cambridgeshire, where, on 7 April 1792, he married Susan Cullen, a local girl, in St Andrew’s Church. The original marriage register containing the entry for Equiano and Susannah is today held byCambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies at the County Record Office in Cambridge.
He announced his wedding in every edition of his autobiography from 1792 onwards, and it has been suggested his marriage mirrored his anticipation of a commercial union between Africa and Great Britain. The couple settled in the area and had two daughters, Anna Maria (1793 – 1797), and Joanna (1795 – 1857).
Susannah died in February 1796 aged 34, and Equiano died a year after that on 31 March 1797, aged 52 (some historians will say otherwise). Soon after, the elder daughter died, age four years old, leaving Joanna to inherit Equiano’s estate, which was valued at £950: a considerable sum, worth over £80 000 today. Joanna married the Rev. Henry Bromley, and they ran a Congregational Chapel at Clavering near Saffron Walden in Essex, before moving to London in the middle of the nineteenth century. They are both buried at the Congregationalists’ non-denominational Abney Park Cemetery, in Stoke Newington north London.
Last days and will
Although Equiano’s death is recorded in London in 1797, the location of his burial is unsubstantiated. One of his last addresses appears to have been Plaisterer’s Hall in the City of London, where he drew up his will on 28 May 1796. He then moved to John Street, Tottenham Court Road, close to Whitefield’s Methodist chapel. (It was renovated forCongregationalists in the 1950s. Now the American Church in London, the church recently placed a small memorial to Equiano.) Lastly, he lived in Paddington Street, Middlesex, where he died. Equiano’s death was reported in newspaper obituaries.
In the 1790s, at the time of the excesses of the French Revolution and close on the heels of the American War for Independence, British society was tense because of fears of open revolution. Reformers were considered more suspect than in other periods. Equiano had been an active member of the London Corresponding Society, which campaigned to extend the vote to working men. His close friend Thomas Hardy, the Society’s Secretary, was prosecuted by the government (though without success) on the basis that such political activity amounted to treason. In December 1797, apparently unaware that Equiano had died nine months earlier, a writer for the government-sponsored Anti-Jacobin, or Weekly Examiner satirised Equiano as being at a fictional meeting of the “Friends of Freedom”.
Equiano’s will provided for projects he considered important. Had his longer-surviving daughter Joanna died before reaching the age of majority (twenty-one), half his wealth would have passed to the Sierra Leone Company for continued assistance to West Africans, and half to the London Missionary Society, which promoted education overseas. This organization had formed the previous November at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Spa Fields Chapel in north London. By the early nineteenth century, The Missionary Society had become well known worldwide as non-denominational, though it was largely Congregational.
Controversy of origin
Scholars have disagreed about Equiano’s origins. Some believe he may have fabricated his African roots and his survival of the Middle Passage not only to sell more copies of his book but also to help advance the movement against the slave trade. According to Vincent Carretta,
Equiano was certainly African by descent. The circumstantial evidence that Equiano was also African American by birth and African British by choice is compelling but not absolutely conclusive. Although the circumstantial evidence is not equivalent to proof, anyone dealing with Equiano’s life and art must consider it.
Baptismal records and a naval muster roll appear to link Equiano to South Carolina. Records of Equiano’s first voyage to the Arctic state he was from Carolina, not Africa. Equiano may have been the source for information linking him to Carolina, but it may also have been a clerk’s careless record of origin. Scholars continue to search for evidence to substantiate Equiano’s claim of birth in Africa. Currently, no separate documentation supports this story. Carretta holds that Equiano was born in South Carolina, based on the documents mentioned above.
For some scholars, the fact that many parts of Equiano’s account can be proven lends weight to accepting his story of African birth. “In the long and fascinating history of autobiographies that distort or exaggerate the truth. …Seldom is one crucial portion of a memoir totally fabricated and the remainder scrupulously accurate; among autobiographers… both dissemblers and truth-tellers tend to be consistent.”
Nigerian writer Catherine Obianuju Acholonu argues that Equiano was born in a Nigerian town known as Isseke, where there was local oral history that told of his upbringing. Prior to this work, however, no town bearing a name of that spelling had been recorded. Other scholars, including Nigerians, have pointed out grave errors in the research.[who?]
Another point of contention is the detail of his account of the ocean crossing. “Historians have never discredited the accuracy of Equiano’s narrative, nor the power it had to support the abolitionist cause […] particularly in Britain during the 1790s. However, parts of Equiano’s account of the Middle Passage may have been based on already published accounts or the experiences of those he knew.”
Portrayal in mass media
- A BBC production in 1996 (Son of Africa: The Slave Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, dir. Alrick Riley) employed dramatic reconstruction, archival material and interviews with scholars such as Stuart Hall and Ian Duffield to provide the social and economic context of the 18th-century slave trade.
- Equiano was portrayed by the Senegalese singer and musician Youssou N’Dour in the 2006 film Amazing Grace.
- African Snow, a play by Murray Watts, takes place in John Newton’s mind. It was first produced at the York Theatre Royal as a co-production with Riding Lights Theatre Company in April 2007 before transferring to theTrafalgar Studios in London’s West End and a National Tour. Newton was played by Roger Alborough and Equiano by Israel Oyelumade.
- Stone Publishing House published a children’s book entitled Equiano: The Slave with the Loud Voice. Illustrated by Cheryl Ives, it was written by Kent historian Dr. Robert Hume.
- Poetry group: Sir Mask, have a dance poem entitled Yes You Know Equiano. Released independentlyGigagroove the dance poem covers the life of Equiano.
- In 2007, David and Jessica Oyelowo appeared as Olaudah and his wife in Grace Unshackled – The Olaudah Equiano Story, a radio adaptation of Equiano’s autobiography. This was first broadcast on BBC 7 on Easter Sunday 8 April 2007.
- The British Jazz artist Soweto Kinch first album contains a track called “Equiano’s Tears”.
- He was portrayed by Danny Sapani in the BBC series Garrow’s Law in 2010 as giving evidence in a trial of the captain of the Zong. The captain had died shortly after the incident and so his trial for fraud never took place. Equiano did not appear as a witness in either of actual cases.