Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano the Slave Abolitionist

Overview of Olaudah the Slave Abolitionist


Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano the African Slave Abolitionist and writer was born in 1745 and died on March 31, 1797, who originally, came from the Ibo region in Nigeria according to his memoir. He was captured as a child and sold as a slave, taken to the Caribbean and then sold to a Royal Navy officer. Olaudah purchased his freedom in 1766 and was known as Gustavus Vassa for the most part of his life.

After he purchased his freedom he became a member of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group, who were Africans living in Britain fighting for an end to slavery. His place of birth has been one of controversy with a Literary Scholar claiming he could have been in colonial South Carolina; which has been disputed by other scholars though.

He bought his freedom and wrote a compelling story about his experience (1745-1797). He was an extraordinary man and rose to prominence and was associated with the campaign to abolish Slavery.

Early Life and Enslavement

According to his autobiography he was born in Essaka, in Igbo region in present day Nigeria . He was kidnapped at the age of 11 with his sister and sold to different slave traders.

He met his sister sometime later but both were finally separated again forever when he was shipped through the Atlantic Ocean to Barbados and later taken to the Colony of Virginia for sale.

Olaudah is Renamed Gustavus Vassa

A Naval officer in the Royal Navy Michael Henry Pascal bought him and renamed him Gustavus Vassa. He named him Gustavus Vassa, a noble who rose to become King of Sweden in the 16th century. Equiano had earlier been named Michael, and at another time Jacob on board a slave ship. He travelled extensively with Michael around the world, visiting Scotland, the Caribbean, England, Gibraltar, Georgia and many others.

His master took him along with him back to England and had him as his valet during the Anglo-French war which lasted from 1756 to 1763.

Equiano was sent to learn to read and write by his master and was highly favored by Henry and his Cousins, the Guerins. Henry’s cousins stood as his godparents when he converted to Christianity and was baptized on February 9, 1759 at age 14.

He was later sold to Captain James Doran in December 1762, taken to the Caribbean again and was bought by Robert King in 1763; an American Quaker merchant from Philadelphia.

Olaudah Equiano gains freedom

Freedom for Olaudah
Freedom for Olaudah

In 1763 his new master promised to set him free if he could purchase his freedom for 40 pounds sterling; the same price Kings had bought him. He hence set to work and served as a deckhand, valet and barber to Robert

Olaudah also worked with Robert on his shipping expeditions, travelling through the artic to India.

Robert King taught Equiano how to read and write more fluently and also played a huge role in guiding him on the path Christianity.

King benevolently allowed Equiano engage in his own private trading as well as on behalf of him, as his master.

Equiano sold fruits, glass tumblers and other valuable items which nevertheless came with insults from white buyers who often refused to pay him for goods bought. Three years later in 1766, he bought his freedom from Robert; but on Roberts’ request remained with him as his partner.

Equiano meets and works with Charles Irving

Equiano later left the Caribbean and returned to England and settled there in 1768 but continued working at sea. He later became an assistant to Dr Charles Irving a scientist and also started attending school.

In 1773, he accompanied Dr Charles Irving who recruited him to work on a project on Mosquito Coast in Central America. Charles had earlier developed a process to distill seawater for consumption making a fortune from it.

On this project in Mosquito Coast, Equiano was responsible for selecting slaves and managing them as laborers on a sugar plantation. Though the plantation failed, Equiano and Charles had a good working relationship that lasted for more than ten years. They parted ways in 1776 when Equiano made a decision to leave the Mosquito Coast. He boarded a ship and arrived England on January 7, 1777.

Pioneer of the Abolitionist Cause

In the 1780s, Olaudah Equiano joined the movement for the abolition of slavery known as the Abolitionist Movement and played a prominent role as a Slave Abolitionist. With urging and financial support from fellow abolitionist, including Hannah More, John Wesley he embarked on the project of writing his life story.

He published his autobiography in 1789 ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustava Vassa the African’. The book went through nine editions in his life time and was one of the first books to be written by an African. Equiano’s book as at that time was widely read in England and Europe.

It became a best seller by 1792 and was translated and published in Germany, Holland, United States and Russia.

 Slaves on a Plantation in Jamaica
Slaves on a Plantation in Jamaica

According to his narrative he did not experience the horrors and pain slaves passed through during the slave trade period. The book nonetheless gave an insight into the hardship and desperate conditions black slaves faced on this voyage to Europe and America.

This book fueled the growth of opposition to slavery in Great Britain, Europe and the United States. He travelled far and wide promoting the book which eventually became popular and helped in the fight against slavery.

Olaudah Equiano also gave lectures as a Slave Abolitionist eager to see an end to slavery, painting slavery as an affront to humanity. He stated in his book and I quote, “Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once like the African, uncivilized and even barbarous. Did nature make them inferior to their sons? And should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, No”.

Equiano in Sierra Leone

He lectured in numerous cities against the slave trade and travelled throughout England, Scotland and Ireland promoting his book. Equiano also visited Sierra Leone and worked to improve the social, economic and educational status of Africans.

His work in Sierra Leone involved settling freed slaves; including slaves that fought the American-Great Britain war on the side of Great Britain. He was appointed on November 1786 “Commissary of Provisions and Stores for the Black Poor going to Sierra Leone.”

The freed slaves were settled in Freetown, a new British colony in present day Sierra Leone. He was however dismissed for protesting against financial mismanagement by the organization. He left Sierra Leone and returned back to England.

Controversy surrounding Olaudah Equiano

He was a public figure who spoke openly about slavery, a spokesman for the black community and was a leading member of the ‘Sons of Africa’. This group comprised freed Africans who had settled in London and together they fought for the Abolition of Slavery.

Controversy surrounding his birth place was raised by Vincent Carretta a professor of English. Vincent asserted that from Olaudah Equiano’s baptismal records, that there was possibility he was born in South Carolina rather than Africa. It stems from the fact that he on two occasions claimed and listed his birthplace to be in the Americas.

Historian have however spoken in favor of Equiano, arguing that if the events narrated in his book have factual evidences to prove them, why should his place of birth be in doubt.

His book has been adjudged the most valued account of a slave’s life and the horrible experience of his life from slavery to freedom.

Death and Legacy

All his life he went by the name Gustavus Vassa but used Olaudah Equiano in his book. He willed half his fortune to the Sierra Leone Company in the event his surviving descendent died before age 21. He married Susanna Cullen an English woman in 1792 and together they had two daughters. Olaudah Equiano died on March 31, 1797; He died a wealthy man.

He is valued for his role as a pioneer in emphasizing the ‘dignity of African Life’ in the white society of his time. His book contributed immensely and spoke eloquently against the evils and inhumane activity of slavery.

Olaudah Equiano is remembered today for his role as a Slave Abolitionist.

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