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Equiano, Olaudah

Equiano, Olaudah

c. 1750
April 30, 1797

The autobiographer Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, was born the son of an Ibo chieftain in Benin, now part of Nigeria. He was eleven when he and his sister were kidnapped and sold to white slave traders on the coast. He was subsequently shipped to Barbados and, later, Virginia, where he was sold to a British naval officer whom he served for nearly seventeen years. On board ships and during brief intervals in England, he learned to read and write and converted to Christianity. His autobiography relates his several adventures at sea off the Canadian coast during the Seven Years' War and with Admiral Boscawen's fleet in the Mediterranean. To his dismay, his master, who had promised him his freedom, sold him to an American shipowner, who employed him in trading runssometimes with slaves as cargobetween the islands of the West Indies and the North American coast. In this capacity, Equiano witnessed murders and cruel injustices inflicted on blacks, both free and enslaved.

In 1766 Equiano was at last able to purchase his freedom, but he elected to remain a seaman, although he passed some periods in England. Among other adventures, he sailed on the Phipps expedition to the Arctic in 17721773, and he later worked as a manservant on a tour of the Mediterranean and as an assistant to a doctor treating the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua. After 1777 he remained largely land-bound in the British Isles and assumed increasingly active roles in the antislavery movement. In 1787 he was appointed commissioner of stores for the resettlement of free Africans in Sierra Leone, but he was dismissed after accusing a naval agent of mismanagement. His efforts to join an African expeditionary group or to do African missionary work also met with failure.

In 1789 Equiano published his autobiography under the title The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself. Three years later he married Susannah Cullen, an Englishwoman with whom he would have two children. Although several of his accounts have since been questioned, he saw nine editions of the book printed in his lifetime, thereby drawing invitations to lecture throughout the British Isles. Because Equiano infused his autobiography with antislavery views and identified enslaved blacks with biblical Hebrews, his work is generally regarded as a truer precursor of slave narratives written between 1830 and 1860 than other eighteenth-century African-American autobiographies.

See also Free Blacks, 16191860; Slave Narratives


Edwards, Paul. "Equiano's Narrative." Introduction to The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, edited by Paul Edwards. Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 1994.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, edited by Werner Sollors. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 2001.

Ogude, S. E. "Facts into Fiction: Equiano's Narrative Revisited." Research in African Literatures 13 (1982): 3143.

Walvin, James. An African's Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 17451797. London: Cassell, 1998.

edward margolies (1996)
Updated bibliography

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