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Equiano, Olaudah

Equiano, Olaudah

c. 1745

Nigeria, Africa



Freedman, sailor, author, and abolitionist

"The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other's arms."

From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

Olaudah Equiano (pronounced ek-wee-ANH-o; also known as Gustavus Vassa) led a remarkable life as a slave and freedman. The son of an African chief, he was captured at age eleven by African slave traders. After being sold to European traders, Equiano was sent first to the Caribbean. He was then transported to a plantation in Virginia, where he was bought by British naval officer Michael Henry Pascal. While serving Pascal, he received many advantages such as being taught how to read and write English. He also became a skillful sailor during the Seven Years War (1756–63; a worldwide conflict between major European powers). After the war, Equiano was traded to Robert King. King provided Equiano with the experience to begin his own trading business, which enabled him to save enough money to buy his freedom in 1766. After writing The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), Equiano became an influential abolitionist (a person who takes measures to end slavery).

Becomes Virginia plantation slave

It is believed that Olaudah Equiano was born in Nigeria, Africa, in 1745. He was the son of the chief of the East-Nigerian

Equiano and sister kidnapped

In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), Olaudah Equiano described how he and his sister were kidnapped by African slave traders.

One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or to make resistance, they stopped our mouths, tied our hands, and ran off with us into the nearest wood, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night.

We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed [reduced] our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day. For a long time we had kept to the woods, but at last we came into a road which I believed I knew. I now had some hopes of being delivered, for we had advanced but a little way before I discovered some people at a distance, on which I began to cry out for their assistance; but my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster, and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack. They also stopped my sister's mouth, and tied her hands. And in this manner we proceeded till we were out of the sight of these people.

When we went to rest the following night they offered us some victuals [food], but we refused them; and the only comfort we had was in being in one another's arms all that night, and bathing each other in our tears. But, alas! we were soon deprived of even the smallest comfort of weeping together. The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other's arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us: she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days I did not eat anything but what they forced into my mouth.

Later Equiano's sister was brought to a house where he was working as a slave, and he was overjoyed to see her. But, he said, " . . . she was again torn from me forever! I was now more miserable, if possible, than before. . . . "

Reprinted in: Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1998, pp. 352–53, 354.

Ibo tribe who probably lived near present-day Onitsha. As a child, Equiano experienced the security of tribal unity. This world was shattered, however, when he and his sister were captured by African tribesmen who participated in the slave trade. After being separated from his sister, Equiano was traded from village to village in Africa, where he worked for a variety of masters. Eventually taken to the coast of West Africa, Equiano was purchased by a European slave master. He was transported thousands of miles to the Caribbean island of Barbados, whose sugar plantations made it the richest British colony during the eighteenth century. Chained to many other captives in the hot, stinking hold of a slave ship, Equiano witnessed firsthand the brutal treatment of slaves by European traders. When none of the planters in Barbados purchased Equiano, he was taken to Virginia and put to work on a tobacco plantation.

Starts business, buys freedom

Only a few weeks after being purchased in Virginia, Equiano was sold again to a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Michael Henry Pascal. While serving Pascal, Equiano received many advantages that improved his life in the New World (European term for North and South America). It was Pascal who named Equiano after the sixteenth-century Swedish king Gustavus I. While sailing with Pascal to England in 1757, Equiano met a Virginian named Richard Baker, who taught him to read and write. Equiano subsequently took every opportunity to improve his reading and writing skills and to add to his knowledge. In 1759, while visiting London, England, one of Pascal's friends had Equiano baptized (initiated into Christianity) at St. Margaret's Church, in Westminster.

During the Seven Years War, Pascal permitted Equiano to become a skillful sailor. He served on many naval vessels in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea and even held an important position during his service. For instance, he was a steward (an employee on a ship who manages the provisioning of food and attends passengers) on board the Aetna in 1761. After the war Equiano was promised his freedom. When he asked to be set free, however, Pascal was so angered by the request that he sent Equiano back to the West Indies to be sold as a slave. Fortunately, this time he was sold to a merchant named Robert King, who was a Quaker (member of a religious group that believed in personal communication with the Holy Spirit; Quakers also opposed slavery).

Equiano proved quite valuable to King because of his skills as a sailor as well as his ability to read, write, and calculate. Equiano assisted King in shipping sugar and other agricultural goods between the Caribbean, Georgia, and South Carolina. Once, Equiano was even forced to transport slaves. Despite the fact that the Quakers had renounced (rejected) slavery as part of their religion in 1761, King still required Equiano to buy his freedom. While sailing from port to port for King, Equiano began a small trading business of his own. He saved his money, and by 1766 he had accumulated enough to purchase his freedom.

Becomes prominent abolitionist

In the decade after his emancipation (freedom), Equiano continued to work as a sailor on merchant ships and visited various American ports. While in Savannah, Georgia, he attended a service led by English evangelist George Whitefield (see entry). The clergyman's powerful sermon inspired Equiano to thinking about heaven, hell, and salvation, thoughts that troubled him for several years. Finally, in 1774, he experienced a religious conversion while visiting Cadiz, Spain. This experience resulted in a less anxious nature and instilled in him a desire for worship and Bible reading that brought him into contact with other Christians. He also decided that the slave trade was immoral and should be abolished. In England and in the colonies, he met Quakers, Anglicans, and Methodists who shared his determination to end slavery.

Equiano became an important contact person for the early abolitionists. Traveling between England and America, he carried news of the horrors of slavery and informed sympathetic listeners about the courage of antislavery activists. With the publication of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Equiano became an influential spokesman for the abolition of slavery. Nine editions of his book were printed during his lifetime, and it brought him international fame. In this narrative, Equiano compares the slaves with the Hebrews in the Bible, and presents many anti-slavery views. As a result, the book is considered one of the best precursors to slave narratives such as the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and others that were written around the time of the American Civil War (1861–65; the Civil War was a conflict between Northern states and Southern states, which formed an independent Confederacy, over complex economic and social issues, including slavery).

Marries an Englishwoman

In addition to his trading missions, Equiano took on other adventures during his lifetime. In 1772–73, he joined an expedition to the Arctic and later toured the Mediterranean as a servant. He was also an assistant to a doctor with the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua. In 1777, Equiano settled in the British Isles, where he became an active abolitionist. During a journey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1785, he was pleased to observe that the Quakers had emancipated slaves and founded a free school in the city. In 1792, he married an English-woman, Susan Cullen, with whom he had two daughters, Anna Maria and Johanna. Susan Cullen Vassa died only months after Johanna's birth, and Equiano died in 1797. Johanna died two months after her father, but Anna Maria survived into adulthood.

For further research

Cameron, Ann. The Kidnaped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Johnson, Charles, Patricia Smith, and WGBH Research Team, eds. Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1998.

"Olaudah Equiano." Available July 13, 1999.

Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1998, pp. 352–53, 354.

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