Circa, Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)
Olaudah Equiano Circa (1745-1797)
Freedman, sailor, author, and abolitionist
Background. Olaudah Equiano (pronounced o-lah-oo-day ek-wee-ah-no), also known by his European name Gustavus Vassa, led a remarkable life as a slave in several English possessions, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, a widely traveled sailor, and an early abolitionist who worked to end the British slave trade. Equiano was born a member of the Ibo tribe in present-day Nigeria around 1745. At the age of eleven he was captured along with his sister by African slave traders. The two were soon separated as Equiano was traded from village to village, where he worked for a variety of masters. When he reached the coast of West Africa, Equiano was purchased by a European slaver and chained together with many other captives in the hot, stinking hold of a slave ship. He was then transported thousands of miles to the Caribbean island of Barbados, whose sugar plantations made it the richest British colony of the eighteenth century. When no Barbadian planter purchased Equiano he was taken to Virginia, where he worked briefly on a tobacco plantation.
Sailor and Veteran. Only a few weeks after his purchase in Virginia, Equiano was sold again to a British naval officer named Michael Henry Pascal. While sailing with Pascal to England in 1757 he met a Virginian named Richard Baker, who began teaching him to read and write. Equiano subsequently took every opportunity to improve his reading and writing skills and to add to his knowledge. The Seven Years’ War had already begun, and his wartime years with Captain Pascal permitted Equiano to become a skillful sailor as he served on naval vessels in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. At the close of the war in 1763 Equiano was again sold, this time to a Philadelphia Quaker merchant named Robert King. His skills as a sailor who could read, write, and calculate made him a valuable assistant in King’s business: shipping sugar, slaves, and agricultural goods between the Caribbean, Georgia, and South Carolina. While sailing from port to port for King, Equiano was able to begin a small trading business of his own. He saved up the money he made, and by 1766 he had accumulated enough to purchase his freedom.
New Life. In the decade after his manumission Equiano continued to work as a sailor on merchant ships and visited various American ports. One time in Savannah, Georgia, he attended a service led by the great English evangelist George Whitefield. The clergyman’s powerful sermon set Equiano to thinking about heaven, hell, and salvation, thoughts which troubled him for several years. Finally in 1774 he experienced a religious conversion while visiting Cadiz in Spain. This experience quieted his anxieties over his soul and instilled in him a desire for worship and Bible reading that brought him into contact with groups of people who shared similar experiences. The English and American Quakers, Anglicans, and Methodists whom he met also shared a determination to work against the slave trade in the hope of one day bringing it to an end. Equiano became an important contact person for these early abolitionists as he carried news between England and America of the horrors of slavery and of courageous antislavery activity. With the publication of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in 1789, Equiano himself became a powerful spokesman for the abolition of slavery. His autobiography catapulted him to international fame. In 1792 he married an Englishwoman, Susan Cullen, who bore him 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 him into adulthood.
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, edited by Robert J. Allison (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995).