Today, Google marks the 272nd birthday of Olaudah Equiano, the abolitionist who helped to end the African slave trade. Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), known in his lifetime as Gustavus Vassa was a prominent Nigerian in London, a freed slave who supported the British movement to end the slave trade.
Born in Essaka (his hometown) within the Eboe province (of the Igbo people) in the area that is now southern Nigeria, on October 16, 1745. His early life is unclear due to the absence of records, but he recounted how he was kidnapped with his sister when he was 11. He was then sold by local slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic to Barbados and then Virginia. In Virginia, Equiano was sold to Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who renamed him ‘Gustavus Vassa’ after the 16th-century Swedish king.
Equiano had already been renamed twice: he was called Michael while onboard the slave ship that brought him to the Americas; and Jacob, by his first owner. He travelled the oceans with Pascal for eight years, during which time he found Christianity and was baptised as well as learning to read and write.
Pascal then sold Equiano to a ship captain in London, who took him to Montserrat, where he was sold to the prominent merchant Robert King. King set Equiano to work on his shipping routes and in his stores, working as a deckhand, valet and barber whilst also earning money by trading on the side. In 1765, when Equiano was about 20 years old, King promised that he could buy his freedom for £40 (worth £6000 in the present day). In less than three years, he made enough money and was freed in 1967.
Equiano then spent much of the next 20 years travelling the world, including trips to Turkey and the Arctic. In 1786 in London, he became involved in the movement to abolish slavery. He was a prominent member of the ‘Sons of Africa’, a group of 12 prominent Africans living in Britain, who campaigned for abolition and he was active among leaders of the anti-slave trade movement in the 1780s. Equiano was befriended and supported by abolitionists, many of whom encouraged him to write and publish his life story.
He published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), which depicted the horrors of slavery. Equiano’s personal account of slavery, his journey of advancement, and his experiences as a black immigrant caused a sensation on publication. The book fuelled a growing anti-slavery movement in Britain, Europe, and the New World. His account surprised many with the quality of its imagery, description, and literary style. Some readers felt shame at learning of the suffering he had endured. It went through nine editions and aided passage of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended the African trade for Britain and its colonies.
As a free man, Equiano had a stressful life; he had suffered suicidal thoughts before he became a Protestant Christian and found peace in his faith. After settling in London, Equiano married an English woman named Susannah Cullen in 1792 and they had two daughters.
He died on 31 March 1797 in London; his gravesite is unknown. Equiano’s death was recognized in American as well as by British newspapers. Since the late 20th century, when his autobiography was published in a new edition, he has been increasingly studied by a range of scholars, including many from his homeland of Nigeria.
Plaques commemorating his life have been placed at buildings where he lived in London:
Inscription: “The African’ Olaudah Equiano Baptized Gustavus Vassa in this church.”
Location: St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey.
Inscription: “Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) “The African” lived and published here in 1789 his autobiography on suffering the barbarity of slavery, which paved the way for its abolition.”
Location: 73 Riding House Street, Paddington.
Once again, Happy Birthday to a great MAN: Olaudah Equiano (We Salute and Celebrate YOU)!
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