The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African

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In 1789, in England, freed slave and abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. This autobiography became the prototype for the genre of the slave narrative, and was the beginning of the canon of African literature in English.

Olaudah Equiano was abducted from his Ibo village in West Africa at the age of eleven and was sold into slavery. Approximately thirty years later, as an emancipated slave, he published his autobiography. At the time of his death in 1797, the memoir and polemic against slavery had gone through nine editions, including European translations, and was a best-seller of the time. First published in 1789, the volume added powerful influence to the nascent abolitionist movement in America. Equiano's narrative, bound in the 1830's with the poems of former slave Phyllis Wheatly, marks the beginning of popularized black African literature. In his book, Equiano covers his life from his boyhood in Africa, and recounts his childhood memories of the society he was born into. He was a young man of privilege, and before being kidnapped was destined for an important role in the community. Slavery changed that role, but did not diminish its importance. His early "slave homes" were in Africa, where the institution of slavery was much more humane than in the New World. Short stays as a slave in African families did not prepare Equiano for what lay ahead. Upon reaching the Atlantic coase, Equiano encountered white men for the first time and the journey to the New World on a slave ship. He describes with graphic horror and terror the voyage; whippings, shrieks, and groans. Equiano was not sold in Barbados, and was shipped to the Virginia Colony, purchased, and set to work. After a short stay, he was again purchased, this time by British Royal Navy Lieutenant Michael Pascal. Here begins the interesting part of Equiano's narrative. A move to England, world travel on sailing ships, and education were a major part of the next seven years. Finally Equiano was able to purchase his freedom. For a while he worked in the West Indies, then moved to London. In 1773 he sailed with an Arctic expedition. Upon his return from the Arctic, Equiano became a vocal abolitionist, lecturing throughout Great Britain, and finally publishing his biographical narrative.

TIMELINE

1745 Equiano born in West Africa

1755 Captured and sold into slavery

1755 Arrived in West Indies

1756 Purchased by Lt. Pascal of the British Royal Navy as a gift for friends. Sees white people reading and becomes curious about books.

1757 Arived in Falmouth, England. Lived with a woman as her slave and was instructed in reading and writing.

1757-62 Was a slave onboard ships.

1763-67 Was a slave in the West Indies.

1766 Purchased freedom for 40 pounds at age 21. Stayed on as an employee of his master, but planned move to England.

1767 Purchased ticket to England. Worked as a hairdresser, but found his income lacking and returned to the shipping industry. Visited Turkey, Greece and Italy.

1773 Joined expedition to the Arctic.

1775 Returned to the West Indies.

1777 Returned to England, became an abolitionist. Became commissary for the Sierra Leone resettlement project for former slaves to return to Africa.

1789 narrative published

1797 died at age 52. Buried in Cambridgeshire, England.

Ten years after Equiano's death Great Britain abolished slavery.

 

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