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

Dialogues
"I believe there are a few events in my life which have not happened to many." With this understatement, Olaudah Equiano begins his interesting narrative.

At the age of 11, Olaudah Equiano was abducted from his Ibo village in West Africa (presently in the area of Benin) 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, his memoir had gone through nine editions, including translations for European readers, and was a best seller of the day. It was a powerful influence for the abolition of slavery, especially in Great Britain.

The boy Equiano was destined for a life of distinction in his society, when slavers kidnapped him and his younger sister. His early "slave homes" in Africa presented a "humane slavery", he was often treated as part of the family. Then his life really changed. He was taken to the coast for shipment to the Barbados. This was Equiano's first encounter with the white man. At first he feared being killed and eaten by them.

Equiano describes in Chapter 2, the horrors of the voyage from Africa to the New World. He was sent to the Virginia Colony after not being sold in Barbados. In Virginia he was eventually purchased by Michael Pascal, an officer in the British Navy.

Being a slave owned by Lieutenant Pascal provided Equiano with some interesting opportunities. Equiano went to England briefly, and sailed with Pascal on various military excursions. Unfortunately, the freedom from slavery he sought, and which Pascal had promised never happened.

Equiano was again sold in the West Indies. However, being such a quick learner paid off. His combination of patience and business acumen Finally Equiano was able to purchase his freedom.

For a while he worked in the West Indies, then moved to London. His adventures included trips to the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and even the Arctic.
Back in England in 1777 he became a Christian. He became an abolitionist and was hired by the English government to work on the resettlement of poor Africans living in London to Sierra Leone. He eventually returned to England, where he experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity. He got a job from the English government to work at settling a colony in Sierra Leone for impoverished Africans living in London. This was not a successful engagement for Equiano. However, his desire to explain why he had not been successful, along with his desire to share his views on slavery and his own personal life experiences, resulted in the publication of his memoir.

TIMELINE OF THE LIFE OF EQUIANO OLAUDAH

  • 1745 Born in West Africa.
  • 1755 Captured and sold into slavery.
  • 1756 Arrival in the West Indies. Lt. Pascal purchases Equiano. During this time, Equiano sees white people reading and becomes curious.
  • 1757 Arrival in Falmouth, England. Equiano lives with a woman as her slave and is instructed in reading and writing.
  • 1757-62 Equiano accompanies Lt. Pascal onboard for various trips.
  • 1763 Equiano returns to the West Indies and is sold to a new master.
  • 1766 At age 21, Equiano is able to purchase his freedom for 40 Pounds Sterling. He remains with his master as an employee, but is planning on returning to England.
  • 1767 Purchases a ticket to sail back to England. He is self-employed in England as a hairdresser. For financial reasons, he returns to the shipping trade. He visits Italy, Turkey, and Greece.
  • 1773 Is part of the crew on an Arctic expedition.
    1775 Returns to the West Indies.
  • 1777 Returns to England as an abolitionist, and becomes the commissary officer for the Sierra Leone resettlement project.
  • 1789 Publishes his narrative.
  • 1797 Equiano Olaudah dies at age 52 and is buried in Cambridgeshire, England.
  • 1807 Great Britain abolishes slavery.


Top
  Dialogues

The complicated issue of Equiano's social status and assimilation:
Equiano was intelligent, and was able to quickly learn the language, religion, law and commerce of his enslavers. Thus, he was able to purchase his freedom, find employment, travel the world, and be a legitimate advocate for abolition. The prefaces in the British editions of his narrative specifically petition the government. However, while advocating for the slaves, he is very obviously not one of them. He has benefited from his status. C. L. R. James addresses this situation in The Black Jacobins.

The spiritual journey:
Equiano wrote his Narrative after his conversion to Christianity. The Christian formula of sin-conversion-spiritual rebirth obviously had an impact on the way he structured his story. It also had an impact of the readers. See the Literary Themes page on this website.

The Slave Narrative:
Equiano's Narrative is usually regarded as the first "slave narrative," and the first book in English by an African. Later editions of his book were often bound with other literary works by African authors, such as the 1830 edition, which also contained the poems of Phillis Wheatley. Equiano, by the time he wrote the Narrative, had done quite a bit of reading. His carefully created work was especially effective. See the Audience page on this website.

Equiano the Slave and Robinson Crusoe the Castaway:
Robinson Crusoe was published before Equiano was born. He may have read it. It is also a story about a resourceful young man in a foreign environment.


  Notes

Equiano the Survivor:
The horrors that Equiano is forced to confront do not consume him. He is able, with a combination of luck, intelligence, and hard work, to win. His ironic sense of humor in recounting his numerous adventures and roles in life indicate that he too thought he was a survivor. Early in the Narrative the goal of freedom is established, and he then expends all of his energy on attaining it.

 

  Links

Equiano's narrative is available for sale at Amazon.com

This British site has a biography, map of travels, lots of images, and a critical bibliography of Equiano: http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/index.htm

The Equiano Foundation Online --The Equiano Foundation seeks "to provide a valuable educational vehicle through which to resurrect, restore, and celebrate the meaningful contribution of Olaudah Equiano to Western, African, and African American culture particularly through his publication of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African. http://www.atomicage.com/equiano/index.html


The American Memory site at the Library of Congress has a page titled "The African American Odyssey, Slaves and the Courts: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/sthtml/

Highlights of this collection include the cases of Somerset v. Stewart, 1772, which laid the groundwork for the abolition of slavery in England, and Dred Scott, 1857, which helped precipitate the Civil War, as well as the memoirs of Daniel Drayton, who helped slaves escape to freedom. Other materials document the work of John Quincy Adams and William Lloyd Garrison
to abolish slavery and the trial of John Brown. The collection contains courtroom transcripts, important speeches from trials, lawyers' trial arguments, and Supreme Court decisions. A special presentation shows a manuscript slave code of 1860 from the District of Columbia.

A full text facsimile of Equiano's narrative, first edition at the Library of Congress is also available.

The University of North Carolina's "Documenting the American South" website includes a page on North American slave narratives: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/neh.html

  Teaching

Some questions and topics for discussion:

Compare and contrast Equiano's descriptions of African society with his descriptions of life in London. My reading of this text provided my first exposure to Eighteenth Century life in Africa, and I would suspect this would be true for most students. Especially interesting is that he does not write disparagingly about African society after having been acculturated to the West.

One of Equiano's first fears, that the White Men are going to eat him, is the complete reverse of the stereotype of cannibals in the West.

Equiano is an easy hero to like. His rags-to-riches story fits into the American success story of endurance of suffering, patience, and hard work as important virtues. Are they? Would Equiano's story be as convincing if he had remained in slavery?

The American Memory website at the Library of Congress has a rich collection of texts and images relating to slavery and African American history, a good place for student exploration.

  Citations

Olaudah Equiano: The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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Last Updated: 4/29/02