Black History Month: Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797): Africa’s Superstar! – By: Dhanpaul Narine

Slave, author and fighter for abolition, Olaudah Equiano is Africa’s superstar. His memoir is a compelling account of a brutal chapter in our history.

He said that his memory furnished him with an imperfect sketch of his circumstance. But what he gave us from the narrative of his life is a classic description of the haunting separation of families, slavery, and the hand of Providence that led to his freedom, and influence in Europe, and beyond.

   Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, is Africa’s enduring superstar. He became a slave at a very young age, traveled the world, and eventually bought his freedom.       

     But there is more to his story. Equiano fought against slavery, became a part of the British establishment, married a white woman and wrote his autobiography with such rich detail that it underwent several editions. His book ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ is twelve chapters long and is a treasure trove for historians who want to know about life in the colonies in the eighteenth century.

    After being sold, and resold in Africa, he was taken on a ship and chained, with others. Equiano describes in detail the horrors of life on the ship and speaks of men jumping overboard to escape slavery. After much cruelty, the ship landed in Barbados. The separation of families affected Equiano greatly. He writes, ‘Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely, this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.’

   The stopover in Barbados was brief and then Equiano was on a sloop to America. He worked on a plantation for a while after which he was bought by a captain Michael Henry Pascal. It was he who named Equiano, Gustavus Vassa, after royalty in Sweden. Captain Pascal took his ship to England in 1757 with a twelve-year old slave. In the following summer, the young man saw action in Canada and America and reported on them in detail.  Equiano was baptized in 1759 in London; to his delight he was treated kindly by the ladies, and he even went to school.

   In 1763, Equiano landed in Montserrat where he was sold to another master, Mr. King. He was paid sixteen pence per day that was a princely sum compared to the other slaves. He describes the unspeakable cruelty meted out to slaves and quotes an Ordinance from the Assembly of Barbados that states ‘if any man shall out of wantonness, or only of bloody mindedness or cruel intention, willfully kill a negro or other slave of his own, he shall pay into the public treasury fifteen pounds sterling.’

     Equiano visited at least fifteen islands and found that cruelty to slaves was part of the policy of control. He entered into business on the side and made some money. In St. Kitts we are told, a white man and a free black woman were married on water, as they were not permitted in the church. Equiano began to think of his freedom. It came on July 11, 1766 when his freedom papers were signed by his master, Robert King. According to Equiano, ‘all within my breast was tumult, wildness and delirium’ when he was freed.

      His travels took him to many countries but being free did not mean that he escaped cruelty. Equiano was beaten and came close to death but his determination kept him going. In the penultimate chapter of his chronicles he wrestles with questions of belief and the afterlife. In the final chapter of his book, he is appointed to the post of a commissary to Sierra Leone. This was historic as Equiano was returning to Africa to help the poor. He even wrote to the Queen on behalf of ‘his brethren.’ He argued for the abolition of slavery and the opening up of trade between Europe and Africa. He also argued for inter-marriage and married a white woman, Sarah Cullen, with whom he had two daughters.

    Equiano wrote a fascinating autobiography but what does it mean in the overall literature on emancipation? It is suggested that the publication of his book in 1789 was timely as it caught the mood of the anti-slavery movement. When Clarkson, Wilberforce, Sharpe, and others, were arguing in the House of Commons to end slavery, they had first hand information from Equiano’s credible work. The most powerful opposition to slavery was his experience of the horrors of the system.

     There is controversy as to Equiano’s place of birth. He claimed to be an Igbo, born in Nigeria, and was captured along with his sister, and transported into slavery. This has been disputed by Vincent Carretta, a professor of English, at the University of Maryland. Carretta says that Equiano was born in Carolina and has produced two documents in support. But does this really matter? Autobiographies are known for inaccurate embellishments; even if Equiano was born in Carolina it does not detract from the sheer literary majesty of his work or his support for the abolition of slavery.

    The uniqueness of his work lies in the fact that Equiano was at one time free. He was captured into slavery and became free again to expose the system. He did so with a keen eye and with descriptions and analysis of which any literary critic would be proud. Equiano comes over as thoughtful, erudite, urbane and well versed in diplomatic niceties. He was able to navigate the complex currents of the British establishment, avoiding unnecessary controversy, and paving the way for his views to be heard through his book and lectures.

   There is something else. Equiano saw the future. It valued self-promotion and the rewards that hard work brought. In these days of the internet, self-publishing and marketing is big business. Equiano self-published his book. He travelled widely to sell it; at one point he was able to sell 1,900 copies in just over eight months. He died at age 52 that is young by today’s standards. But he packed a wealth of experience in his life and left a rich and authoritative account of a brutal chapter in our history.

Slave, author and fighter for abolition, Olaudah Equiano is Africa’s superstar. His memoir is a compelling account of a brutal chapter in our history.

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  • Francis Quamina Farrier  On 03/01/2021 at 1:19 pm

    Indeed, it is important to record our history for future generations to know the past and on whose shoulders they stand. Thanking Dr. Dhanpaul Narine for this important article.

  • wally n  On 03/01/2021 at 1:36 pm

    Great article, I listen to radio ZJB Radio Montserrat everyday, they constantly relay the island’s history, and sometimes other famous Guyanese and Caribbean
    people. I think that is an idea that should be copied, if not already done.

  • brandli62  On 03/01/2021 at 5:00 pm

    Truly a great story! I had read of Olaudah Equiano in the past, but I could no longer remember all the details. Many thanks to Dhanpaul Narine for sharing the story with the readership of Guyanese Online!

    By the way, Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography is available a book or e-book on Amazon.

  • Sophie  On 03/02/2021 at 11:19 pm

    Great article on a great African. This should be taught in schools so all can learn about our history.

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