An 18th-century Black anti-slavery activist and lobbyist in Britain, popularly held to be the country's first Black political leader
Olaudah Equiano was an African writer, abolitionist, seaman and civil rights campaigner who had formerly been enslaved. He was the most prominent Black anti-slavery activist and lobbyist in 18th century Britain and is popularly held to be the country's first Black political leader.
Equiano is believed to have been born of the Ibo people in what is now Nigeria, in around 1745. When he was 11, he and his sister were kidnapped from their village and enslaved. They were separated from each other and Equiano was shipped across to Barbados, surviving the horrifying journey on board a slave ship.
His autobiography was the first to offer a first-hand account of the Middle Passage, which is the stage of the slave trade where Africans were densely packed onto ships and transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies.
His period as a slave involved working on a plantation in Virginia. He drew on personal experiences in the Caribbean to convey the harshness of plantation life in his writing.
"These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, by not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes."
From here he was bought by a Royal Navy captain, Captain Pascal, who renamed him Gustavas Vassa, after a Swedish noble who had become a king. He spent a lot of time at sea serving Pascal, including during the Seven Years' War with France where he worked as a valet and hauled gun powder to the gun decks.
Upon his return to England, Pascal brought Equiano with him to London. Equiano spent his time here living with the Guerin sisters, relatives of Pascal, who resided in Blackheath at 111 Maze Hill.
It was here that he learnt how to read and write and improve his English: skills that would have a great impact on his future.
After his time with Pascal, Equiano was sold to Captain James Doran who took him back to the Caribbean to Montserrat, where he was sold to Robert King, a successful merchant.
Robert King was Equiano’s last master. King had allowed him to trade in small amounts of goods on his own account while working on trading vessels in the Caribbean and North America. Equiano sold fruits, glass tumblers and other items until he was able to buy his own freedom for £40 in 1767.
Although King asked Equiano to stay on and work with him as a business partner now that he was a free man, he decided that it was too dangerous to remain; and indeed narrowly escaped being kidnapped back into a life of slavery.
It was around 1767 that Equiano became a free man. Like many free Black men, he moved to Britain to work as a sailor in the Royal Navy and on commercial vessels. His travels took him all over the world, including to the Arctic in an attempt to reach the North Pole as a member of the Phipps expedition of 1773, and to New York and Philadelphia.
"And thus ended our Arctic voyage, to the no small joy of all on board, after having been absent four months; in which time, at the imminent hazard of our lives, we explored nearly as far towards the Pole as 81 degrees north, and 20 degrees east longitude; being much farther, by all accounts, than any navigator had ever ventured before; in which we fully proved the impracticability of finding a passage that way to India."
Equiano eventually settled in London, where he'd been baptized earlier in his life at St Margaret's Westminster, in 1759.
With first-hand experience of life as a slave, Equiano became friends with and supported many people involved in the abolitionist movement, the movement to end the slave trade. Some of his abolitionist friends encouraged him to tell his life story, and thus the idea of his autobiography was formed.
Equiano's autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, was published in 1789. It became a bestseller and was translated into many languages, going through eight editions in his lifetime. He travelled around Britain and Ireland giving lectures, and advancing the abolitionist cause by giving voice to the horrors of slavery.
"But is not the slave trade entirely a war with the heart of man? And surely that which is begun by breaking down the barriers of virtue involves in its continuance destruction to every principle, and buries all sentiments in ruin!"
Equiano was foremost in a group of men and women who were publishing in English and introducing the British public to African thought for the first time. His autobiography was the first influential work in what became the slave narrative genre, which included written accounts of enslaved Africans in Great Britain and its colonies.
One of Equiano's supporters was Thomas Clarkson, a prominent abolitionist and a founding member of Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He wrote Equiano a letter of recommendation to help promote his autobiography:
I take the Liberty of introducing to your Notice Gustavus Vasa, the Bearer, a very honest, ingenious, and industrious African, who wishes to visit Cambridge. He takes with him a few Histories containing his own Life written by himself, of which he means to dispose to defray his Journey. Would you be so good as to recommend the Sale of a few and you will confer a favour on your already obliged and obedient
No. 7 Frith Street Soho
July: 9. 1789"
Equiano was a founding member of the group of previously-enslaved Black writers and activists known as the Sons of Africa, a small abolitionist group. They are recognised as Britain's first Black lobby group. Their literacy allowed them to petition parliament on issues, write letters to newspapers, and speak at lectures. They often detailed the harrowing conditions of the Middle Passage, to help provoke debate about opposition to slavery.
The MP Sir William Dolben, after corresponding with the Sons of Africa and seeing a slave ship being fitted out for a voyage, proposed a parliamentary bill to improve the conditions on slave ships. From this, the Slave Act 1788 was the first law passed to regulate the slave trade and established standards of how many slaves could be carried on a ship in relation to its size.
The Sons of Africa also worked for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, as well as in Britain itself. Equiano led delegations of the Sons to Parliament to campaign for the abolishment of international slave trading.
Below is an example of the type of correspondence that Equiano used to circulate. This letter was sent to the Quakers (or the Society of Friends), a non-conformist Christian group who were foremost in the abolitionist movement:
"To the truly Worthy Society of Gentlemen called Friends
By reading your book entitled a Caution to Great Britain and Colonies Concerning the Calamitous State of the enslaved Negroes.
We the poor Oppressed needy and much degraded Africans who are here met desire to approach you with this address of thanks with our warmest love and warmest acknowledgements and with the deepest sense of your benevolence unreserved labour kind interposition and laudable attempts which under God you have made towards breaking the yoke of Slavery and to administer a little comfort and ease to thousands and tens of thousands of very grievously afflicted and too heavily burdened Negroes. Gentlemen could you by perseverance at last be enabled under God to lighten in any degree the heavy burden of the afflicted some amount it will be in some measure be the possible means of saving the souls of many of the oppressed - and if so sure we are that the God = whose eyes are ever upon all his creatures and ever Rewards every true act of virtue and Regards the prayer of the Oppressed will give you and yours those Blessings which are not in the power of us mortals to express or conceive which we as part of those captured oppressed and afflicted People most earnestly wish and pray
Presented by Gustavus Vasa and seven others the 21st October 1785"
In 1786 Olaudah Equiano became the country's first Black civil servant when he served as a commissary on a project which sought to remove hundreds of poor Black people from London to Sierra Leone.
"I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when in truth I knew it not: still the Lord pursued me although I slighted and disregarded it; this mercy melted me down. When I considered my poor wretched state I wept, seeing what a great debtor I was to sovereign free grace. Now the Ethiopian was willing to be saved by Jesus Christ, the sinner's only surety, and also to rely on none other person or thing for salvation."
Family Life and Legacy
Equiano married Susan Cullen in 1792, a White British woman, at a Soham church. They had two children, Anna Maria and Joanna.
Of their two daughters only Joanna survived to adulthood and at the age of 21 she inherited £950 from her father's estate. She married the Congregational minister Henry Bromley in 1821. They had no children. Joanna died in 1857 and her grave stands in Abney Park cemetery, London.
Equiano continued to promote the antislavery cause throughout the British Isles until his death in March 1797. The location of his burial is undocumented.
In the case that Joanna did not survive until the age of 21, he had bequeathed half his wealth to the Sierra Leone Company to continue its work assisting West Africans, and half to the London Missionary Society, which promoted education overseas.
The trafficking of human lives in British ships across the Atlantic would continue for another ten years, when the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 was passed—most certainly in part due to Equiano's dedication to raising awareness.