Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)
[pronounced: o-lah-oo-day ek-wee-ah-no],
English 109 - Survey of Western World Literature: Modern - Spring 2004
URL of this webpage: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng109/equiano.htm
Shorts Cuts on this webpage:
Introduction | Summary of Equiano's Story | 1789 Review of Equiano's Narrative |
The Modern Importance of Equiano's Slave Narrative & WWW Links

[Call:]  Who are we looking for, who are we looking for?
[Response:]  It's Equiano we're looking for.
[Call:] Has he gone to the stream?
[Response:] Let him come back.
[Call:]  Has he gone to the farm?
[Response:] Let him return.
[Chorus:] It's Equiano we're looking for.
- Kwa chant about the disappearance of Equiano, an African boy

This African chant mourns the loss of Olaudah Equiano, an 11-year-old boy and son of an African tribal  leader who was kidnapped in 1755, from his home far from the African coast, in what is now Nigeria. He was one of millions of Africans who were sold into slavery from the 15th through the 19th centuries.  Later Equiano acquired his freedom, and, in 1789, wrote his widely read autobiography:  The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.

"I believe there are few events in my life that have not happened to many," wrote Equiano in his autobiography.  The "many" he refers to are the millions of free Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved, marched to the coast and sold to European slave traders, survived - but more often died on - the notorious "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic Ocean, then sold into slavery most often to forced labor on plantations in South America, the Caribbean and North America.

Source: Video commentary by Chinua Achebe; Excerpted from Resource Bank for
Africans in America, Part 1: The Terrible Transformation (1999):

1789 The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustava Vassa, is one of the first slave narratives published in English. Kidnapped as a child from the Benin region of Nigeria and shipped to the United States as a slave, Olaudah Equiano (ethnicity Igbo; AKA: Ibo) wrote his autobiography, as a free man in Great Britain under the pseudonym of Gustavus Vassa.  Equiano offers a defense of Africa from an African perspective on cross-cultural relations with Europe, explaining how African systems of servitude differ from the chattel slavery of the Europeans. These and other slave narratives fueled the growing Abolitionist movement in Europe and the U.S.

bullet Portrait of Olaudah Equiano (British Library: African Collection):
bulletThe Life of Olaudah Equiano (Extract from The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano,
or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself.   London: Printed for and sold by
the author, No. 10, Union-Street, Middlesex Hospital, [1789]. Vol. 1, Chapter 1, pp. 4-38.
(British Library: African Collection):  
bulletExcerpts from The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa
the African
[first published London, 1789] (California Newsreel Printout), with links
to other slave narratives & bibliography: 

bulletThe Origins and Nature of New World Slavery (David Brion Davis and Steven Mintz, Gilder
Lehrman Institute of American History seminar) with extensive bibliographies: 
bulletExcerpts from Slave Narratives (ed. Steven Mintz, Univ. of Houston):

The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano
Igbo and an Chinua Achebe influence (Suzanne Erera, Princeton Univ.) main page:
offers rich resources.

Summary of Equiano's Story

The youngest son of a village leader, Equiano was born among the Igbo (or Ibo) people in the kingdom of Benin, along the Niger River. He was "the greatest favourite with [his] mother." His family expected to follow in his father's footsteps and become a chief, an elder, a judge.  Slavery was an integral part of the Ibo culture, as it was with many other African peoples. His family owned slaves, but there was also a continual threat of being abducted, of becoming someone else's slave. This is what happened, one day, while Equiano and his sister were at home alone.

Two men and a woman captured the children. Several days later Equiano and his sister were separated. Equiano continued to travel farther and farther from home, day after day, month after month, exchanging masters along the way. Equiano's early experiences as a slave were not all disagreeable; some families treated Equiano almost as a part of the family. The kind treatment, however, was about to end.  

Read Equiano's account (1789) of his kidnapping into slavery:

Venture Smith's account (1798) of his kidnapping at the age of 6:

Excerpts from Slave Narratives (ed. Steven Mintz, Univ. of Houston)

About six or seven months after being abducted, Equiano was brought to the coast, where he first encountered a slave ship and white men.

As it was for all slaves, the Middle Passage for Equiano was a long, arduous nightmare. In his autobiography he describes the inconceivable conditions of the slaves' hold: the "shrieks of the women," the "groans of the dying," the floggings, the wish to commit suicide, how those who somehow managed to drown themselves were envied.  

Read Equiano's account (1789) of the Middle Passage:
Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon aboard slave ships and later
the governor of a British colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone,
offers a vivid account of Middle Passage (1788):

Excerpts from Slave Narratives (ed. Steven Mintz, Univ. of Houston)

The ship finally arrived at Barbados, where buyers purchased most of the slaves. There was no buyer, however, for the young Equiano. 

Equiano's account (1789) of his arrival in the West Indies in 1756:
Alexander Falconbridge (1788) describes the sale of
enslaved Africans in the West Indies:

Excerpts from Slave Narratives (ed. Steven Mintz, Univ. of Houston)

Less than two weeks after his arrival, he was shipped off to the English colony of Virginia, where he was purchased and put to work. Less than a month later, he had a new master -- Michael Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Under this master, who owned Equiano for the next seven years, Equiano would move to England, educate himself, and travel the world on ships under Pascal's command.

In 1766, Equiano bought his freedom. He found work in the trade business in the West Indies, then in London. In 1773, he took part in an expedition to try to discover the Northwest Passage, a route through the arctic to the Pacific Ocean.

Back in England, Equiano became an active abolitionist. He lectured against the cruelty of British slaveowners. He spoke out against the English slave trade. He worked to resettle freed slaves.  Olaudah Equiano was a well-known abolitionist by 1789, the year he published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African.   In its introduction, Equiano states that the main purpose of the book is to  "excite in [the reader's] august assemblies a sense of compassion of the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen." The book succeeded dramatically in this regard, since it offered a vivid first-hand account of an individual born in Africa and abducted into the slave trade. One of England's abolitionists said that Equiano was of "more use to the Cause than half the People of the country."

Equiano seemed reluctant to tell his story. He claimed that he was a "private and obscure individual" and "neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant." One thing he realized, though, was that his life was far from typical. In his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, he tells the story of his youth in an African village, his kidnapping, his being made a slave in Africa, his horrendous voyage on a slave ship, his bondage in the Americas, his conversion to Christianity, the purchase of his freedom, his experiences on a British man of war, his employment on a plantation and on commercial ships, and his contribution to the abolitionist movement. He hoped his book would "promote the interests of humanity." It more than succeeded.

Ten years after Equiano’s death in 1797, his adopted homeland England abolished the slave trade.

From People & Events: Olaudah Equiano
Resource Bank for Africans in America, Part 1: The Terrible Transformation (1999):  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1narr4.html 

For a more detailed plot summary of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, see: 
Samuels, Wilfred D.  "Olaudah Equiano, c. 1745 - March 31, 1797."  Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 50: Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Trudier Harris, Detroit: The Gale Group, 1986. 123-129.  Rpt. Gale Literature Resource Center [Online Subscription Database].  The Gale Group, 2002.

1789 Review of Equiano's Narrative

From the beginning, The Interesting Narrative of the Life . . . , which would experience some fifteen editions, was well received and reviewed in the leading journals of the time.

Reprint of a 1789 Review of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African.  The Monthly Review [London] Vol.  LXXX, 1789, p.  55152.  Rpt.  Gale Database: Literature Resource Center.  Gale Research, 1999.  

“We entertain no doubt of the general authenticity of this very intelligent African's interesting story [The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African]; though it is not improbable that some English writer has assisted him in the compilement, or, at least, the correction of his book: for it is sufficiently well written.  The narrative wears an honest face: and we have conceived a good opinion of the man, from the artless manner in which he has detailed the variety of adventures and vicissitudes which have fallen to his lot.  His publication appears very seasonably, at a time when negroe-slavery is the subject of public investigation; and it seems calculated to increase the odium that hath been excited against the West-India planters, on account of the cruelties that some of them are said to have exercised on their slaves; many instances of which are here detailed. 

“The sable author of these volumes appears to be a very sensible man; and he is, surely, not the less worthy of credit from being a convert to Christianity.  He is a Methodist; and has filled many pages, toward the end of his work, with accounts of his dreams, visions, and divine impulses; but all this, supposing him to have been under any delusive influence, only serves to convince us that he is guided by principle; and that he is not one of those poor converts who, having undergone the ceremony of baptism, have remained content with that portion, only, of the Christian Religion: instances of which are said to be almost innumerable in America, and the West-Indies; Gustavus Vassa appears to possess a very different character; and, therefore, we heartily wish success to his publication, which we are glad to see has been encouraged by a very respectable subscription.”

The Modern Importance of Equiano’s Slave Narrative

According to critic Paul Edwards, Equiano’s Narrative is "the most remarkable of the 18th century" books by black writers.  Vernon Loggins agrees: "At the time it was published, in 1789, few books had been produced in America which afford such vivid, concrete, and picaresque narrative." After noting that the slave narrative provides the "spirit and vitality and the angle of vision responsible for the most effective prose writing by Black Americans," Arna Bontemps, in his introduction to Great Slave Narratives (1969), called Equiano's work "the first truly notable book in the genre" of the slave narrative.  Equiano’s narrative establishes an important model as one of the first records to shape the experiences of the black African diaspora during slavery. Like the modern alienated hero in black fiction, Equiano remains above all in his narrative an exile. In his response to life, Equiano epitomizes the black fictional character whose quest is for wholeness and meaning in a world that often does not offer fulfillment.
Source:  Excerpted from “Olaudah Equiano,” Gale Database: Literature Resource Center (Gale Research, 1999).

Catherine Ancholou, English Professor, Awuku College of Education, Nigeria: “Well, for people in Africa, Equiano's narrative is very important because it is the anchor of African studies. In every discipline, you study Equiano. Historians begin with Equiano. Social scientists begin with Equiano. Literary artists and literary scholars begin with Equiano. Equiano makes it impossible for you to forget the issue of slavery and the fact that we have millions and millions of our brothers and sisters who are now no longer part of us, but who have now gone through this experience of slavery, who have now become part of another culture, but who are equally part of us, and who are yearning to connect. Equiano's story, more than any other story, carries that authenticity, that impetus and that imperative to connect, to not forget, to remember, and to take responsibility for the actions of our forefathers.” 

From Resource Bank for Africans in America, Part 1: The Terrible Transformation (1999):

See also The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano
Suzanne Erera, Princeton Univ.:


Equiano Background, Experiences, and Travel, illustrated hyperlinked essay http://www.princeton.edu/~howarth/304.Projects/Erera/Pages/Background.htm


Equiano's Narrative, with excerpts, analysis, & links:


Olaudah Equiano Timeline, in relation to history of slavery:


The Legacy of Equiano, hyperlinked essay

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