Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa

Olaudah Equiano - The Interesting Narrative'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African', published in 1789

After the end of the Seven Years War, in 1762, Pascal fell back on his promise to free Equiano and sold him onto slavery in the West Indies. During this time, Equiano continued travelling on board ships as a slave between North America, the West Indies and the Mediterranean. He was then acquired for the sum of £40 by Robert King, a Quaker Merchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean. In 1765, King promised Equiano his freedom if he could amass the £40 he had initially paid for him thinking this would be a virtually impossible task. During his enslavement, King allowed him to trade for himself on the side and in due course Equiano managed to amass the £40 required to buy his own freedom. Unlike Henry Pascal, King did not fall back on his promise and in 1766 at Monserrat in the Caribbean Islands of Leeward, at the tender age of 21, Equiano was finally a free man. He was asked to continue to work on board ship as an able-bodied seaman and continued travelling on board ships around North America and the West Indies. After a shipwreck in the Bahamas he purchased his passage to England where he became a hairdresser in London c.1767.

As a free man Equiano often returned to the sea to trade and during this time, took part in voyages to the West Indies and the Mediterranean. In 1773, he joined a voyage of exploration under the command of John Phipps to try to find a northwest passage to India across the North Pole (an extraordinary venture in the 18th century). Interestingly, a young Horatio Nelson was also present onboard ship for this exploratory trip. Equiano converted to Methodism in about 1774. The next year, he helped set up a plantation in Central America, where he acted as the buyer and overseer of the black slaves. By 1777 he had resigned from this job and returned to London where he became involved in a plan to resettle poor blacks in Sierra Leone.

His attempt to work for the Sierra Leone resettlement scheme (for London's destitute blacks) was short-lived since he was sacked for standing up for black rights in 1777. He started his anti-slavery activities around this time - first trying to free the black sea-cook, John Annis. From 1787, he devoted himself to the anti-slavery cause, going on lengthy speaking tours in order to win over public opinion. His personal account, 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African', published in 1789, was a "uniquely detailed account of an African's movement out of slavery". It was the most important single literary contribution to the campaign for the abolition of slavery and one of the earliest books published by a black African writer.

Olaudah Equiano - Green Plaque Westminster LondonFor the first time the case for abolition, presented by a black writer in a popular form, reached a wide reading public and was immediately popular. It was, for instance, the last book read by John Wesley before his death. And it was highly effective in rousing public opinion. "We entertain no doubt of the general authenticity of this very intelligent African's interesting story. The narrative wears an honest face ... [and] seems calculated to increase the odium [hostility] that hath been excited against the West-India planters," wrote the 'Monthly Review'. The book established Equiano as a chief spokesman for Britain's blacks.

When his book was published he was living in a house on what was then 10 Union Street, West Marylebone, London which is now 73 Riding House Street, Westminster, London. His former residence is now marked by a green commemorative plaque courtesy of The City Of Westminster which was officially unveiled on 11th October 2000 as part of London's Annual Black History Month celebrations.


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