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Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah was born in 1745 in Ashaka (Isseke) town in Ndokwa East, Delta State, Nigeria. He narrates his journey as a slave into the white man’s world in his published autobiography ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa’. He was kidnapped at the age of eleven with his sister when they were at home while their parents went to the farm. He recounts the horror he witnessed as he was bought by new slave owners,repeatedly till he got to the coastline. His story explicitly unveils the magnitude of the white man’s inhumane nature towards slaves, towards one another during the middle passage.

‘The middle passage’ refers to the transportation of slaves to the Caribbeans, North American and Europe by sea. The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of Africans were shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Ships departed Europe for African markets with manufactured goods, which were traded for purchase or kidnapped Africans, who were transported across the Atlantic as slaves; the slaves were then sold or traded for raw materials,which would be transported back to Europe to complete the voyage. An estimated 15% or 2 million- 4 million Africans died at sea. This was as a result of harsh, unbearable living conditions of the ships. According to Olaudah, ‘When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted…’. He describes the never ending, operose nightmare referring to death as a friend.

When he got to the Caribbean, no slave master bought him. He describes the feeling as ‘I now totally lost the small remains of comfort I had enjoyed in conversing with my countrymen; the women too, who used to wash and take care of me, were all gone different ways, and I never saw one of them afterwards.’ In two weeks, he was taken to the English colony of Virginia where he was purchased and put to work. In less than a month, Micheal Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy purchased him. For the next seven years, Equiano perfected his skill as a navigator and learnt how to read and write.

Under the command of his owner, he took part of many adventurous voyages under Pascal’s command. In 1766, Equiano bought his freedom. In 1773, he took part in an expedition to try to discover the Northwest Passage, a route through the arctic to the Pacific Ocean.

He retired as a sailor in London and worked as a servant for a while before finding employment with the Sierra Leone resettlement project. He also formed the ‘Sons of Africa', a group which campaigned for the abolition of slave trade through public speaking, letter writing and lobbying parliament. In 1788, Olaudah Equiano led a delegation to the House of Commons to support William Dolben's bill to improve conditions on slave ships, by limiting the number of enslaved Africans that ships could carry.

Equiano knew that one of the most powerful arguments against slavery was his own life story. He published his autobiography in 1789: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. It became a bestseller and was translated into many languages with 9 editions in his lifetime.

The book began with a petition addressed to Parliament and ended with his antislavery letter to the Queen. The tens of thousands of people who read Equiano's book, or heard him speak, started to see slavery through the eyes of a former enslaved African.  It was a very important book that made a vital contribution to the abolitionists' cause.

In 1792, Equiano married Susan Cullen, from Ely, at Soham church.  After his marriage, Equiano visited Scotland, Durham and Hull. In 1793, his travels took him to Bath and Devizes. These travels turned the public against the Slave Trade, raising awareness of the horrors of the trade, changing attitudes towards enslaved people and inspiring others to join the abolition campaign.

Equiano died in March 1797. The Slave Trade in Britain was not to end until nearly a decade later. It would be forty years before slavery itself was abolished in the British Colonies.






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