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Olaudah Equiano

(c. 1745-1797)

Olaudah Equiano was one of the most important black abolitionists. Having been kidnapped as child in Africa, sent to Virginia as a slave, taken back to England with his owner, then sold back to the Caribbean once more, he was allowed to buy his own freedom. Towards the end of his life (he died at only about 52), he was famous in London and elsewhere in Europe for his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

Equiano was about eleven when he and his sister were kidnapped from their home while their parents were out. They were separated, and Equiano was sold first to African slave traders, and then to European slave traders. His account in his book of the sea-voyage from Africa to America is quite horrific. In addition to the appalling conditions on board the ship, the brutality of the captain and some of the crew, and the sickness and disease, Equiano and the other enslaved Africans who survived the journey truly believed that the white men were going to eat them when they arrived.

Olaudah Equiano, taken from the front of his autobiography.

Equiano was renamed several times during his captivity: he was called Michael on the ship, Jacob by the first man who bought him, and Gustavus Vassa by the second. When he tried to keep the name Jacob with his second owner, the man treated him roughly and insisted he become Gustavus Vassa. Equiano used Gustavus Vassa all his life, and only called himself Olaudah Equiano on his autobiography which he published in 1789.

The autobiography was a huge success, becoming a best-seller by 1792. As well as England, it was published in Russia, Germany, Holland and the US. You can read it for free on the internet here. It illustrated the brutality of slavery, but also presented the civility of African life to people who had no knowledge of black culture, and whose views were very prejudiced. The combination of these two elements had a strong influence on those who read it, persuading them that the Slave Trade should be abolished.

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