Olaudah Equiano was a leading black activist for the abolition of slavery in 18th century Britain and today (16th October 2017) marks his 272nd birthday. He became well known as a prominent activist after he released his autobiography, which was one of the first personal accounts of what the slave trade was really like.
Equiano was believed to have been born around 1754 of the Ibo people in what is now known as Nigeria. When he was just 11 years old, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped from their village and forced into the infamous and detrimental transatlantic slave trade. However, they were soon separated from each other and Olaudah was shipped across the Atlantic ocean to Barbados. In his autobiography, he provided one of the earliest first-hand accounts of the Middle Passage, which was a fatal section of the slave trade where Africans were tightly packed onto ships in terrible living conditions. Approximately one-third died as a result of this before reaching the West Indies.
His experiences working as a slave on a plantation in Virginia were written in his autobiography with little emotion being left out; the pain, anguish, anger and ultimately the disgust at the horrific oppression they faced were all conveyed. An extract from his autobiography is featured below:
“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.”
After being enslaved at a plantation for many years, he was later bought by a Royal Navy Captain, Captain Pascal who renamed him Gustavas Vassa after a Swedish noble. He then spent most of the time at sea serving Pascal and even aided him in the Seven Years’ War with France. After Pascal returned to England, Equiano spent his time living with the Guerin Sisters (relatives of Pascal) in London. This was where he improved his English and learned to read and write: this had a great impact on his life in the future.
After Pascal, Equiano was bought by Captain James Doran who took him back to the Carribean and sold him to a merchant named Robert King. King allowed Equiano to trade and sell goods on his own account, while on trading deals with him. After a while, this trading allowed Equiano to be able to buy his freedom for £40 in 1767 and although King asked him to stay with him as a business partner, Equiano made the fortunate decision that it would be too dangerous to remain and narrowly missed being sold back into slavery.
He later settled back down in London after traveling around the world a sailor. It was here that he began to write his autobiography that summed up his life after he was encouraged to by friends and fellow abolitionists. His autobiography became a bestseller in 1789 and was translated into many languages. Because of this, he was able to tour around the UK and Ireland giving lectures, furthering the abolition movement and retelling the pain he faced during his enslavement. He introduced the British public to the horrors millions of people were subjected to. He provoked debate and concern for what they were doing. He helped people see the fault in what they were doing. He became a voice for those who didn’t have one. Equiano deserves respect for the work he did, bringing us closer to equality; I hope his work will never be in vain.