Olaudah Equiano – Gustavus Vassa – His Experiences From His Enslavement Stimulating Black Literature

Olaudah Equiano’s early life began about 1745 in the village “Essaka” near the River Niger, an Igbo-speaking region of present-day Nigeria where his father was a chief who settled disputes amongst the tribesmen. Equiano the youngest son lived with six bothers and sisters one being younger than him, as part of a large family. At the early age of eleven, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped and forced into slavery in a neighboring village.

He changed hands a few times before he was sold to white slave traders and transported by ship across the Atlantic Ocean to Barbados in the West Indies..

Equiano was kept just a few days not exceeding a fortnight at Barbados before he was put aboard “a sloop for North America,” and eventually “landed up a river a good way from the sea, about Virginia county “. The kind of work that this newly arrived boy to America was put to, weeding grass and gathering field stones, and then fanning his bedridden master, was consonant with his age (probably under ten years). Equiano having been carried from Barbados on a ship other than the Nancy then, would most likely have been taken to a part of “Virginia county” where few Igbo were taken, and thus buiding in him his sense of isolation.

At the slave plantation in Virginia where Equiano was taken to and engaged, he observed with horror the treatment of fellow slaves inside the house. He was horrified at the use of an “iron muzzle” around their mouth to keep them quiet thus rendering them barely able to speak or eat. The objects inside the house amazed and frightened him considerably. He even thought the pictures hanging on the wall followed him wherever he went, and a clock hanging from the chimney would tell his master about anything he would do wrong.

Whilst there he was seen and bought by Michael Pascal, a captain in the Royal Navy. Pascal renamed him Gustavus Vassa after King Gustav I of Sweden. Though Equiano at first detested the name, he later on used it in most of his writings and became known by it.

Being Pascal’s personal servant, he was afforded naval training which enabled him to travel extensively and contribute in times of battle. He often served as a seaman. His duties included hauling gunpowder to the gun decks. He was at the Seven Years War of England with France and at the siege of Fort Louisburg in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

He later sent to Pascal’s female friends, to attend school and learn to read in England. The other servants had already warned Equiano that if he wasn’t baptized he wouldn’t be able to go to Heaven. So his master allowed him to be baptized. This was done in St. Margaret’s church, Westminster, in February 1759. His honesty and trustworthiness won him friendship and support from many English people.

Equiano soon got disappointed. Despite the special treatment Pascal had been according Equiano, after the war was won, he didn’t receive his share of the prize money awarded to the other sailors, nor did he get his freedom. He was greatly disappointed as it seemed that he had been deceived as well as betrayed.

Later, to his greatest dismay he found himself been put back on the market But his many ship skills made him too valuable for plantation labour. His knowledge in hairdressing, wine making, arithmetic and his becoming fully literate in the English Language made him less desirable to some slave traders. He was too well educated for some and the fact that he knew how to navigate a ship scared many away from him. So it took some time before he could be bought

He was eventually acquired by Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who carried on much of his business in the Caribbean, often trading in ‘live cargos’. From much of what he saw made him grateful to his Quaker master’s treatment of him. Though that did not for a moment give him any illusions about what the loss of freedom entailed. He saw the ugliest side of American life in both the North and South. Even in Philadelphia, a city built on the promise of brotherly love he observed freed blacks being treated with profound contempt, and being ‘plundered’ and ‘universally insulted’ with no possibility of redress.

King, soon, set Equiano to work on his shipping routes and in his stores, promising him in 1765, that for forty pounds, the price King had paid for Equiano, he could buy his freedom. King taught him to read and write more fluently, educated him in the Christian faith, and allowed him to engage in his own profitable trading as well as on his master’s behalf, thus enabling him to come by the forty pounds honestly. As a result, Equiano in his early twenties succeeded in buying his freedom. Once having gained his freedom through saving forty pounds earned through his own instincts for enterprise, carrying on his own business while managing King’s – he pledged never again to set foot on American soil.

This was despite King’s urging him to stay on as a business partner. For Equiano, it was dangerous and limiting to remain in the British American colonies as a freed black. For while loading a ship in Georgia, he was almost kidnapped back into slavery. He was only released when the level of his education was made apparent. It now resolved to settle in London for the rest of his life. This he did in 1769. He was making his living there as a free servant as well as a hair dresser for affluent Londoners. But his skill as a seaman and his always remarkable curiosity made him restless for new adventures. But before that he had learnt to play the French horn which he kept playing onto mastering it to the level of an accomplished musician. He went on even on to expanding his study of Mathematics.

Equiano through his story of enslavement, transportation, maritime slavery in a time of European war, kidnapping a second time into slavery (from London to Montserrat), his travels, and his freedom, winding up back in London in 1767, when he was about twenty-two years old. his adventures at sea through the 1773 Arctic Expedition on the royal navy ship the Racehorse, and his rebirth as an ardent Anglican, which ironically was followed by participating in a scheme to create a slave-based plantation on the Miskito Coast (Caribbean Central America). In the end, Equiano (universally still known as Vassa) turned to anti-slave trade agitation,living as he did in England in the mid-1780s, which led to his official service in the 1786-87 effort to “repatriate” (perhaps better thought of as to deport) Africans in Britain to Sierra Leone, a royal service that made him a controversial public figure. Equiano clearly was inspired by his activism to write and publish and popularize the “interesting narrative” of his life, a powerful story though one with many internal contradictions and inconsistencies. , a work as much of politicized memory as of personal history..

Equiano remained at sea for several years even after buying his freedom. He voyaged to the Arctic as a surgeon’s assistant and to the Mediterranean as a gentleman’s valet, and lived for a time among the Makito Indians of Nicaragua. He then returned to England, where after Somerset’s Case of 1772 it was proclaimed that no person could be a slave in England itself.

Back in London Equiano became involved in the abolitionist movement. The movement had been particularly strong amongst Quakers, but was by now non-denominational. Equiano himself was broadly Methodist, having been influenced by George Whitefield’s evangelism in the New World which seemed to be taking the nation as a storm.

Equiano proved to be a popular speaker himself and was introduced to many senior and influential people, who encouraged him to write and publish his life story. He was supported financially by philanthropic abolitionists and religious benefactors who promoted his lectures and helped him in the preparation for the book. They were amongst others, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.

This prototype of the slave narrative, a form of autobiography that in the nineteenth century gained a wide international readership due to its compelling firsthand testimony against slavery in bulky two volumes, tells a richly detailed story of seagoing adventure, spiritual enlightenment, and economic success in England and the Americas. in this impressive publication, Equiano’s espouses the highest ideals of his era in the language of the ordinary man and woman. His account surprised many with the quality of its imagery, its vivid description, its mature literary style, as well as its lively narrative which profoundly shamed those who had not joined the abolition effort. Entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, when first published in 1789 made a hit sold well and rapidly went through several editions.- 36 editions between 1789 and 1857 and was translated into Dutch and German. It is said to have been one of the earliest known examples of published writing by an African writer. It was the first influential slave autobiography. Its first-hand account of the horrors of slavery and of the experiences of an 18th-century black immigrant caused a sensation, fuelling a growing anti-slavery movement in England.

After its publication Equiano travelled extensively in England and Ireland promoting it.

Largely forgotten for 150 years, and then rediscovered in the 1960s, Equiano’s Interesting Narrative today is central to the canonof early modern Atlantic literature and history. It is taught in university courses and area studies as widely varying as African, African American, American, Caribbean, and World history/literature, and similar courses in allied disciplines. Equiano today is regarded as the most famous African, and certainly the most famous self-identified (Igbo), in the early modern Atlantic world, or,at the least, in the era of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr. Equiano is “the most important black man in the eighteenth century.”

Surprisingly, given his importance, Equiano has attracted only a handful of serious biographers. One work, a literary biography by Angelo Costanza,Surprising Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings of Black Autobiography (1987), was published two decades ago, and another, a rather uncritical but still useful historical biography by James Walvin, An African’s Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797, was published in 1998. And, the Narrative has been endlessly excerpted and anthologized.

Equiano is essentially seen as a “self-made man.” comparable to that most famous of contemporary self-made men, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), whose posthumous autobiography was published in 1793, “rather than considering Equiano an African American Franklin we would more accurately call Franklin an Anglo-American Equiano” Indeed,in Equiano’s own account, there was a moment in his life, in early 1759, when he first felt, not satirically but earnestly, “almost an Englishman.” or “almost an Atlantic creole”

Further Readings:

Gates, Louis, Jr and Mckay Nellie Y., l (eds) The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 1997 New York

AFRICANA Arts and Letters. An A-Z Reference of Writers, Musicians and Artists of the African American Experiences

Paul Edwards, ed., Equiano’s Travels (Oxford: Heinemann, 1967);

Olaudah Equiano, _The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,Written by Himself_, ed. Robert J. Allison (Boston: Bedford Books,1995).

For the history of the Narrative’ s publication,

James Green, “The Publishing History of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative_,” _Slavery and Abolition_ 16, no. 3 (1995): 362-375.

The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (1995), 77.

“Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on anEighteenth-Century Question of Identity,” _Slavery and Abolition_ 20, no. 3 (1999): 96-105.

Paul E. Lovejoy, in extended review essay, “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African,” _Slavery and Abolition_ 27, no. 3 (2006):317-347.

See also the testy exchange between the two that followed:

Carretta, “Response to Paul Lovejoy’s ‘Autobiography and Memory:Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African’,” _Slavery and

Abolition_ 28, no. 1 (2007): 115-119; and Lovejoy, “Issues of Motivation– Vassa/Equiano and Carretta’s Critique of the Evidence,”

_Slavery and Abolition_ 28, no. 1 (2007): 121-125

Alexander X. Byrd, “Eboe, Country, Nation, and Gustavus Vassa’s _Interesting Narrative,”William and Mary Quarterly_ 63, no. 1 (2006): 123-148.

. Carretta, “Response to Paul Lovejoy,” 115.

Benjamin Ajak, Alephonsion Deng, and Benson Deng, _They Poured Fired on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan_ (New York: Public Affairs, 2005).

_Interesting Narrative_, ed. Carretta, 62.

James Walvin, _An African’s Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797_ (London: Continum, 1998), 162, 164.