Olaudah Equiano was a former slave from west Africa that was brought to the Caribbean aboard a slave ship as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Trade Triangle. He eventually purchased his freedom and moved to England, where he became well known for his writing and his work in the British Abolitionist Movement. In fact, he is famous for writing a narrative of his life as a slave titled ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’. He published the narrative in 1789. Today, Olaudah Equiano’s narrative is an important source for how slaves were treated on the slave ships of the Middle Passage.
OLAUDAH EQUIANO'S EARLY LIFE & ENSLAVEMENT
Olaudah Equiano was born in the year 1745 in the Kingdom of Benin, which today in the southern region of the modern country of Nigeria. The Kingdom of Benin was located along the western cost of Africa, which was a common route of European slave traders who then transported the slaves to the New World. Olaudah Equiano commented in his slave narrative that he was kidnapped along with his sister when he was about eleven years old. At the time his parents were away for work, so he and his sister were alone. It was not uncommon for African societies to kidnap children from other villages and transport them to the coast for sale to the European slave ships. As such, Equiano and his sister were taken to the coast and were sold. Once aboard the European slave ship, he was transported to the Caribbean and the island of Barbados. However, this was not his final destination as he was next sent to the Colony of Virginia where he was finally sold in slavery.
Once in the Colony of Virginia, Equiano was purchased by a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy named Michael Henry Pascal, who renamed his new slave to ‘Gustavus Vassa’. During his time in the British Royal Navy, Pascal travelled extensively across the Atlantic Ocean due to the events of the Seven Years War. This was a major European conflict that extended from 1756 until 1763. As such, Equiano accompanied Pascal on the British ships and participated in several key battles of the Sevens Years War. In general, Equiano’s role was to assist the crew, and did not actually fight. However, eventually Pascal sent Equiano live with family in Britain, where Equiano learned to read and write. This was a significant event in Equiano’s life, as later he would publish his famous slave narrative titled ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’.
OLAUDAH EQUIANO GAINS HIS FREEDOM
However, Pascal sold Equiano in December of 1962, and Equiano was again taken back to the Caribbean. More specifically, Equiano was purchased by an American merchant from named Robert King. As a merchant, King used Equiano to sell his goods in the Caribbean. However, King also allowed Equiano to save money of his own and even advised Equiano that he could one day purchase his own freedom. Finally, in 1766, at approximately the age of 21, Equiano purchased his freedom from King and back a ‘freeman’.
In the years after Equiano travelled extensively, including trips to the Arctic and South America. He completed these journeys as part of his employment with the British Royal Navy, and while working for other operations. However, in 1777, Equiano arrived in England. He eventually moved to London, where he became an important figure in the British Abolitionist Movement.
OLAUDAH EQUIANO & THE ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT
The British Abolitionist Movement is the name for the advancements made in Britain towards ending the practise of slavery. For instance, the term ‘abolition’ means to stop or end something. As such, an abolitionist is someone who was working to ban slavery. The British Abolitionist Movement is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until 1833 when the British government abolished slavery throughout the British Empire.
During his time in London, Equiano had become acquainted with several prominent members and organizations related to the British Abolitionist Movement. After learning of his life story, these abolitionists pushed for Equiano to write and speak about his experiences. They believed that his first-hand account of slavery would benefit their cause to end slavery in the British Empire. As such, this led to Equiano writing and publishing his famous slave narrative.
'THE INTERESTING NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF OLAUDAH EQUIANO'
As stated above, Olaudah Equiano’s involvement in the British Abolitionists Movement inspired him to write about his experiences as a slave. Olaudah Equiano’s account was a slave narrative titled ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African’ but is more commonly known as ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’. It was published in 1789. At the time, there were very few slave narratives, and his account of his experiences shocked readers. This is exactly why members of the Abolitionist Movement wanted him to write the narrative, because they believed it would bring to light the realities of slavery. Equiano’s narrative became so popular that it became a best seller in 1792 and was eventually published in several different countries.
The most significant aspect of ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’, was that it discussed his experiences aboard the slave ships on the Middle Passage. The Middle Passage refers to one of the three routes of the Trade Triangle. Along this route, African slaves were transported to the New World as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. As such, the Middle Passage is notorious for the terrible conditions and treatment that the African slaves were subjected to as they were forced across the Atlantic Ocean by European slave traders.For instance, Equiano wrote the following about the terrible heat and smell aboard the slave ship:
“The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely [deadly]. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”
While the slaves were sometimes allowed to come on deck to get fresh air, they were mostly kept chained below. This was especially true when a slave attempted to escape by jumping overboard into the ocean. This meant death for the slaves, as they often could not swim or were weighted down by shackles on their ankles. The slave traders were looking to make as much profit as possible, thus losing slaves into the ocean was a loss of potential profits. Olaudah Equiano discussed witnessing this in his when he stated the following:
“One day, when we had a smooth sea, and a moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen, who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings, and jumped into the sea: immediately another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was suffered to be out of irons, also followed their example; and I believe many more would soon have done the same, if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew, who were instantly alarmed.”
The conditions on the slave ships of the Middle Passage eventually led to the growth of the British Abolitionist Movement and later the American Abolitionist Movement. In fact, Olaudah Equiano’s was created as a means of highlighting the terrible conditions aboard the ships in the hopes of expanding the Abolitionist Movement.
OLAUDAH EQUIANO'S LATER YEARS & DEATH
In his later years, Olaudah Equiano spent much of his time assisting freed slaves who were living in England. Life for freed slaves was usually quite difficult and they suffered from poverty and poor living conditions. One of the ways that Equiano assisted them was by helping them relocate to a west African colony, which had been established by the British for freed slaves. This colony was located in the modern country of Sierra Leone.
Equiano also continued to be a passionate advocate for the British Abolitionist Movement. For instance, he was a prominent member of the abolitionists group called Sons of Africa. It was an abolitionist group made up of former slaves and worked alongside the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was the more famous British abolitionist group. During this time, Equiano continued to assist the British Abolitionist Movement by using his excellent writing skills and public speaking.
He also married in his later years to an English woman named Susannah Cullen. The couple were married on April 7th in 1792 and had two daughters together. Unfortunately, both Equiano and his wife died just a few years later. For instance, Cullen died in 1796 and Equiano died on March 31st, in 1797. Today he is remembered as an influential figure in the Abolitionist Movement. His famous slave narrative had a profound impact on abolitionist views at the time and continues to be significant today as a source of slave conditions in the Atlantic Slave Trade.
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