An ironsmith, ship steward, crewman, cook, clerk, navigator, amateur scientist, and even a hairdresser. These are all jobs that Olaudah Equiano held during his lifetime. He has been called the “most influential African writer in both Africa, America and Britain before the Civil War”, and was born in Essaka, Nigeria sometime during 1745 (O’Neale, 153). His family was part of the Ibo tribe, which was located in the North Ika Ibo region of Essaka. In his earliest years, Olaudah Equiano was trained in the art of war. His daily exercises included shooting and throwing javelins. As he states in his autobiography, two men and a woman, who came over the walls while the rest of the family was away, abducted Olaudah and his sister in 1756 (Equiano, 356). He was only eleven years old. The two of them would only be reunited when Equiano was sold a second time. They did not remain together that long because he would be sold again.
Olaudah Equiano would eventually be sold to a man by the name of Michael Henry Pascal, an officer of the British Royal Navy, who set sail for the American continent. Michael Pascal renamed him Gustavus Vassa. In the years that followed, Olaudah became a great seaman and sailed around the world. His stops included the slave-trading islands of
the West Indies, England, Ireland, Wales, France, Portugal, Italy, Central America, Georgia, Virginia, Philadelphia and New England. It seemed that he traveled everywhere except to where he really wanted to go, which was Africa. It was during these years that he learned the English language and values from a seaman by the name of Richard Baker.
By 1759 Equiano had become fully articulate in the English language. He fought for the British during the seven-year war against France. Even though he had earned his freedom by fighting in the war, Pascal would not grant Equiano his freedom. Instead he confiscated all of Equiano’s books and sold him to the captain of a slave ship in 1763. His new owner, Robert King, would eventually sell Equiano his freedom in 1766 for 70 pounds. Robert King asked Equiano to remain as his employee and Equiano did. This led him to Georgia where he was almost captured and resold into slavery. It was also during this time that Equiano got rid of the name Gustavus Vassa.
In 1768, Equiano returned to London, England and began an apprenticeship to a hairdresser. It was also during this time that he became employed by Dr. Charles Irving. It was with Dr. Irving that Equiano would go to the North Pole in 1773 and barely escaped death when their ship struck an iceberg. In 1786 Equiano was appointed commissary for Stores for the Black Poor.
This was a social outreach group of the British antislavery movement that saw returning blacks to Africa as the best way to end British slave trade (O’Neale, 157). He was fired after five months because of a conflict he had with Joseph Irwin. This conflict drew criticism onto Equiano but he would regain his status in the abolition movement by publishing responses to the criticism in the British newspapers.
In 1789, Equiano’s autobiography was published in London and by 1790 Equiano was fully involved in the antislavery movement in Britain.
He petitioned the Queen and the Parliament to end the slavery. The following year the autobiography was published in America. It has been said “no black voice before Frederick Douglass in his Narrative of 1845 spoke so movingly to American readers about inhumanity” (Murphy,354). Equiano would finally settle and marry Susan Cullen on April 7, 1792. They had two girls who were named Ann Marie and Johana. Some sources say Equiano died in 1801 while others say 1797. We are not sure which one is correct. One of his daughters did die a few months after he did. His wife and other daughter then left the limelight and no record of them has been found. Equiano’s book has lasted over two hundred years and has gone through eight editions. And is still being called the “most successful prose work written by an African in the Western World until the start of the American Civil War” (O’Neale, 157).
Olaudah Equiano I must say had a most interesting life as a slave. He has gone through almost every single event a slave could have gone through. The most interesting part of his journeys is his treatment as a slave. He at some points is treated well and doesn’t know what to make of it as a slave. One example is his first owners used to let him sit at the table during dinnertime. In other points he experiences many of his own kind and the inhumane treatment they experience. But all in all Olaudah Equiano unlike many other slaves kept his composure and his humbleness towards all he met in his journeys. He never felt any anger towards his masters. After witnessing all the cruelties his masters committed on other slaves. The horrendous stories of cutting a mans leg of for running away or the half hanging of one slave and then burnt for attempting to poison his cruel master. (Equiano, 484)
Olaudah Equiano had many views about slavery. I saw slavery in a very different viewpoint than many other slaves. Through his searching, Equiano found a personal relationship with God according to the Bible to be true. Influenced by God, but still discovering his own way, Equiano did not reject his culture or believe slavery was a good thing as much as he adapted to his new environment and made the most of it.
As a sailor, Equiano had escaped many dangers, and it was these brushes with death that caused him to “reflect deeply on his eternal state.” (Equiano 1044) Equiano thought about death a lot during his hard life as a slave. During this time period people did not live like they did in today’s world. Death came at any moment at any corner. He writes, “the fear of eternity daily harassed my mind” and “fears of deathweighed me down.” (Equiano 1045) As Equiano studied the Bible he learned that God is not just holding all above a fire waiting to drop them in. He came to an understanding that God is not just the God of Judgment, but also more importantly the God of grace and mercy. He believed in the “invisible hand of God, which guided and protected” him. This attitude helped Equiano View the unconverted people of the world in a very awful state, being without God and without hope. Strangely Equiano believed that God dies for us all on the cross. This helped Equiano believe that temporary earthly slavery and spiritual salvation were better than a life of earthly freedom but spiritual death. (Equiano, 1049) Equiano never turned his back on his culture he simply adapted to survive in it.
Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself”. The Norton Anthology: American Literature. New York: Norton & Co., 1995. 356-358.
Murphy, Francis. The Norton Anthology: American Literature. New York: Norton & Co.,
O’Neale, Sondra. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa).
Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985. Volume 37, 153-157.