The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1789
Knowledge of the events of the life of Olaudah Equiano (ehk-wee-AHN-oh) and of his literary work are intimately related, for the only published writing by Equiano is an autobiography that is also the most detailed and most reliable source of information about his life. According to that autobiography, Equiano was born in 1745 in the part of Africa known in the eighteenth century as Guinea (now Nigeria), and in a district considerably far from the seacoast, which Equiano refers to as Essaka, in the kingdom of Benin. When Equiano was eleven, he and his sister were captured by Aro tribesmen. After being sold several times among African tribes he was sold to European slave traders on the coast who, he thought, would either eat him or make a human sacrifice of him. He endured flogging and was locked in a slaveship hold and eventually conveyed to the West Indies island of Barbados. From there he was transported to Virginia and sold again. Here Equiano encountered plantation slave life. He describes a black cook who is forced to wear an iron muzzle that prevents her from eating and drinking as well as speaking. Soon, however, he was sold to Michael Henry Pascal, a British navy lieutenant, with whom his life improved significantly. Pascal renamed him Gustavus Vassa and introduced him to the young, white American Richard Baker, who for two years was his companion and instructor in European life and the English language. The two young people accompanied Pascal as he was promoted several times and assigned to duty on various British warships in the fleet of Admiral Boscawen. England was at that time at war with France, and in addition to performing tasks like carrying gunpowder during battles to the cannons aboard ship, Equiano became a skilled sailor. Upon his return to England in 1762, Equiano naïvely expected to be freed from slavery as a reward for his faithful service to Pascal. Instead, he was delivered to a West Indies trading ship, conveyed to Montserrat, and again sold.
Fortunately for Equiano, his years of sailor training stood him in good stead in the West Indies. He was able to avoid the horrors of plantation slavery by obtaining assignments aboard several trading ships in the islands, in the process making many trips to the American colonies to deliver produce and slaves. Equiano was also able to establish a close relationship with his captain, from whom he gained permission to engage in small-scale trading. Equiano bought items such as glass tumblers, limes, and oranges–even live turkeys in one instance–and then sold them at other locations in his travels (including Savannah, Charleston, and Philadelphia). In four years Equiano amassed the forty pounds sterling needed to buy his freedom. Once free, he returned to England.
Unsatisfied when not at sea, however, Equiano hired himself out as a servant to the adventuresome Dr. Charles Irving, with whom Equiano went to Turkey and Portugal, as well as on the 1772-1773 Phipps expedition to explore the North Pole. Finally leaving Dr. Irving at a plantation he had started on the “Mosquito Coast” (present-day Nicaragua and Honduras), Equiano returned to England and became involved in the effort to repatriate former slaves to Sierra Leone. Apparently Equiano too freely reported the corruption and avarice of others involved in the project, who had powerful friends, for he was removed from his supervisory position, though cleared of all wrongdoing. Equiano then traveled in England, Scotland, and Wales before marrying the daughter of James and Ann Cullen and settling in Cambridgeshire, England. There he wrote his autobiography, which was published in eight British editions and one American edition during his lifetime and attained immediate popularity. Equiano died in 1797, not living to witness the 1807 British abolition of the slave trade he abhorred.
Equiano’s autobiography, which includes most of this information, is an exciting narrative of an adventure-filled life during a crucial period of history, and it allows insight into the complexities of the British slave trade and of slave life in England, the West Indies, and the American colonies. The narrative also captures the essence of British naval warfare in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, and it provides valuable information on the cultures of Turkey, Portugal, and the Central American Indians. Most fundamentally and powerfully, though, Equiano’s narrative conveys what life was like for an African slave and free black man in Western society in the eighteenth century. Constantly betrayed and otherwise abused and victimized (particularly in the West Indies and in Savannah, Georgia), Equiano ultimately triumphed over his situation, and his narrative is both a recounting and a reflection of that success. Evident throughout are Equiano’s intelligence and his hard-earned reading and writing skills. Equiano persuasively condemns slavery with an ironic technique that is reminiscent of Frederick Douglass’s, such as in constant references to the “Christian” slaveholder. In fact, as the scholar Henry Louis Gates has argued, Equiano’s autobiography was Douglass’s “silent second text,” his literary model. Equiano’s narrative is a compelling one, and it was a powerful weapon in the antislavery struggle.