Equiano, Olaudah

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Equiano, Olaudah (c.1745-1797): Afro-English Writer.

Olaudah Equiano, later known as Gustavus Vassa, was a slave, and later a freed Black adventurer, abolitionist, and author of the first great Black autobiography.

Equiano was born in what is now Nigeria, kidnapped from his village at age eleven, and transported to Barbados and then to Virginia, where he was sold to a Virginia planter, and later to a British naval officer. He served with his master in North American waters, traveled to England, then the Mediterranean, and served in a naval campaign off the coast of France. Instead of being freed for his good service, as he expected, he was still sold as a slave, eventually to a Quaker rum and sugar merchant, from whom Equiano purchased his own freedom in 1766.

After further travels in Europe, Central America, and elsewhere, Equiano settled in England and worked in the antislavery movement, his most significant contribution being his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself (1789), one of the first English works by a former slave. It established the genre of the slave narrative, presenting the standard catalog of horrors witnessed by the author, but also included vivid descriptions of his African land and society, as well as a poetic account of his conversion, and his petition of the Queen of England, in 1788, for “compassion for millions of my African countrymen, who groan under the lash of tyranny in the West Indies.” Equiano’s trope of the “talking book” is one that is repeated in later Black literature.

Nine different editions of the Narrative were published before his death, and nine more by 1837. Along with Phillis Wheatly’s Poems on Various Subjects (1773), Equiano’s Narrative marks the beginning of a Black literary tradition.

Further Reading:

Angelo Costanzo, Surprizing Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings of Black Autobiography, 1987.

Robert Russ

Elon University