| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Olaudah Equiano and his sister were kidnapped in Africa, in what is
present-day Nigeria. The eleven-year-old Equiano was later separated from his
sister and placed aboard a slave ship that sailed across the Atlantic on the
Middle Passage, the deadly link on Great Britain’s lucrative commercial route
in the eighteenth century. Trading vessels laden with weapons and cotton
products sailed from British ports to purchase slaves in Africa. The human
cargo was taken across the ocean and sold to estate owners in the Americas in
exchange for rum and sugar. The ships then sailed back to England and repeated
the three-part voyage.
The enslaved Equiano
arrived on the West Indian island of Barbados and was soon transported to
Virginia, where he was purchased by a British captain for service aboard his
ship. Thus, the youth was spared the harsh plantation life that was the lot of
most slaves in the New World. Eventually, he was given the name Gustavus Vassa,
ironically the name of a Swedish freedom fighter. Equiano remained a slave for
almost ten years while serving on various commercial and naval military
vessels. He crossed the Atlantic many times on voyages from England to the
Caribbean islands and the American colonies; it was a geological area known as
British America and was the vast scene for extensive trade and the exchange of
intellectual, artistic, and scientific ideas and customs. Equiano also
participated in several naval battles in Canada and along the European coast.
At the same time, the young slave worked on his own at profit-making ventures;
he eventually accumulated enough money to buy his freedom in July of 1766.
However, he continued to serve at sea for many years, sailing on exploratory
expeditions to the Arctic and to Central America. He also joined numerous
seagoing business enterprises, some of which involved the transporting of
slaves. During this time, Equiano witnessed the deepest cruelties of slavery
and its dire effects on men and women in several areas of the world.
Equiano’s friends in
England and on the sailing vessels taught him to read and write and introduced
him to Christianity. In 1777, he chose to live in London. After the famous Lord
Mansfield court decision of 1772, which ruled on the case of the runaway slave
Somerset, slaves setting foot in England were considered free persons. Strangely enough, however, slavery remained
legal overseas in all the British colonies. In England, Equiano furthered his
education and deepened his Christian faith, finally joining the Methodists.
Although he anchored himself in Western religion, Equiano never lost respect
for the African spiritual tradition of his youth; and he never became blind to
the hypocritical behavior of white Christians who preached freedom while
enslaving black men and women. He also began to devote his efforts and time to
the abolitionist movement, whose social and political leaders were fighting to
bring an end to the slave trade. In 1786, he began his involvement in a
controversial and disastrous government project to send poor blacks back to
the West African colony of Sierra Leone. However, his objections to the
mismanagement of his fellow officers resulted in his dismissal before the ship
set sail for Africa. When a petition to abolish the slave trade was presented
in the British Parliament in 1788, Equiano dedicated himself wholeheartedly to
the anti-slavery cause. He joined a black abolitionist group called Sons of
Africa, and he wrote letters to newspapers and important officials, including a
lengthy letter to Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.
As fiery debates raged
in Parliament, Equiano composed his autobiography, which he published in March
1789. Many of the key men and women in the abolitionist crusade subscribed to
the timely and well-written two-volume work, The Interesting Narrative of
the Life of Olaudah Equiano. The autobiography caused a sensation and ultimately
went through nine British editions during Equiano’s lifetime. It was published
in the United States in 1791 and within the next few years was translated for
Russian, German, and Dutch editions. Most readers were fascinated by the
thrilling account, at times satiric and picaresque, of an ex-slave’s adventures
on sea and land as he journeys to exciting destinations. Fortunately, Equiano
had been inspired to re-create his life experiences in a vivid narrative manner
as he revealed the injustices of the condition imposed upon him by the slave
trade. This mode of rendering the story of a former slave proved very appealing
to the public. The widely read work was published well into the nineteenth
century on both sides of the Atlantic.
Equiano followed the spiritual
autobiographical tradition of his day derived from St. Augustine and John
Bunyan and adopted by English and American Puritans and Quakers. Yet he added
to the genre a new dimension—that of social protest. Furthermore, his use of
irony in the depiction of himself as an enterprising character places his work
in the secular autobiographical tradition established by Benjamin Franklin.
Equiano’s narrative served as the prototype for the numerous slave accounts
written during the abolitionist crusade leading up to the Civil War in America.
In addition, his autobiography set the pattern for countless works—both
nonfiction and fiction—that have influenced American literature, such as
Frederick Douglass’s Narrative (1845) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved
challenged the veracity of Equiano’s narrative since it was first published in
1789. At that time, pro-slavery supporters claimed Equiano had falsified the
record of his birth and kidnapping in Africa. Several critics, both during
Equiano’s lifetime and within recent years, have accused Equiano of
fictionalizing his story and of borrowing most of his material from cultural
and historical writers of his day. Cited especially is Equiano’s pastoral
description of his African homeland as a kind of Eden. His writing here is in
the tradition of eighteenth-century primitivistic literature, with its images
of Noble Savages living in close harmony with nature before being corrupted by
modern Western society. However, while it is true that Equiano relies to some
extent on various sources that he acknowledges in his narrative, his work comes
forth as the lively portrayal of a deeply spiritual and sincerely humanitarian
In 1792, a news item
in The Gentleman’s Magazine announced the marriage of Englishwoman
Susanna Cullen and Olaudah Equiano. Two daughters were born to the couple in
the next few years. Susanna was buried in 1796, and Equiano died on March 31,
In the Heath Anthology
The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself
from Chapter 1 (1789)
from Chapter 3 (1789)
from Chapter 7 (1789)
from Chapter 10 (1789)
Portraits of Olaudah Equiano
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Africans in America
Page containing information about (and a scan of) the frontispiece of Equiano's autobiography.
Index of electronic texts providing excerpts from Equiano's The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano.
The Life of Gustavus Vassa
Selections from Equiano's text on Vassa.