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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Olaudah Equiano

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 (1987).

Critics have 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 person.

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, 1797.

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)
Chapter 2(1789)
from Chapter 3 (1789)
from Chapter 7 (1789)
from Chapter 10 (1789)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image filePortraits of Olaudah Equiano

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Africans in America
  Page containing information about (and a scan of) the frontispiece of Equiano's autobiography.

California Newsreel
  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.

Secondary Sources