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“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” Inspires Growing Abolitionist Movement 1789

In 1789, the book entitled “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” was published. Penned by the freedman Olaudah Equiano himself, the book was part travelogue and part autobiography. When distilled, however, the book was a searing condemnation of slavery and the British Empire’s part in the slave trade.

The indomitable Equiano himself went on a tour of Britain, Scotland, and Ireland between 1789 and 1791 to promote his book. It became a bestseller and soon inspired the growing abolitionist movement in England. Together with the anti-slavery group Sons of Africa, Equiano and other black activists intensified their lobbying against slavery in the British Parliament.

Despite the hardships he experienced, Equiano’s story had a happy ending. His marriage to Susanna Cullen of Cambridgeshire produced two daughters. His book went on to have several editions and later translated into several languages. Equiano was one of the wealthier Englishmen when he died in 1797. He, however, did not live long enough to see his book’s impact on the abolitionist movement. Britain finally passed the Act for the Abolition of Slavery in 1833. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time period.

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First Volume

The cover of Equiano’s autobiography

Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in present-day Igboland region of Nigeria. Olaudah in the Igbo language “signifies vicissitude or fortune also, one favoured, and having a loud voice and well spoken.” His father was one of the “embrence” (chieftain or elder) under the suzerainty of the distant king of Benin. He had several siblings and was very close to his sister.

He was also close to his mother, and he sometimes accompanied her to the market as a child to trade with a neighboring people called “oyibo.” Their peoples often traded food, but there were instances when he saw slaves being traded in the market. These slaves were often prisoners of war or were convicted of crimes.

His parents and the other adults were working in the fields when some men came to their village and kidnapped some children, including the eleven-year-old Olaudah and his sister. It was the last time Olaudah would see his village or family again. To his grief, the kidnappers separated him and his sister. He was sold to the chief of another village where he worked as a servant for some time before he was sold again.

Olaudah was briefly reunited with his sister when he and the slave traders arrived at the Atlantic coast. The reunion was shortlived as he and his sister were separated by the traders once again. The slave traders brought him to a place called Tinmah and sold him to a wealthy widow. The widow and her young son treated him as if he was one of their own, but his time with them did not last long. The slave traders suddenly uprooted him again and passed the child from one slave trader to another.

After six or seven months, Olaudah was forced to board a slave ship bound for the West Indies. It was the first time the boy had seen white men who then crammed him and other slaves inside the ship’s hold. He and the other slaves were then transported to the West Indies in a dangerous journey across the Atlantic called the Middle Passage. The young Olaudah was chained together with other prisoners inside the foul smelling and densely packed hold. During the course of the journey, the boy once gave in to despair and refused to eat, but the slave traders flogged and force-fed him as punishment. Other slaves became sick and later died because of starvation and the unhygienic conditions of the hold.

Olaudah noticed the crew use a mariner’s quadrant during the few times he was allowed on deck for some fresh air. The seamen, in a fit of benevolence, showed him how to use it. The boy was astonished by what he saw and considered it a magical device. Little did he know that his interest in the mariner’s quadrant would change his life later on.

After several weeks at sea, the slaves disembarked at Bridgetown in Barbados. Plantation owners and merchants flocked to the port to check and buy the slaves. Some buyers often picked and chose among the slaves, so that mothers were sometimes separated from their children, wives torn from husbands, or siblings separated from each other.

Olaudah and those who were not fit for sale were forced to board a sloop bound for North America. When they arrived in Virginia, the boy was brought to the plantation of a man named Mr. Campbell. The new master soon changed his name from “Olaudah” to “Jacob.” After working for some time in Virginia, he was sold to Henry Pascal, the captain of a British trade ship and an officer in the royal navy. After bringing the boy to his ship, Pascal ordered his crew to sail back to England. Olaudah spent the next few years as Pascal’s personal servant.

On a whim, Pascal gave the boy a new name. He called Olaudah “Gustavus Vassa” after the great 17th-century Swedish king. Olaudah refused to answer when Pascal called him by the name and insisted that his new master call him by the name “Jacob.” Pascal responded by hitting him.

The journey across the Atlantic was long and rough, but the crew’s mistreatment of Olaudah made it more difficult. A boy named Richard Baker later befriended him, making the voyage more bearable. Richard (or Dick as he was called by the crew) became the boy’s interpreter, and Olaudah learned more of the English language because of him.

Olaudah became curious after he saw Dick and Pascal reading books. With his curiosity piqued, he took a book and proceeded to “talk[ed] to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.”

They arrived in Falmouth, England in spring of 1757. During the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Olaudah accompanied Pascal (who recently returned to the navy) to Guernsey, Holland, Scotland, the Orkneys, Turkey, and the coast of France. He was not a part of the English navy, but his mere presence in Pascal’s ship compelled him to help the crew during naval engagements with the French.

During a trip to London, Pascal left Olaudah under the care of his relatives, the Misses Guerins. The sisters showered him with kindness and became his first instructors in Christianity. They taught him how to read and write, but supplemented it by sending him to school. The boy later asked them to allow him to be baptized. They agreed to his suggestion, and he was baptized in St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster in 1759.

He accompanied Pascal to the American colonies before sailing to Cape Breton in 1758. They returned to Europe after the successful siege of Louisbourg (Nova Scotia) but was grief-stricken when he learned of Dick’s death in 1759. In 1761, the crew sailed to Gibraltar but soon went back to the Atlantic coast to capture Belle-Isle. By the end of the war in 1763, the 18-year-old Olaudah was already a battle-hardened veteran.

Olaudah and his friends fully expected for Pascal to set him free now that the war was over. When they arrived in England, however, Pascal informed him that he had been sold to a Captain James Doran. The young man protested, saying that he had served Pascal faithfully and that his master had taken whatever meager salary he was supposed to receive. Besides, he was already baptized as a Christian, so no one had the right to sell him. However, the protests fell on deaf ears, and he was forced to make a new voyage across the Atlantic not unlike to the one he took in 1756.

Captain Doran’s ship took him to Montserrat where he was then sold to a Quaker merchant, the kind and humane Robert King. Olaudah initially worked odd jobs for King, but King elevated him to the position of a clerk when his master realized that he had someone capable and talented in his hands. For the next three years, he became King’s most trusted slave.

Olaudah saw for himself how fellow slaves were treated in the West Indies. In St. Kitts, for example, he saw that it was common “for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed on the most trifling occasions they were loaded with chains; and often instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumb-screws, etc. are so well known, as not to need a description, and were sometimes applied for the slightest faults. I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for even letting a pot boil over.”

They did backbreaking work for long hours in return for measly wages. Masters sometimes purchased slaves and rented them out to plantation owners, but tended to withhold the slaves’ wages the plantation owners paid them. Those who dared complain about this would be beaten or flogged. Robert King, a staunch Quaker, earned the goodwill of the other slaves when he himself fed them when their masters would not.

Any property a slave possessed was fair game for the West Indies white elites. Olaudah once heard of a slave who was able to buy a boat after saving up money from his meager wages. The governor, however, seized the boat without giving the slave compensation. The slave later complained to his master, but to no avail. Olaudah sense of justice was later satisfied when he learned that the governor died in the King’s Bench in England… in great poverty.” Equiano’s Narrative contains more harrowing accounts about the life of slaves in the West Indies. His firsthand experience with slavery had a profound effect on his spirituality and pushed him to be involved in England’s abolitionist movement.

He was later loaned out to Captain Thomas Farmer as a sailor. Olaudah started trading fruits and other merchandise while traveling as a sailor in the West Indies and the American east coast. He started with a capital of three pence but managed to save his earnings from his small enterprise. Robert King had remarked to Olaudah that he would set him free if he came up with 40 pounds sterling. King’s promise of freedom only motivated him to work harder.

Second Volume

By 1764, Olaudah had saved as much as 47 pounds sterling from trading in the islands of West Indies and the American east coast. He approached King when he went back to Montserrat and to his master’s surprise, handed him the 40 pounds sterling he had saved up. He asked King to grant him his freedom, but King loathed to let a talented worker go. With the help of Captain Farmer, he eventually convinced his master to grant him his freedom and release his manumission papers. Despite King’s protests, Olaudah left Montserrat and sailed all over the West Indies and North American east coast again. Captain Farmer, however, died at sea before Olaudah sailed for England.

Upon Captain Farmer’s death, Olaudah continued his adventures in the Americas when he joined Captain William Phillips’ crew. He visited Savannah, Georgia, but did not stay long when a couple of hostile white patrollers tried to kidnap him and send him back to slavery. Luckily, he was able to bluff his way out of the kidnapping. He then went back to Montserrat to say goodbye to Robert King before sailing for London. He immediately visited the elderly Guerin sisters to thank them for their kindness.

He found that living in London was not as easy as he envisioned. He could not find work, so he apprenticed as a hairdresser under Dr. Charles Irving. He worked as a steward and hair-dresser to the captains of ships bound for Montserrat and Turkey. He later joined a voyage to the Arctic with Dr. Irving in 1773 where they trapped in ice for eleven days.

The Arctic incident made him grateful for God’s mercy. When he returned to London, he immediately pushed himself “to seek the Lord with full purpose of heart ere it was too late” and become a” first-rate Christian.” He “shopped” around for a church where he could join and began reading the Bible earnestly. He continued to work as a steward, but his spiritual crisis deepened during a voyage to Spain where he claimed to have seen a religious vision. This vision had a profound effect on his life, and he went back to London a transformed man.

Olaudah met Dr. Irving once again and agreed to accompany him to Jamaica’s Miskito Coast to establish a plantation. He worked as Irving’s overseer, but his heart yearned for cosmopolitan London. After some resistance on Irving’s part, they finally parted ways amicably in 1776. He secured a passage first to Jamaica on board a sloop, but Hughes, the vessel’s captain, tried to kidnap him on the way. Olaudah, however, was lucky enough to escape and reach England several months later.

He was already tired of seafaring, but there was no work available for a man like him in England. During this period, he became involved with the Sons of Africa, an anti-slavery group whose members were former slaves. They spoke out against slavery and lobbied in Parliament to end the enterprise.

In November 1786, Olaudah became the commissary of the British slave repatriation expedition bound for Sierra Leone. He quickly lost his enthusiasm for the job when he witnessed the ineptitude and abuses of the British leaders of the expedition. He tried to intervene, but the authorities fired him as a result. He went back to London, wrote to Queen Charlotte, and asked for her support for the abolitionist movement. Olaudah ended his narrative with his views on slavery and how he became involved in England’s abolitionist movement.

References:

Picture by: Unknown – Project Gutenberg eText 15399 – http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/15399Author: Uploader: User Tagishsimon on en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here* 01:52, 17 April 2005 [[:en:User:Tagishsimon|Tagishsimon]] 455×700 (50,997 bytes) <span class=”comment”>([[:en:Olaudah Equiano]] – [[:en:Project Gutenberg]] eText 15399.png From http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/15399 {{PD}})</span>, Public Domain, Link

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. Edited by Vincent Carretta. London: Penguin, 2003.

Equiano, O. (2005). The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, by Olaudah Equiano. [online] Project Gutenberg. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15399/15399-h/15399-h.htm [Accessed 20 Nov. 2017].



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