15 Facts about Olaudah Equiano

Luke Tomes

Age of Revolution
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Olaudah Equiano has been revered in history as one of the most influential abolitionist figures. Once an African slave, Equiano went on quite a journey throughout his life. His story, published in his autobiography in 1789, was read by millions and captured the fascination of the British public.

Here are 15 interesting facts about the man who defied the odds.

1. He was born in the Kingdom of Benin

Using his memoir, historians think that Olaudah Equiano was born in the year 1745, in the Kingdom of Benin – what is now modern-day Nigeria. He was born into a local tribe and described the area he grew up in as a “nation of dancers, musicians and poets.”

Toby Green reveals what we know about West African history before the arrival of the Europeans and how integrated the region was into the global economy.Watch Now

2. He was enslaved at a very young age

Equiano was sold into slavery at the age of eleven, having been kidnapped from his local village along with his sister by local, African slave traders. He embarked upon a long journey toward the Gold Coast, where he was eventually sold to an owner of a slave ship bound for the West Indies.

3. He was sold to a Royal Navy Officer

Having been initially taken to Barbados, Equiano was eventually transported to the North American colony of Virginia, where he was bought by a Royal Navy lieutenant named Michael Henry Pascal. The two would form a close friendship.

4. Pascal renamed him ‘Gustavus Vassa’

Equiano was renamed Gustavus Vassa (after the 16th century Swedish King) by Pascal, against his will. It was nonetheless a name he would use for the rest of his life, apart from when writing his autobiography.

5. He served in the Seven Years War

Equiano spent most of his teenage life onboard Naval ships engaged in the Seven Years War. He was used as a ‘powder monkey’, hauling gunpowder to the gun decks during battle.

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6. He was educated and baptised in Britain

Pascal took a liking to Equiano and had his sister-in-law in Britain take him in and teach him English. He received an education and was baptised as a Christian in 1759. It was extremely rare for a former slave to be well read and literate in the late eighteenth century.

7. He was trusted as an independent trader

Having travelled for roughly eight years with Pascal, Equiano was eventually resold to a Quaker merchant named Robert King. Equiano was trusted with a position of responsibility, trading goods for King around the West Indies and North America. This role enabled Equiano to save up some additional income.

Shipping of Sugar in Antigua by William Clark, 1823. Image Credit: Public Domain

8. He bought his freedom

Over three years while working for King, Equiano saved over £40, which was more than enough to buy his own personal freedom. He did so in 1766.

9. He joined Nelson on a voyage to the North Pole

As a freeman in 1773, Equiano took part in a voyage to the North Pole in an attempt to find a northern passage to India. Led by the famous naval officer, Constantine John Phipps, Equiano was joined by the astronomer Israel Lyons, and a young Horatio Nelson, who served as midshipman on HMS Carcass.

Recently there has been considerable interest in Nelson's views on the slave trade and the plantation economy of the West Indies. A letter of Nelson's written months before his death in 1805 to the infamous Jamaican slave owner Simon Taylor, was published years after his death in attempt to stop the abolition of the slave trade as the matter was before Parliament. Martyn Downer joined me on the podcast to discuss key phrases in the letter that were forged before publication to make Nelson appear even more virulently opposed to the abolition of the slave trade. Listen Now

10. He was employed as an overseer in America

Equiano also met the naval surgeon Dr. Charles Irving on the voyage. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, Iriving later employed Equiano, because of his African background, to help select slaves in South America and manage them as labourers on sugar-cane plantations. He also managed estates producing castor oil and cotton.

Irving and Equiano had a working relationship and friendship for more than a decade, but the plantation venture failed.

11. He became a member of the ‘Sons of Africa’

After this venture, Equiano returned to London where he became an active member of the ‘Sons of Africa’, an abolitionist group comprised of Africans living in Britain. This group was closely connected to the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Documentary, using the academic expertise of Professor Christer Petley at the University of Southampton, exploring the rise of the Abolition movement in Britain in the late 18th century and its ultimate success in passing a bill (1807 Abolition Act) that outlawed the trade in Africans across the Atlantic to the brutal plantation systems established in the Americas.Watch Now

12. He befriended many notable abolitionists

Olaudah established close connections with abolitionists who were part of the ‘Abolition Society’, such as Granville Sharp. He also became the first to inform Sharp about the infamous Zong massacre – an event in which 130 slaves were thrown overboard by crew members of the slave ship Zong in the middle of the Atlantic.

In light of the infromation he had received from Equiano, Sharp became heavily involved in the court case dispute over the insurance claims filed by the ship’s owners. The court ruled in favour of the abolitionists.

“The Slave Ship” by J.M.W. Turner, 1840. Turner depicts the events of the Zong Massacre in 1781. Image Credit: Public Domain

13. His autobography became a best seller

Equiano’s autobiography, entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, was published in 1789 and became a best-seller. Nine editions of the monograph were published in his lifetime. The book gained widespread public attention and became extremely useful when it came to lobbying for abolition in Parliament.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Image Credit: Public Domain

14. He married an English woman from Cambridgeshire

Equiano married a local woman from Cambridgeshire, named Susannah Cullen on 7 April 1792. The marriage was reported in London newspapers such as The Gentleman’s Magazine. The two supposedly met while Equiano was touring the country promoting his autobiography. They had two children together, Anna Maria (d. 1797) and Joanna Vassa.

15. He left a fortune for his children

Olaudah Equiano died on 31 March 1797 in London at the age of 52. His two daughters inherited a fortune of £950 (worth roughly £100,000 today). His death was reported in American, as well as British newspapers.

Luke Tomes