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Olaudah Equiano


Frontispiece and title page from, The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, which was published in 1794
Frontispiece and title page from, The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, which was published in 1794 (Credit: Library of Congress)
Olaudah Equiano, considered to be the author of the first black slave narrative, was kidnapped from Nigeria as an 11-year-old boy and sold to a sea captain where he became a skilled member of a ship's crew.

Steady, religious and hard-working, Equiano managed to buy his freedom. He continued the life of a sailor and fought for abolition, while producing in 1789 a memoir that gave birth to the genre, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.” Olaudah Equiano, an Ibo from Nigeria, was held captive in West Africa for seven months and then sold to British slavers, who shipped him to Barbados and then took him to Virginia.


An Unknown Sitter (thought to be Olaudah Equiano)
An Unknown Sitter (thought to be Olaudah Equiano) (Credit: Albert Museum, Exeter)
While working as a servant to Michael Henry Pascal, a British naval officer, Equiano would move to England, educate himself, and travel the world on ships under Pascal’s command. In 1773, he took part in an expedition to try to discover the Northwest Passage, a route through the arctic to the Pacific Ocean. Equiano was sold to a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who allowed him to purchase his freedom in 1766. In later life, he played an active role in the movement to abolish the slave trade.

Equiano’s graphic accounts as a prisoner on a slave ship gained him widespread notoriety as the first African to document his forced crossing during the transatlantic Middle Passage.

“I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables, and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet while the other flogged me severely.”

Equiano died in 1797. Ten years later slavery was abolished in England.

 

 
 
 
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