One of the most remarkable early slave narratives comes from a young Igbo villager who was sold by his own people into captivity at the age of eleven. Olaudah Equiano made the middle passage, was a plantation slave in the West Indies and Virginia, and spent time in the British navy and on a slave-trading ship run by a Quaker merchant, before buying his freedom in 1766. He then was active in the antislavery movement, became a baptized Christian, hoped to study for the ministry, married an Englishwoman, presented an antislavery petition to the queen, and lectured extensively throughout the British Isles.
His book is called The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, first published in 1789. The volume gained a strong following in England among the abolitionist community. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, read it; a white abolitionist called it “more use to our cause than half the people in the country.” The work went through eight English editions during the author’s lifetime and became an international bestseller.
Equiano had been shipwrecked in the Caribbean, stuck in Arctic ice, saw Mt. Vesuvius erupt, and met some of the religious and emancipation leaders of his time. Modest, witty, and unassuming, he considered himself “neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant.” Equiano learned to read and write aboard a British ship. A British officer had purchased him in 1757, and while bound for England he struck up a friendship with a white Virginian, Richard Baker, who taught him to read and write.
The story of his personal growth parallels the accounts of Equiano’s own widespread travels. He had hoped to be freed by his British master, but was sold instead into further slavery, this time to a Quaker merchant who conducted a trade in sugar and slaves between the West Indies and the American South. The new master, Robert King, promoted Equiano to increasingly responsible positions in his human trade, allowing him to purchase his freedom on July 10, 1766.
A strong religious strain is woven through Equiano’s narrative, beginning with his observations about the spiritual universe of his native Igbo culture:
As to religion, the natives believe that there is one Creator of all things, and that he lives in the sun, and is girted round with a belt that he may never eat or drink; but, according to some, he smokes a pipe, which is our own favorite luxury. They believe he governs events, especially our deaths or captivity; but, as for the doctrine of eternity, I do not remember to have ever heard of it; some however believe in the transmigration of souls to a certain degree. Those spirits which are not transmigrated, such as our dear friends or relations, they believe always attend them, and guard them from bad spirits and their foes.
During his first visit to England in 1757-1758 two Englishwomen, the Guerin sisters, introduced Equiano to Christianity. The narrative qualities of the Old Testament attracted him, as did the similarities between Hebrew and African societies. A vision of the dying Christ saving him was pivotal for Equiano, then sailing off Cadiz on October 6, 1774. Equally important was his self-assigned guilt at his failure to save a slave friend, John Annis, from death in the West Indies. (Annis, with Equiano’s help, had petitioned the British courts for freedom, arguing that once he set foot on English soil he was free, since slavery did not exist in England.) Meanwhile, the slave’s owner, not waiting for the court’s decision, spirited Annis off to the West Indies, where he had him tortured to death.
In 1779 the freed African sought ordination by the bishop of London to be a missionary to West Africa but was rejected by the prelate. Equiano knew the principal English abolitionists, and his Narrative became an important weapon in their hands. Here was a lucid first-person account describing the evils of slavery. By 1788, the movement gained momentum, and tens of thousands of signatures were pouring in to Parliament. On March 21, 1788, Equiano delivered a petition of his own to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. It was during this time that proponents of slavery tried to discredit Equiano’s Narrative, arguing that the author was not from Africa but from the West Indies, but their efforts were to no avail. The work endured as a major slave narrative, along with comparable works like the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. –Prayer Book and Hymnal, 815
Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad, 24-31.
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself, ed. Robert J. Allison (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995), 1-23.
“The Life of Olaudah Equiano,” http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelpregion/africa/guinea/olaudahequiano/ Accessed on November 5, 2009.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.