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Old 07-07-2007, 05:47 PM   #1
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Equiano, Olaudah, Autobiography, v.1. 7 July 2007

The full title is .'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.' (1789) But it is too long for the thread title.

2007 is the bicentenary of the British abolition of the slave trade. A historian colleague of mine has being doing a lot of work on this topic. This has inspired my choice of book. Mr Equiano is one of the few former slaves to write about his experience.

From the Wikipedia entry on Olaudah Equiano:
Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), also known as Gustavus Vassa, was one of the most prominent people of African heritage involved in the British debate for the abolition of the slave trade. He wrote an autobiography that depicted the horrors of slavery and helped influence British lawmakers to abolish the slave trade in 1807. In addition to being a slave as a young man, he was also a slaver, seaman, merchant, and explorer in South America, the Caribbean, the American colonies, Britain, and the North Pole.

By his own account, Olaudah Equiano's early life began in the region of "Essaka" (in his spelling; now called Isseke) near the River Niger, an Igbo-speaking region of Nigeria, West Africa, which is now in Anambra State. His father was an important elder in the village, who helped settle disputes. At an early age, he was kidnapped by kinsmen and forced into domestic slavery in another native village in a region where the African chieftain hierarchy was tied to slavery
At the age of eleven, Equiano was sold to white slave traders and taken to the New World. On arrival, he was bought by Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Renaming being a common practice among slave owners, Pascal renamed him Gustavus Vassa. (This is the Latinised form of the name of King Gustav I of Sweden, known for having liberated his country from Danish rule in the 16th Century.)
Being the slave of a naval captain, Equiano was afforded naval training and was able to travel extensively. He was sent to school in England by Pascal to learn to read. This was during the Seven Years War with France. Equiano was Pascal's personal servant but was also expected to contribute in times of battle. His duty was to haul gunpowder to the gun decks. After the war, Equiano felt he had done his duty and deserved his share of the prize money awarded to the other sailors, along with his freedom, but Pascal refused to grant it.
Later, Olaudah Equiano was sold on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean Leeward Islands. Equiano's literacy and seamanship skills made him too valuable for plantation labour. He was acquired by Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean. King set Equiano to work on his shipping routes and in his stores, promising him in 1765, that for forty pounds, the price King had paid for Equiano, he could buy his freedom. King taught him to read and write more fluently, educated him in the Christian faith, and allowed Equiano to engage in his own profitable trading as well as on his master's behalf, enabling Equiano to come by the forty pounds honestly. In his early twenties, Equiano succeeded in buying his freedom.
King urged Equiano to stay on as a business partner, but Equiano found it dangerous and limiting to remain in the British American colonies as a freed black. While loading a ship in Georgia, he was almost kidnapped back into slavery. Equiano returned to England, where after Somersett's Case of 1772 (although the details are unclear when analysed by lawyers) it was generally believed than no person could be a slave in England itself.

After several years of travels and trading, Equiano travelled to London and became involved in the abolitionist movement. The movement had been particularly strong amongst Quakers, but was by now non-denominational. Equiano himself was broadly Methodist, having been influenced by George Whitefield's evangelism in the New World.

Equiano proved to be a popular speaker and was introduced to many senior and influential people, who encouraged him to write and publish his life story. Equiano was supported financially by philanthropic abolitionists and religious benefactors; his lectures and preparation for the book were promoted by, among others, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. His account surprised many with the quality of its imagery and description, literary style, as well as its narrative which was profoundly shaming towards those who had not joined the abolitionist cause. Entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, it was first published in 1789 and rapidly went through several editions. It is one of the earliest known examples of published writing by an African writer. It was the first influential slave autobiography, and its first-hand account of slavery and of the experiences of an 18th-century black immigrant caused a sensation when published in 1789, fuelling a growing anti-slavery movement in England.

Equiano's narrative begins in the West African village where he was kidnapped into slavery in 1756. He vividly recalls the pestilence and horror of the Middle Passage: "I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me." As described in his book, the young Equiano was eventually shipped to a Virginia plantation where he witnessed slaves tortured with thumbscrews and the iron muzzle. Slavery, he explained, brutalizes everyone - the slaves, their overseers, plantation wives, and the whole of society.

The autobiography goes on to describe how Equiano's adventures brought him to London, where he married into English society and became a leading abolitionist. His exposé of the infamous slave-ship Zong - 133 slaves thrown overboard in mid-ocean for the insurance money - shook the nation. But it was Equiano's book that would prove his most lasting contribution to the abolitionist movement, a book which vividly demonstrated the humanity of Africans as much as the inhumanity of slavery.

The book not only furthered the abolitionist cause while providing an exemplary work of English literature by a new, African author, but also made Equiano's fortune. It gave him independence from his benefactors and enabled him to fully chart his own life and purpose, and develop his interest in working to improve economic, social and educational conditions in Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone.
At some point, after having travelled widely, Olaudah Equiano decided to settle in Britain and raise a family. Equiano is closely associated with Soham, Cambridgeshire, where, on the 7 April 1792, he married Susannah Cullen, a local girl, in St Andrew's Church. The original marriage register containing the entry for Equiano and Susannah is today held by Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies at the County Record Office in Cambridge. He announced his wedding in every edition of his autobiography from 1792 onwards, and it has been suggested his marriage mirrored his anticipation of a commercial union between Africa and Great Britain. The couple settled in the area and had two daughters, Anna Maria , born October 16, 1793, and Joanna, born April 11, 1795.
Susannah died in February 1796 aged 34, and Equiano died a year after that on 31 March 1797, aged approximately 52. Soon after, the elder daughter died, aged four years old, leaving Joanna to inherit Equiano's estate, which was valued at £950: a considerable sum, worth approximately £1,000,000 today. Joanna married the Rev. Henry Bromley, and they ran a Congregational Chapel at Clavering near Saffron Walden in Essex, before moving to London in the middle of the nineteenth century - they are both buried at the Congregationalists' the non-denominational Abney Park Cemetery, in Stoke Newington.
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