Olaudah Equiano's journey from enslavement to abolitionism
Articles / British Empire

Olaudah Equiano’s incredible journey from enslavement to abolitionist

Olaudah Equiano claims to have been kidnapped at the age of 11 with his sister from Nigeria and sold into slavery. How did he go from facing the horrors of slavery to becoming one of the most influential leaders in the fight for abolition?

Olaudah Equiano, from the frontispiece of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (British Library)

Olaudah Equiano’s early life

While his birthplace has since been disputed by historians, Equiano described his home in the Eboe province – now southern Nigeria – as a “nation of dancers, musicians and poets.” Equiano was shipped to Virginia, where he was sold to an officer of the Royal Navy, Lieutenant Michael Pascal.

Here he was renamed from Olaudah Equiano to Gustavus Vassa, after the 16th century Swedish King.

Enslaved people were renamed by slaveholders as part of a range of dehumanising practices that came to characterise Atlantic slavery. Slaveholders chose names for enslaved people that were considered ‘ironic’ due to their grandiose associations; many were given the names of Roman patrician families or deities, such as Julius, Venus, or Augustus. This irony fuelled the ‘othering’ of enslaved people. 

“Chained To The Hatch,” 1864 (NYPL Digital Collections)

Equiano spent eight years travelling the seas with Michael Pascal. The two surprisingly formed an unlikely friendship… Pascal taught Equiano to read and write and even baptised him as a Christian! It was exceedingly rare for enslaved people to be educated, giving Equiano a huge advantage in later life. 

Equiano served alongside Pascal during the Seven Years’ War with France in 1756-63. During this war, the British government was increasingly reliant on the service of black soldiers. Equiano was moved around a lot after the war, and eventually sold to a well known merchant named Robert King.

While he was with King, Equiano started his own business trading on the side. Over three years, he managed to raise £40, the equivalent today of almost £9,000! Enough money for Equiano to purchase his own freedom.

Olaudah Equiano as a Free Man 

Equiano didn’t just sit back and relax after gaining his freedom. Instead, he joined the fight for abolition. His education meant he was able to be a voice for the hundreds of thousands who were still enslaved.

Equiano wrote an autobiography describing his experiences as a slave. This went on to become one of the most influential abolitionist texts of the period. Prominent British abolitionists, including Hannah More, Josiah Wedgeood, and John Wesley, helped Equiano to publish his autobiography in 1789.

In this influential autobiography, Equiano spoke of Africa as a harmonious place corrupted by slavery. He detailed the suffering and dehumanisation endured by himself and his fellow enslaved people, shedding light on the injustices of slavery to the British public. Equiano also described the moments of kindness he experienced during his time with Pascal, who took a special liking to him. 

Equiano’s book became internationally successful and was translated into Dutch, German, and Russian during his lifetime. The literary genre of the ‘slave narrative’ was vital to the abolitionist movement.

Equiano’s autobiography: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (British Library)

These slave narratives were essential for exposing the injustices and horrors of slavery in Britain, a nation with most of its slavery hidden away overseas in the far reaches of the Caribbean. Equiano’s story, told from his own perspective, was instrumental in bringing slavery into the British consciousness.

Political Influence

Equiano also became a member of the “Sons of Africa”, an activist group and Britain’s first black political organisation. The Sons of Africa wrote and published letters and provided first-hand accounts of their experiences being enslaved, contributing to the passing of parliamentary acts which eventually brought about the abolition of slavery.

Olaudah Equiano died in 1797, ten years before the slave trade was abolished in Britain. He stands as an indispensable figure in the history of the British Empire.

His compelling account not only captivated readers across the Empire but also played a significant role in raising awareness in the white British population, fostering the abolitionist movement both in Britain and overseas. Equiano’s advocacy and eloquence in denouncing the slave trade left an indelible impact on the history of Empire, contributing to the eventual abolition of the British slave trade.

Learn more about Equiano and many other key figures of the British Empire in our video ‘British Empire (In One Take)’, and remember to start your membership to access all History Bombs video lessons and teaching materials!

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