Equiano, Olaudah (Gustavus Vassa)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Equiano, Olaudah (Gustavus Vassa)

Equiano, Olaudah (Gustavus Vassa) (ca. 1745-1797) Beninian autobiographer A proponent of freedom, Olaudah Equiano expressed his detestation of slavery through his life story. He claimed to be an Igbo native from the village of Essaka, and to have grown up in a prestigious household on the Niger River under subjection to the Oyo empire of Benin. Documentation uncovered by later researchers indicated that he was actually born in South Carolina. During the 18th century, the Bight of Benin supplied British enslavers with one-quarter of their quarry. In 1756, according to Equiano's account, his own people kidnapped and enslaved him and a young sister, whom he later sought during his voyages as an able seaman. Initially traded to a sugar planter in Barbados, Equiano was sold several times, his small size being an impediment to the hard labor of plantations. Finally, he was dispatched as a domestic to the Virginia colony under a new name, Gustavus Vassa. One of the torments of his service was an iron bit that separated his jaws and impeded speaking, eating, and drinking. While traveling with his owner, Captain Michael Henry Pascal, during the Seven Years' War, Equiano worked as a powder monkey, dragging ammunition hogsheads to cannon. He also learned to read and write, and this, along with his skill at navigation, made him a valuable purchase for the Quaker shipper Robert King of Philadelphia. Under King's direction, Equiano worked as a clerk and managed to buy his freedom.

In 1766, Equiano left the Caribbean. After several years of travel and trading, he moved to London and began promoting abolitionism and outlawing of the slave trade. He made a strong impression with lectures, orations, and a slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789). The opening description of the slave trade pictures it extending from West Africa 1,500 miles east to Abyssinia. Descriptions of domestic life portray peaceful residences where polygamous families observe gendered customs but share a love of pomade. They abstain from alcohol and wash and pour a libation before meals. In the book, Equiano willingly serves the navy in engagements with the French and offers details of landfalls at Gibraltar, Barcelona, and the Levant and of piracy and press gangs in international waters. In his conclusion of racial dominion, he anticipates a time “when the sable people shall gratefully commemorate the auspicious era of extensive freedom” (Equiano 1837, 289).

Equiano eventually settled in Cambridgeshire, and in 1792 he married Susannah Cullen, with whom he had two daughters. Susannah died in 1796, and Equiano passed away the following year, at the approximate age of 52; his place of burial is unknown. Though modern scholarship has called many details of his autobiography into question, there is no doubt of his impact on the abolitionist movement in England. The film Amazing Grace (2007) starred the Senegalese actor-musician Youssou N'Dour as Equiano, reprising his belief in industry, commerce, and Christianity as civilizers of undeveloped nations.


Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African,Written by Himself. Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1837.

Howard, Jennifer. “Unraveling the Narrative.” Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no. 1 (September 9, 2005): A11.

Morgan, Philip D., and Sean Hawkins. Black Experience and the Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.