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date: 16 April 2021

Abstract and Keywords

In 1789, Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography, titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself. The title is most appropriate, for there is little doubt that he did indeed live a very interesting and exceptional life. Born around 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria, he was only eleven years old when he and his sister were kidnapped by African slave traders, brought to the coast, and sold to a European slave merchant. He was then shipped across the Atlantic to the West Indies, enduring and surviving a horrific experience during the “middle passage.” He was subsequently sent to a plantation in Virginia, where he was purchased by Captain Michael Pascal, an officer in the Royal British Navy. Equiano served Pascal well for several years, acting as a shipboard powder boy during several campaigns of the Seven Years’ War. While living in England, he was able to receive some schooling, and he converted to Christianity.

His next master, a Philadelphia businessman named Robert King, returned Equiano to the West Indies and employed him as a shipping clerk. Equiano took advantage of his tolerant Quaker master and his commercial travels to engage in some petty trading of his own, and he eventually saved enough to purchase his freedom in 1766. He continued his maritime voyages as a free man for several years, joining expeditions to the Mediterranean, Central America, and a near-fatal exploratory voyage to the Arctic. He later joined the British abolitionist movement and became a popular speaker against slavery and the slave trade in England. In 1787, he was briefly involved with an ill-fated project to repatriate free blacks to Sierra Leone, but he was forced to resign after he complained about corruption and mismanagement within the organization. He returned to his speaking tours across England and wrote his autobiography, which sold very well in Great Britain and the United States. By most accounts, he died in 1797, with his final wish to return to Africa as a missionary unfulfilled.

The reading consists of excerpts taken from Equiano’s autobiography. Although originally written to promote the abolitionist cause, his accounts of his experiences seem mostly accurate. His story begins with his description of village life in Africa prior to his capture. Here he acknowledges that Africans had their own institution of slavery, but he strives to make a clear distinction between it and the slavery that he experienced and witnessed in the Caribbean. He then recounts the manner in which he was captured, brought to the coast, and transported to the West Indies. His detailed and moving description clearly conveys the shock and subsequent demoralization that accompanied the loss of freedom and removal from one’s ancestral home. It is also interesting to compare his story with the account found in Jacques Barbot’s journal and to identify, analyze, and explain the ways in which they are similar and different. The next section focuses on Equiano’s experiences in the Caribbean, his views on African–European relations, and his unceasing efforts to win his freedom. Through his own example, he illustrates the behaviors and attitudes required for slaves to make the most of their situation. The reading ends with his final plea for abolition, in which he crafts an argument that blends both moral and economic factors in support of ending the trade in slaves.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself, in Equiano’s Travels, ed. Paul Edwards (Oxford: Heinemann Press, 1996): 1–3, 6–9, 13–14, 22–28, 57–67, 143–46. Copyright © 1996 Heinemann Publishers.

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