'The Interesting Narrative of the Life
of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African'
Olaudah Equiano otherwise known as Gustavus Vassa
- b.1745 d.1797
Olaudah Equiano otherwise known as Gustavus Vassa was the African slave who
gained his freedom and became an activist for the abolition of slavery in the
18th Century. He wrote his celebrated Autobiography - 'The Interesting Narrative
of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African 1789' which is
still available to buy to this day.
Olaudah Equiano was
born c.1745 in the Eboe Lands of South Eastern Nigeria,
his name translates to "when he speaks, others listen". He was captured in
c.1755, aged ten by neighbouring people and sold to English slave traders. At
the age of 12 he was taken to the West Indies and within a few days, he had been
transported to Virginia and sold to a local plantation owner.
After about a month he
was sold on to a visiting British Naval Officer called Michael Henry Pascal, who
brought him to London (after docking in Falmouth) in 1757: he then accompanied
Pascal on many naval and military actions, notably those in the Seven Years War,
and became a proficient able seaman. During this time Pascal renamed him 'Gustavus Vassa'
after a 16th-century Swedish nobleman who successfully led the Swedes in a war of
independence against the Danes to become the first Swedish King - an ironic,
almost cruel renaming on behalf of Pascal. In between his voyages he spent
his time in Westminster, London in the company of two sisters who had taken him
under their wing and taught him how to read as well as sending him to school. He
was baptised in 1759, with his new name of 'Gustavus Vassa' at St. Margaret's
Church, St. Margaret Street, Westminster, London.
Recent research has shown that it is from these Baptism records in London as
well as records of naval muster rolls that Equiano may in fact have been born in Carolina,
USA. This evidence has questioned whether he was ever captured in Nigeria as a
young boy and enslaved as he states in his book. Historians have never discredited the
accuracy of Equiano's narrative, nor the power it had to support the
abolitionist cause so successfully, particularly in Britain during the 1790's.
However, parts of Equiano's account of the Middle Passage may have been based on
already published accounts or the experiences of those he knew around him. It's possible
that at one time he may have found it in his self-interest to lie about his real
birthplace but it could also have simply been a case of language barriers. The
debate still wrangles on...but the outcome of his efforts to help end the slave
trade will never be forgotten.
After the end of the Seven Years War, in 1762, Pascal fell
back on his promise to free Equiano and sold him onto slavery in the West Indies.
During this time, Equiano continued travelling on board ships as a slave between
North America, the West Indies and the Mediterranean. He was then acquired for
the sum of £40 by Robert King, a Quaker
Merchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean. In
1765, King promised Equiano his freedom if he could amass the £40 he had
initially paid for him thinking this would be a virtually impossible task.
During his enslavement, King allowed him to trade for himself on the side and
in due course Equiano managed to amass the
£40 required to buy his own freedom. Unlike Henry Pascal, King did not fall back on his promise
and in 1766 at Monserrat in the Caribbean Islands of Leeward, at the tender age of
21, Equiano was finally a free man. He was asked to
continue to work on board ship as an able-bodied seaman and continued travelling
on board ships around North America and the West Indies. After a shipwreck in the Bahamas he purchased his passage to England where he
became a hairdresser in London c.1767.
As a free man Equiano often returned to the sea
to trade and during this time, took part in voyages to the West Indies and
the Mediterranean. In 1773, he joined a voyage of exploration under the
command of John Phipps to try to find a northwest passage to India across the North
Pole (an extraordinary venture in the 18th century). Interestingly, a young
Horatio Nelson was also present onboard ship for this exploratory trip. Equiano converted to Methodism in about 1774. The next year, he
helped set up a plantation in Central America, where he acted as the buyer and
overseer of the black slaves. By 1777 he had resigned from this job and returned
to London where he became involved in a plan to resettle poor blacks in Sierra
His attempt to work for the Sierra Leone resettlement scheme (for London's
destitute blacks) was short-lived since he was sacked for standing up for black
rights in 1777. He started his anti-slavery activities around this time - first
trying to free the black sea-cook, John Annis. From 1787, he devoted himself to
the anti-slavery cause, going on lengthy speaking tours in order to win over
public opinion. His personal account, 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of
Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African', published in 1789, was a
"uniquely detailed account of an African's movement out of slavery". It was the
most important single literary contribution to the campaign for the abolition of
slavery and one of the earliest books published by a black African writer.
For the first time the case for abolition, presented by a black writer in a
popular form, reached a wide reading public and was immediately popular. It was, for instance, the last book
read by John Wesley before his death. And it was highly effective in rousing
public opinion. "We entertain no doubt of the general authenticity of this very
intelligent African's interesting story. The narrative wears an honest face ...
[and] seems calculated to increase the odium [hostility] that hath been excited
against the West-India planters," wrote the 'Monthly Review'. The book
established Equiano as a chief spokesman for Britain's blacks.
his book was published he was living in a house on what was then 10
Union Street, West Marylebone, London which is now 73 Riding House
Street, Westminster, London. His former residence is now marked by
a green commemorative plaque courtesy of The City Of Westminster which was officially unveiled on 11th October 2000 as part of London's
Annual Black History Month celebrations.
Quite how such an eminent member of London's
abolition movement came to reside in the fenland village of Soham remains a mystery, perhaps by a
chance meeting in nearby Cambridge during one of his many book tours. On 7th April 1792, Gustavus Vassa
- An African (Bachelor of St. Martin in the Fields) married Susannah
Cullen (Spinster of the Parish of Soham) at St. Andrew's Church, Soham
Cambridgeshire. The marriage
was by special licence and witnessed by Francis Bland and Thomas Cullen.
Previous accounts of this marriage have recorded the bride as coming from
either Ely or Fordham, whereas the actual record shows Susannah as 'Spinster
of the Parish of Soham'. Unfortunately, as there is no record of her birth
or baptism in the Parish, it is likely that she came to Soham with her parents
as an infant, probably from the nearby village of Fordham (Cullen or Collen being a local name).
The marriage certificate of Gustavus Vassa and Susannah Cullen at St
Andrew's Church, Soham on 7th April 1792
Evidence to suggest that
and his wife Susannah took up residence in Soham, Cambridgeshire comes from
the fact that both of their children were born and baptised there. Their firstborn, Anna
Maria arrived on 16th October 1793, and was baptised in St. Andrew's Church, Soham on
30th January 1794. Their second child, Joanna was born on 11th April 1795,
and was baptised in St. Andrew's Church, Soham on 29th April 1795. Susannah was always thought
to have died during Joanna's birth, however, records show that she died a
year later on 21st February 1796. She is buried in St. Andrew's Church
cemetery with her gravestone marked as 'Susanna Vassa, Wife of Gustavus the
African, aged 34 years'.
Anna Maria Vassa's memorial plaque is located outside
St. Andrew's Church, Chesterton, Cambridge:
Joanna Vassa's Gravestone at Abney Park Cemetery shortly after its
re-discovery in 2005, awaiting restoration
One of Equiano's last London addresses appears to
have been Plaisters Hall in the City of London from where he drew up his will on
28th May 1796 after the death of his wife. He then moved to John Street,
Tottenham Court Road, London which is close to Whitefield's Methodist Chapel
(where there is a small, recent memorial). The following year, in 1797, Equiano died at the age of 52. His death was recorded in Paddington Street,
Middlesex, London on 31st March 1797 but the whereabouts of his burial is still
unknown. Sadly, his eldest daughter Anna Maria Vassa, died just a few
months later on 21st July 1797 aged just four years and is buried at St. Andrew's Church,
Chesterton, Cambridge where there is a commemorative plaque in her memory.
daughter, Joanna Vassa, inherited a sizable estate from the
wealth her father had accumulated from the sale of his book, equivalent
to around £100,000 in today's money. She went on
to marry The Reverend Henry Bromley
and they ran a Congregational Chapel at Clavering near Saffron Walden in
Essex, before moving to London in 1845.
Joanna died on 10th March 1857 at the age of 61 and was buried at Abney
Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington on 16th March 1857, her husband Henry
survived her for 20 years and was eventually buried alongside her on
12th February 1878. It's not yet known whether they had any
'The Slave Trade Act' 1807
The Slave Trade was finally abolished in England, 10 years after the death of Olaudah Equiano, in 1807.
'The Slave Trade Act' was passed as an Act of Parliament on 25th March
1807 the long title of which is "An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade".
The original act is still held among the collections of the Parliamentary
The act abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, but not
slavery itself; that had to wait for the 'Slavery Abolition Act' of 1833. The
trade had begun in 1562, during the reign of Elizabeth I, when John Hawkins led
the first slaving expedition.
Details taken from his
'The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa,
the African 1789'