Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 1797), a remarkable man whose life story was of vital importance to the campaign to abolish slavery, was born in the Kingdom of Benin (now a part of modern day Nigeria) and, as a child, was kidnapped, sold into slavery and taken to the New World. Sold to Royal Navy Captain Michael Henry Pascal, he was renamed Gustavus Vassa and was baptised as a Christian in 1759 at the Church of St. Margaret, Westminster Abbey. After being sold twice more, including to a Quaker merchant who allowed him to earn a profit through trading, Equiano would eventually purchase his own freedom in 1766. He saw battle during the Seven Years’ War and was trained in seamanship, going on to travel the world, including the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the Arctic.
Equiano’s autobiography ‘The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, written by himself’ (London, 1789) was a huge success and went through many editions in his lifetime.
The first slave narrative to gain popularity among an English audience, Equiano’s autobiography would not only precipitate a literary genre, but become a voice for the growing anti-slave movement in Great Britain. His account of his childhood in Africa and his life as a slave captivated the public, from whom Equiano’s detailed and lucid writing elicited a strong emotional reaction.
Throughout his autobiography Equiano recounted several instances where he was accosted and threatened with violence, kidnapping, and re-enslavement even after becoming a free man. The bleak prospects and cruelties faced by himself and other Africans in the British Colonies, freed or otherwise, were a driving force in his decision to return to England in 1766.
Equiano would later marry a Cambridgeshire woman, Susanna Cullen, with whom he had two children. Moving in both popular and radical circles in the 1790s, he worked with Thomas Clarkson and the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and spoke at many public meetings where he described first-hand the cruelties of the trade alongside advocating for the Black community in London. As a leading member of the Sons of Africa, an early black campaign group, Equiano was a prominent voice for abolition in Britain’s political sphere. Ten years after Equiano’s death, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 finally made illegal the transatlantic slave trade; the practise of slavery in the British Empire would only begin to be phased out with the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.