The first autobiography written by a former slave, Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is also one of the most widely-read and well-regarded of the slave narrative genre. It was published in 1789, at a time...
Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who purchased his own freedom, is best known for the autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). Not only is it an in-depth account of his life in enslavement and as a freedman, but it is also the first autobiography to ever be published by a former slave. Equiano was more than an author - he was also a prominent abolitionist who wrote many anti-slavery pamphlets and worked actively with the government and business community to end the slave trade in Britain. Most information about his life is derived from his autobiography and hence cannot be confirmed, though contemporary historical scholarship has suggested some inaccuracies in the work. For instance, studies suggest that he was actually born in South Carolina, and not in Africa as he claims in the Narrative.
According to his autobiography, Equiano was born in 1745, in the Eboe province of what is now Southeastern Nigeria. He was kidnapped at the age of ten and sold to English slave traders. He was brought to America on the horrific Middle Passage and was purchased not long afterwards by a lieutenant in the British Navy, Michael Henry Pascal. He traveled at sea with Pascal during the Seven Years' War and was involved in many naval battles. It was during this period of his life that he was given the name "Gustavus Vassa" by Pascal; this was the name he went by in England thereafter. He learned how to read and write, and familiarized himself with the basics of arithmetic. When Pascal discovered that Equiano desired his freedom, he sold him to Captain James Doran. He was then sold to the Quaker merchant Robert King, a benevolent man of whom he became a great favorite. He worked on shipping routes and in King's stores, but most distinguished himself as a sailor. For a time, he was loaned to Captain Thomas Farmer, for whom he proved a great asset. Equiano began to trade goods between ports, and was ultimately able to save enough money to purchase his freedom in 1766.
As a freedman, Equiano lived in London for a time, where he learned to dress hair, and also worked on a water purification system devised by a Doctor Irving. Drawn to the sea, he enlisted for voyages to Martinico, Turkey, Jamaica, Barbados, Spain, and a famed expedition to the North Pole. He also endeavored to find a true Christianity, visiting several churches of different denominations. When he discovered the Methodist faith, he underwent a conversion experience that reshaped his life. At the end of 1775, he agreed to accompany Doctor Irving to Jamaica, where the latter had decided to found a plantation. As an overseer on the Musquito shores, Equiano attempted to treat his subordinate slaves kindly. He ultimately grew to dislike the climate and way of life of the West Indies, and so he returned to England.
In London, he became involved with the abolitionist movement. He visited America and Wales, and agreed to participate in the British government's recolonization effort in Sierra Leone. This expedition ultimately proved a failure. Equiano was dismissed from his post and protested against the criticism leveled at him by some government officials. He took part in a petition for the abolition of the slave trade, which he personally delivered to the Queen in 1788. The following year, with support from his abolitionist friends and associates, he published his The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. The book was immensely popular, and its detailed account of the Middle Passage and institutionalized cruelty garnered a great deal of attention; the work went through several editions during Equiano's lifetime. Equiano became a prominent political figure in Britain, as a voice for poor Africans. His words were frequently printed in the leading newspapers of the time. After 1794, Equiano largely lived off of proceeds from the sales of his book.
Equiano married Susanna Cullen on April 7th, 1792. They had two daughters, Anna Maria and Joanna. He died in 1797.