Equiano begins his first-person narrative by including several letters that attest to both the veracity of his text and his good character. He then proceeds to his narrative.
He was born in the Eboe province of Africa, and provides cultural detail on those people. While young children, he and his sister were seized by kidnappers and sold to slave traders. After being brought across Africa to the coast, he was sent to the West Indies via the horrific Middle Passage.
He was purchased quickly enough by Michael Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Pascal had intended him as a gift for friends in London, but instead kept Equiano as an aid towards his naval endeavors during the Seven Years’ War. During this time, Equiano heard about the Christian God and started learning to read and write. Through his ability at sea, he became indispensable to Pascal and became accustomed to his situation.
Equiano began to think of freedom, and hoped that Pascal might one day allow it. Unfortunately, Pascal learning of Equiano's ambition, and cruelly sold him to Captain Doran of the Charming Sally. Equiano was devastated, but tried to resign himself to God’s will. Doran in turn sold Equiano to Robert King, a wealthy and benevolent Quaker merchant who worked out of Philadelphia. King was a kind master, and Equiano worked diligently and cheerfully for him. Even though he still hoped to one day purchase freedom, Equiano's strong moral code precluded him from simply running away unless he was abused.
Equiano traveled to America and the West Indies with King, noting the terrible punishments and treatment inflicted upon the Africans who toiled on the plantations there. He realized that free blacks in some ways were worse off than slaves, since they had no master to look out for them, and no opportunities for legal redress of injury. King allowed his friend, Captain Thomas Farmer, to take Equiano as sailor on several of his voyages, on which Equiano distinguished himself. King and Farmer accused him once of planning an escape, but Equiano's evidence of loyalty quashed their fears. Guilty over the accusation, King promised to lend Equiano money towards his freedom if the slave could raise an adequate amount himself.
Equiano finally raised enough money to purchase his manumission in July of 1766. Equiano describes it as the happiest day of his life. As he was firmly indebted to the kindness of Farmer and King, he continued to sail with them, but now as a paid steward and sailor. Equiano’s travels brought him to Turkey, Martinico, Georgia, Montserrat, Grenada, France, and even to the North Pole. That mission sought a route to India, but was a failure. Throughout these voyages, Equiano proved himself to be immensely capable and intelligent. He had learned how to read and write, and mastered navigation. He also learned how to dress hair, an occupation he took up when he later lived in London.
After several near death experiences on the North Pole expedition, Equiano decided to seek God in a deeper way than he had previously done. He visited several churches and found them wanting; he preferred to read the Bible alone in his lodging. However, in a chance encounter with an elderly Methodist man, he came to understand a new way of interpreting the Bible. It became clear to him that good works alone could not procure the free gift of grace and salvation that God provided. After some equivocation, Equiano underwent a conversion experience and joined the Methodist church. Religion thus permeated every aspect of his life and was crucial to his fashioning of his identity.
After a few more voyages, Equiano accepted his friend Doctor Irving’s proposal to work as an overseer on a new plantation in Jamaica. Equiano was not in Jamaica for long before he tired of life there. He sailed back to England and worked for Governor Macnamara for a time. Macnamara wanted Equiano to serve as a missionary in Africa, but the Bishop of the Church did not approve his petition. Equiano then worked as part of the government's plan to relocate slaves in Sierra Leone. Due to mismanagement and shortsightedness, the plan failed. Equiano was criticized for his role in this failure, but he protests quite firmly that he was blameless. He was honored to present a petition to the Queen calling attention to the atrocities of the slave trade, and asking for its abolition. He also spent time in Wales, and married Miss Susanna Cullen in 1791. In the final chapter, he makes several explicit arguments to the reader for abolition of the slave trade. Equiano ends his narrative by explaining that he had come to see the invisible hand of God was in every event of his life. Through that realization, he has learned a lesson of "morality and religion" (236).