Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797)

Born in what is present-day Nigeria, Equiano was eleven years old when he and his sister were kidnapped. Sold separately, he was placed on a slave ship headed for the West Indies. After experiencing the horrors of the Middle Passage, Equiano arrived in Barbados and was soon transported to Virginia, where he was purchased by a British captain for service onboard his ship; thus he was spared the harsh plantation life most slaves were sentenced to upon their arrival in the New World.

Equiano remained a slave for almost ten years, serving on various vessels engaged in commerce and sometimes in naval warfare along the coast of Europe and in the Mediterranean. He crossed the Atlantic many times on voyages to the American colonies and the Caribbean islands. All the while, the young slave worked on his own at profit-making ventures, in order to accumulate enough money to buy his freedom—which he was able to do despite many troubles and false hopes. Equiano became a free man on July 10, 1766.

He continued his life at sea for many years, sailing on exploratory expeditions to the Arctic and Central America and on numerous seagoing business enterprises, including the transporting of slaves. During this time, Equiano witnessed the deepest cruelties of slavery and its dire effects on men and women in several areas of the world. He became a kind of Gulliver, traveling to distant places and observing the strange and awful practices of people in many lands.

Equiano’s friends in England and on the sailing vessels taught him to read and write and introduced him to Christianity. In his later years, Equiano settled in England, where his Christian faith deepened and where he furthered his education. Equiano was involved in the controversial and disastrous undertaking in 1787 to send poor blacks to Sierra Leone. His objections to the mismanagement of the project caused his dismissal from his commissary role and drew criticism from many quarters. He recovered from this debacle, however, and later, when the abolition of the slave trade became a fiery issue in Parliament, Equiano dedicated himself to the anti-slavery cause by visiting abolitionist leaders and writing letters to newspapers and important officials, including a lengthy letter to Queen Charlotte. His most important contribution was the publication in England and the United States of his well-written and fascinating two-volume autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, subscribed to by many of the key men and women in the abolitionist crusade. The work was widely read, translated into several languages, and published well into the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic.

Equiano’s autobiography was the prototype of the slave narratives of the nineteenth century. It set the pattern for the countless narratives—both nonfictional and fictional—that have influenced American literature down to the present day. Equiano followed the spiritual autobiographical tradition of his day derived from Augustine and Bunyan and adapted by Puritans and later by his Quaker contemporaries. Yet Equiano added to the genre a new dimension—that of social protest. In addition, his use of irony in the depiction of himself as an enterprising character places his work in the secular autobiographical tradition established by Benjamin Franklin.

Taken with minor adaptions from the entry Angelo Costanzo wrote on Olaudah Equiano for
The Heath Anthology of American Literature
(1990) 1: 694-695

further links: annotated bibliography
of recent scholarly work on Olaudah Equiano

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 about Equiano’s life

Olaudah Equiano’s
Middle Passage
in Perspective

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