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Summary Article: EQUIANO, Olaudah from An African Biographical Dictionary
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Image from: The best-selling 1789 autobiography of former... in Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World

Olaudah Equiano was taken at age 11 as a slave from what is now Nigeria and spent much of his adult life as an articulate opponent of slavery. His master gave him the name Gustavus Vasa or Vassa, after the Reformation king of Sweden. He disliked his slave name, but he became known by it. He was sold to a British naval officer and traveled widely in the Americas, Europe and Turkey for 30 years. Equiano became an acute observer of slavery, and after deep disappointment at being denied his freedom following service in the Seven Years' War, he found himself in the West Indies in 1763, under a new master. This man, a Quaker, allowed Equiano a small business of his own, with which he was able to purchase his freedom within three years.

Equiano then sailed for Britain, where he worked on ships and in trade. A trip to the Arctic resulted in his conversion to evangelical Christianity. He hoped to become an Anglican missionary to Africa, but his efforts met with Church disapproval. His energy then turned to abolition, which was a growing cause among evangelicals. He had a role in the public outcry over the 1783 Zong atrocity, during which 132 slaves were cast overboard and then claimed for cargo insurance loss. He also became active in the repatriation movement that established Freetown in Sierra Leone as a haven for freed slaves, but he was dismissed after intrigues among the sponsors.

To defend himself, Equiano wrote his autobiography, which has been his lasting legacy. It was the first slave narrative and a valuable document on slavery. Beyond that, it includes his valuable recollections of precolonial Africa. The book argues against both the immorality of slavery and its economic backwardness. Equiano's stance helped to provide the basis for the views of later abolitionists. The book went through eight editions during Equiano's life, and he traveled throughout Britain lecturing on it and related topics. He married an Englishwoman in 1792, and they had two daughters.

References:

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  • Equiano, The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vasa, Written by Himself (1789).
  • © 2006 by Grey House Publishing, Inc.

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