Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in Nigeria. At the age of eleven, Equiano was sold as a slave after he was kidnapped. As a slave, he served various masters including captains of slave ships and British navy vessels. Henry Pascal, Lieutenant of a one of the many British trading vessels that served the routes between Europe and America, became Olaudah’s first master, and was the one who ordained him ‘Gustavas Vassa’. Olaudah used this name throughout his life as a servant even though he published his own memoirs under his African name. Under the servitude of Lieutenant Pascal as well as other subsequent masters, Equiano grew to become somewhat of a journeyman, visiting national ports across Europe and Asia that later ended up in Pennsylvania, Georgia, as well as South Carolina. In the United States (Murphy, 551). In 1763, at age 19, Robert King, a famous Quaker trader from Philadelphia, gave him the opportunity to serve as a clerk in his business, a position that also led him to work in the King’s sloops, after he purchased him for forty pounds purchased him. Due to the relationship he had with his master, Equiano was allowed to take part in his own minor trade exchanges, which enabled him to save enough resources to secure his freedom in three years. In 1767, Olaudah traveled and settled in England where he sought to peruse formal education and later worked as an office assistant to a renowned scientist at the time, Dr. Charles Irving. Half a decade later, after accompanying Dr. Irving on a polar expedition, he took up the responsibility of writing his own autobiography detailing his life as a slave from Nigeria. In 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, was published as a two-volume manuscript. After the publication of his script, Equiano travel around Great Britain as a biographer. He died in 1797 in the British capita, leaving behind his wife Susanna Cullen of five year and two daughters.
Equiano’s journey starts soon after he and his sister are kidnapped from his village. Equiano regards himself as a ‘favorite of Heaven’, and recognizes the compassion of Providence in every occurrence of his life, which was marked by somewhat short periods of servitude to a chieftain and a wealthy widow (Lovejoy 317). He is sold to traders through different nations until he finally finds himself at the seacoast. He was later traded to a Dutch vessel bound for the West Indies, which at the time was used as a slave trade location, an excursion he described in his manuscript as the “Middle Passage”. Equiano’s narration of significant hardship was matched by his amazement at the new wonders and experiences through his journey away from his homeland. The manuscript intermittently reflects the childlike wonder of a young Equiano; nevertheless, it also highlights his culture-shock familiarity at the introduction of both European and American culture to an African slave. Although he saw the sale of slaves during his time in the West Indies, he was never part of any sale by any master because of his diminutive stature as a small boy, a factor that led him to stay with the Dutch ship that picked him from the shores of Africa. He traveled to North America and was forced to work on a Virginia plantation where he later met his first master, Michael Henry Pascal, a Lieutenant in the British royal navy and captain of a merchant vessel crossing the Atlantic to the UK. At this time, he was purchased “as a present to some of his friends in England” (Equiano 94).
He cultivated a positive relationship with Lieutenant Pascal leading to his renaming from Olaudah Equiano to Gustavus Vassa. Additionally, he forged a relationship with an American born boy named Robert Baker who is credited as the first person to educate Equiano about his new environment. Over time, the relationship leads to Equiano gaining much in terms of speaking and writing English and this led to his religious development (Equiano 132). Nevertheless, his visits to England came far in-between each other and the voyages were always accompanied by close encounters with death from several clashes and sieges throughout their passages across the Mediterranean, Atlantic, as well as the West Indian Oceans. As time passed, he believed that his loyalty as well as the positive relationship with his master would finally culminate to freedom; however, this thought ended after a shocking betrayal during a layover in England. Equiano was roughed up, captured, and forced into a slave barge and sold to Captain James Doran. Confused by his unexpected change in luck, Equiano tried to reason out his freedom with Captain Doran, indicating that the Lieutenant “could not sell me to him, nor to anyone else” (Kelleter, 84). He believed that after serving him for many years and the fact that Lieutenant Pascal had pocketed his wages and prize-money, he had bought his freedom and was only in his current position because of his loyalty (Kelleter, 85). His pleas do not earn him his freedom; instead, he is purchased by Mr. Robert King and shipped to North America.
A “charitable and humane” Quaker dealer, Mr. Robert King, used Equiano’s expertise in various positions in his business from loading the ships to serving as a personal groom before allowing him to settle as a clerk (Equiano 192). During this time, he developed a personal relationship with his master as well as other senior individuals in the organization such as Thomas Farmer who was one of King’s boat captains. Thomas depended on Equiano as he frequently hired him for voyages from the West Indies to North America. Nevertheless, unlike his time working for Lieutenant Pascal, Equiano used the captains to lobby for a better position in Mr. King’s organization (Equiano 231). Additionally, he was also involved in trade such as selling fruits to start his own enterprise, and although it was hard to establish himself considering he was a slave, he saved up enough money to buy his freedom and a return to England (Equiano 268). Mr. King encouraged him in his quest for a better future and later allowed him to purchase his freedom for forty sterling pounds, which was only the same price he gave for him from Captain Doran (Equiano 260). Although, Equiano bought his freedom and was considered a legitimate trader, he was violently assaulted doing business in Savannah, Georgia. Soon after his recovery and return to Montserrat, he opts to end his first volume in the manuscript rather abruptly stating, “This ended my adventures…” (Equiano 272). In 1767, Olaudah Equiano became a freeman and left the United States for England where he became a father, husband, and author before his death. The second volume of Equiano’s manuscript was published by DocSouth, as a summary in which he describes his life as a freeman, however, it is arguably not as enchanting as the first volume.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African. Random House Digital, Inc., 2004. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15399/15399-h/15399-h.htm
Kelleter, Frank. “Ethnic Self-Dramatization and Technologies of Travel in” The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself”(1789).” Early American Literature 39.1 (2004): 67-84.
Lovejoy, Paul E. “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African.” Slavery and Abolition 27.3 (2006): 317-347.
Murphy, Geraldine. “Olaudah Equiano, accidental tourist.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 27.4 (1994): 551-568.