“I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely,” wrote Olaudah Equiano, in his autobiography.
“The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died.”
Titled: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Equiano’s autobiography, published in 1789, marked a significant turning point in the fight to abolish slavery. Describing his capture in Africa and subsequent life as a slave, the autobiography shone a light on the horrors of the slave experience, making its brutality tangible to those who had been born free.
It became a rallying point for the abolitionist cause. It began with a petition for abolition addressed to the British parliament, and ended with an antislavery letter to the Queen. In between it detailed Equiano’s life, providing a rare insight into slavery through the eyes of one of its former victims.
Translated into several different languages, The Interesting Narrative… would go on to be read by tens of thousands. Just as significantly, Equiano himself worked tirelessly to promote the book and the abolitionist cause. He embarked on extensive lecture tours across Britain and Ireland, and spent much of the 1790s passionately campaigning for abolition – drawing more and more attention to the issue, notably working closely with Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Olaudah Equiano’s life was a remarkable one, even before he became a leading figure in the battle to abolish slavery. Born in what is now Nigeria, Equiano was kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child – forcibly transported across the globe, to Barbados and then Virginia.
In 1757, Equiano was bought by a naval captain named Henry Pascal, who named him Gustavus Vassa and brought him back to England. For years he served as Pascal’s slave on navy ships, participating in major battles of the Seven Years’ War. The period proved deeply influential on Equiano’s life. Fellow soldiers taught him to read and write, and the basics of mathematics, while Equiano also converted to Christianity, getting baptised in 1759.
Freed by Pascal at the end of the Seven Years’ War, Equiano was again enslaved in 1762, shipped from London to the West Indies and taken on by a merchant shipping company. Again, the experience proved hugely influential on Equiano, his relatively high rank meaning he was actually involved in organising the sale and transportation of other slaves.
“I was often a witness to cruelties of every kind, which were exercised on my unhappy fellow slaves. I used frequently to have different cargoes of new Negroes in my care for sale; and it was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves; and these I was, though with reluctance, obliged to submit to at all times, being unable to help them.”
Shrewdly, Equiano traded and saved hard during his time in the West Indies, and by 1766 had raised enough to buy his freedom. After working for several years as an able seaman, he eventually returned to London where he first met anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp. It marked the beginnings of Equiano’s career as one of the most influential, if seldom acknowledged, anti-slavery campaigners. He became involved in the Sierra Leone Resettlement Project, which aimed to provide a safe place for freed slaves to live and work; founded the Sons of Africa, which campaigned for abolition through public speaking, letter writing and lobbying; and even appeared in the House of Commons to call for improved conditions on slave ships.
Soon, he realised that one of the most potent arguments for abolition he could offer however, was his own life story…