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Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797): Christians Who Changed Their World


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A forgotten hero of the slave trade abolition
When we think of the movement to abolish slavery, we usually think of people like William Wilberforce or Thomas Clarkson in England, or Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, or Frederick Douglass in America. None of these, however, were born in Africa, enslaved, and suffered the horrors of the “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic. One important, though largely forgotten, abolitionist did: Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa.

Equiano was born in Eboe, a village far from the coast in modern Nigeria. At age 11, while the adults in his village were working, slave raiders captured him and his sister and took them away. The siblings were separated, and aside from a brief meeting before being transported from Africa, they never saw each other again.

Early years in slavery
Olaudah was renamed Michael and shipped to Barbados in the West Indies on a ship that carried 245 slaves, and from there he and a few others were sent to Virginia. In Virginia, his original owner called him Jacob and used him as a domestic slave. Soon, he was sold to an English naval lieutenant named Michael Pascal, who renamed him Gustavus Vassa after the new king of Sweden. He objected to the new name at first, which earned him a beating, but eventually he gave in. He continued to use the name Gustavus Vassa for the rest of his life.

As the slave of a naval officer, Equiano was trained in seamanship and assisted the crew during the naval battles of the Seven Years War in both Canada and the Mediterranean. Pascal was impressed with Equiano, so he sent him to his sister-in-law in England to allow him to attend school. While there, he converted to Christianity (at least formally) and was baptized.

When the war ended in 1763, Equiano was denied a share of the prize money earned by the crew, and Pascal reneged on his promise to free him. Instead, he sold him to James Doran, a merchant, with instructions to sell him to the best master he could since Equiano was “a very deserving boy.” Doran took him to the Caribbean, where he was sold to Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia.

Quakers were leaders in the abolition movement; in fact, under the influence of the Quaker John Woolman slavery was in severe decline in Pennsylvania. It may seem odd, then, that a Quaker merchant should purchase Equiano, but King had no intention of keeping him a slave. King informed Equiano that he was free to engage in trade while he worked with him, and that when he could reimburse King for his purchase price, he would be freed. Equiano sold small items such as glass tumblers and fruit in the trips King took between Georgia and the Caribbean, and worked with King to improve his reading and writing.

Freedom!
In 1766, he had earned enough money to purchase his freedom. Although King wanted Equiano to continue working with him as a business partner, Equiano decided against it: he had been nearly kidnapped and re-enslaved in Georgia, so he decided it was safer for him to get out of the British colonies.

Equiano travelled to London, where he was finally paid his wages by the Royal Navy (though still denied his prize money from Pascal). He tried to make a living as a hairdresser, but this didn’t pay well so he returned to sea. He undertook several very pleasant voyages around the Mediterranean and one to the Caribbean before joining a polar expedition in an unsuccessful attempt to find the Northwest Passage (i.e. a route north of Canada that would enable a ship to sail between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans). A young midshipman named Horatio Nelson was on this expedition. Nelson would later become famous as the admiral who defeated the French at the Battle the Nile and at Trafalgar.

In 1763, after the polar expedition, Equiano returned to London where he found out that one of his friends, a freed slave named John Annis, had been re-enslaved by his former owner in violation of the law. Equiano got in touch with Granville Sharp, the most prominent abolitionist in England, and together they tried unsuccessfully to have Annis freed. Although he was not yet fully engaged in the abolitionist cause, Equiano’s contacts with Sharp would be very important in future years.

Conversion and involvement with abolition movement
At about this time, Equiano had what he considered the most important experience of his life while on a voyage to Spain: a heart-felt conversion to Christianity. He tells us he saw “bright beams of heavenly light” and was “born again.” He joined the Methodists and became part of the broader British Evangelical community.

In 1775, Equiano was involved in setting up a “plantation” (i.e. a colony) in Central America. He signed up as a Christian missionary, but was heavily involved in planning the colony, including bringing in African slaves. At this time, the anti-slavery movement had yet to get organized, and most people believed that slavery was simply a part of life; that did not mean, however, that slaves should be mistreated. Equiano thus worked to see that slaves were well treated in the colony, but events pushed him to become a full-fledged abolitionist: he was again cheated out of his money, and was nearly re-enslaved, only barely escaping by canoe from his captor.

Equiano then returned to London, where for seven years he worked as a servant and became increasingly involved in the abolitionist cause. Among other things, he fed information on the slave trade to Granville Sharp and seems to have been very important in alerting him to the Zong Massacre, where 142 slaves were thrown off the ship to drown.

Equiano also became acutely aware of the problem of poor Africans begging on the streets of London, and with other abolitionists he advocated a program to return them to Africa. He was involved in the establishment of the colony of Sierra Leone, becoming the first black civil servant in British history. He quickly recognized that others involved in the project were lining their own pockets with money needed to make the colony work, and when he protested this he lost his job. It turns out he was right: only 60 of the 374 people shipped to the colony survived its first four years, largely because they lacked the means to feed themselves due to the graft of the colonial administrators.

Chronicling his life in slavery: a first
Equiano’s next project was writing his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African (1789). There had been a few narratives of slaves’ lives published at this point, though only one had been actually written by a former slave rather than by a white author who transcribed the words. Equiano’s was the first extensive book to document the life of a slave, and the first self-published autobiography of a former slave. He funded the book via subscriptions from a number of very influential people, including eight dukes and the Prince of Wales.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this book to the abolitionist cause. It described in detail the horrors of the slave trade and the abuse and torture of slaves in the British colonies; it presented a number of both religious and economic arguments for the abolition of slavery. Further, its clear, elegant, and powerful prose implicitly made the broader point that given the opportunity to learn, Africans were every bit the equal of Europeans. The book thus became an important piece of the abolitionists’ campaign to alert Britain to the immorality of the slave trade and to sway public opinion away from its unthinking support of slavery.

The Interesting Narrative also made Equiano a lot of money, freeing him up to spend the 1790s travelling to promote the book and in the process the cause of abolition. He worked very closely with Wilberforce and the Clapham Circle in their efforts to build public support for abolition. He was also involved in other social organizations, including the London Corresponding Society, which advocated extending the franchise to working class men, the Sierra Leone Company to continue assisting the colony, and the London Missionary Society, a non-denominational Christian mission agency. Like Wilberforce, his Christian commitments led him to work not just on the abolition of slavery but on other social causes as well.

Personal matters
In 1792, he also found time to marry Susannah Cullen, an English woman from Cambridgeshire. They had two daughters, one of whom survived to inherit a sizeable sum from her father’s estate.

Equiano died in 1797, a year after his wife, ten years before the abolition of the slave trade, and 36 years before slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire. Nonetheless, his efforts were vitally important for eradicating this great evil in the Empire and helped set the groundwork for abolition in the United States as well. It is ironic and unfortunate that the work of an African Christian in helping to end the African slave trade has been largely forgotten in most discussions of the abolitionist movement.

Next Steps

For most non-black Americans, our knowledge of slavery is limited to a smattering of facts about the Civil War. This gap in knowledge contributes to the gap in white America’s understanding the world view of many African-Americans. What can you do to decrease the gap? Attend an African-American church for a few Sundays. Read a book by a black author about slavery. Rent the movie Amistad (about a mutiny aboard a slave ship in 1839), or the movie Glory (about the first black regiment to serve in the northern army in the Civil War). Listen to a radio talk show hosted by an African-American. Talk to someone who trusts you about how their ancestors’ slavery affects them today.

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The slave trade persists! Not just sexual slavery, which gets most media attention, but the ancient practice of stealing people for free labor persists. This Immoral Trade: Slavery in the 21st Century by Caroline Cox and John Marks was prepared for Britain’s House of Lords—it chronicles some of the most egregious examples of modern slavery now in existence. Buy it from the Colson Center’s Online Bookstore.

(1 Pet. 3:15).

 


Republished from March 5, 2010


Next Steps


Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.

 
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