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Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was a formerly enslaved African man, most famous for writing his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). The text made Equiano's name as a prominent figure fighting against slavery. Read on for more about Equiano's autobiography, including quotes from the text, as well as an exploration of his achievements and facts about the writer.

Olaudah Equiano, content warning, StudySmarter

Olaudah Equiano: Books

Olaudah Equiano only published one book, and it is this that made his name as a fervent fighter against injustice. Equiano's autobiography detailed his experiences as an enslaved person and called for the abolition of slavery. Below is more information on the text.

Olaudah Equiano, an image of the cover of Equiano's autobiography, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Olaudah Equiano on the cover of his autobiography.

Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

Equiano's autobiography opens in his home country of Eboe, now modern Nigeria. He describes the customs of the country he grew up in. For example, his community was ruled by a group of wise elders, one of whom was his father. They made decisions on behalf of the group. Equiano's culture also worshipped their own god and valued art and music highly. He describes his home in such detail to educate his readers. Equiano uses his autobiography to expose the horrors of slavery and argue against its continuing. Many white people at this time believed that Africans were inherently inferior and, therefore, the trading of enslaved persons was acceptable. Equiano's description of Eboe shows that Africans are not inferior but merely different.

When Equiano is eleven, both he and his sister are kidnapped from their home and forced into slavery. They are separated and never see each other again. At first, Equiano is enslaved in various parts of Africa but is eventually put on a ship going to Barbados in the Caribbean. This is Equiano's first experience of the international slave trade. He speaks no English and is unable to communicate with the white enslavers onboard. Equiano finds himself terrified of these people and the cruelty they inflict on him and the other enslaved people.

The international slave trade was the trading of enslaved people by various European nations, including Britain, France, and Spain. These enslaved people usually came from Africa and were taken from their home countries without their consent. They were abused and treated inhumanely. The international slave trade lasted from the sixteenth century until the end of the nineteenth century.

A significant portion of Equiano's autobiography details his experiences as an enslaved person. He is first put to work on a plantation in the American state of Virginia but is soon bought by Michael Henry Pascal, a naval officer who wishes to make Equiano a part of his crew. Pascal refers to Equiano as Gustaulas Vassa as very few enslaved people were permitted to go by their real name.

A plantation is a large estate where crops like tobacco, cotton, and sugar are grown. Those who work on a plantation are often residents there too. Plantations have historically become synonymous with slavery as many enslaved people were forced to do backbreaking labour on them.

Equiano then spends many years between England, where Pascal is from, and on various voyages with Pascal's crew. Equiano grows to understand both the English language and culture, becoming more comfortable in the country. Relatives of Pascal's also help him become educated and baptised into Christianity. As part of Pascal's crew, Equiano fights in the Seven Years War (1756-1763). He hopes that his bravery in battle will convince Pascal to give him his freedom. Instead, Pascal steals Equiano's money and sells him to another enslaver.

Equiano eventually ends up enslaved by a man who runs trade voyages in the West Indies, Robert King. He works on ships for him while attempting to earn enough money to buy his own freedom. Equiano eventually makes the sufficient amount and, with the help of one of the ships' captains, convinces King to allow him to buy his freedom. After some turbulent times in which Equiano is almost forced back into slavery, he escapes and returns to England.

Here, Equiano continues his education and study of Christianity, trying to decide if he wants to be part of the religion. Equiano also earns money by seafaring. After some time, he is able to reconcile what he has experienced as an enslaved person with Christianity and devotes himself to religion.

Equiano's journey to Christianity is long and complex. He finds it hard to fully embrace the religion as so many of the cruellest enslavers he had encountered considered themselves devoutly Christian. While on a voyage to Spain as a free man, Equiano has a spiritual epiphany that finally allows him to practice his faith without fear or guilt. This moment of epiphany means that Equiano's autobiography is also often seen as a spiritual narrative, a text about one's journey to understanding spirituality. Equiano eventually joins the Methodist church.

Equiano also becomes a prominent Abolitionist in London. He ends his autobiography with a plea to the British Government and monarchy to abolish slavery, arguing that he has proven that African people are not inferior and do not deserve the abuse they are currently enduring at the hands of enslavers.

In the context of slavery, an Abolitionist is one who wants to abolish slavery.

Olaudah Equiano: Autobiography

The status of Equiano's text as an autobiography is also important. Equiano's text is thought to be one of the first published slave narratives, texts that detail what life was like for enslaved people. Equiano shed light on the barbarity and callousness that enslaved people suffered. This helped in making the case for the abolition of slavery. Many white people lived in ignorance of how enslaved people were truly treated by their enslavers.

Some defenders of slavery accused Equiano of lying, claiming that he wasn't really from Africa. Equiano was aware this could happen and, in his preface, included letters from his white friends that confirmed he knew nothing of the English language or culture when he arrived in the country. This lent validity to Equiano's text as defenders of slavery would not believe a black man, only other white people.

Fact! The title of the first edition of Equiano's text even included the phrase 'written by himself'. There was a great effort made to focus on the autobiographical aspect of the text.

Olaudah Equiano: Facts

Even though he did not live beyond middle age, dying at fifty-two, Equiano had an extremely eventful and difficult life. Read on for some facts about it.

  • As a free man, Equiano was eventually able to marry his wife, Susannah Cullen, a Cambridgeshire woman, in 1792.
  • After the publication of his book, Equiano became a well-known figure in the global Abolitionist movement.
  • Even today, historians debate over Equiano's origins. Some claim like many did at the time that Equiano was born in America and fabricated his upbringing in Africa for the sake of his anti-slavery text. Others still maintain that he was an African man, born and bred there. As Equiano lived many centuries ago, it is unlikely a conclusive answer will ever be found.
  • As well as the abolition of slavery, Equiano was also part of campaigns for the reform of Britain's democratic system.
  • Equiano also worked with a group attempting to bring poor, formerly enslaved people back to Africa, but he was removed from his position when he questioned the corruption that he saw.

Olaudah Equiano: Achievements

After the publication of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Equiano became a figurehead of the Abolitionist movement. The book was reprinted multiple times to cope with the demand for it. Equiano's words exposed the true horrors of slavery and motivated many to fight for its abolition. He went on a book tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland, speaking about his experiences. Many also view Equiano's autobiography and his abolitionist work as a contributing factor to the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 in the British Parliament. This act abolished slavery in Britain.

Olaudah Equiano, a portrait of Frederick Douglass, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Frederick Douglass, another prominent Abolitionist and writer of a slave narrative.

Today, Equiano's text is recognised as pioneering the slave narrative genre. Other formerly enslaved people, like Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup, followed in his footsteps, writing and publishing their own highly influential slave narratives.

Olaudah Equiano: Quotes

Equiano's only book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, proved to be a highly influential slave narrative that contributed to the British Government's abolishment of slavery. Below are key quotes from the text.

QuotesChapterExplanation
'At the sight of this land of bondage, a fresh horror ran through all my frame and chilled me to the heart. My former slavery now rose in dreadful review to my mind, and displayed nothing but misery, stripes, and chains; and in the first paroxysm of my grief, I called upon God’s thunder, and his avenging power, to direct the stroke of death to me, rather than permit to become a slave, and to be sold from lord to lord.'Chp. 5.This quote exemplifies the pain and trauma of slavery and its impact on Equiano. The theme of religion is also relevant here. Equiano calls upon God to end his life rather than return to slavery. This showcases how horrendous slavery was for those who experienced it.
'In this place I was called Jacob; but on board the African snow I was called Michael.'Chp. 3.Here, Equiano points out the lack of control he had over his own life as an enslaved person. He was not permitted to go by his own name, instead only being called by the name his enslaver gave him. This name tended to change depending on which enslaver he was under at the time.
'Tortures, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity, are practised upon the poor slaves with impunity. I hope the slave trade will be abolished. I pray it may be an event at hand.'Chp. 9.This quote comes in the final stages of Equiano's autobiography. He details the horrors that enslaved people experience. Equiano uses this, and his book as a whole, as an argument for slavery to be permanently abolished.

Olaudah Equiano - Key takeaways

  • Olaudah Equiano was a formerly enslaved African who became famous for publishing an autobiography detailing his experiences.
  • The book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, was published in 1789.
  • It follows Equiano as he was abducted from his home country of Eboe and forced into the international slave trade.
  • Equiano eventually earned enough money to buy his freedom and became a prominent Abolitionist.
  • Equiano's autobiography became a bestseller and is credited for contributing to the abolishment of slavery in Britain.

Frequently Asked Questions about Olaudah Equiano

Equiano's autobiography contributed to abolishing slavery by exposing the horrors that enslaved people suffered. He also worked with the abolitionist movement.

Equiano was a formerly enslaved African who wrote a bestselling autobiography about his experiences.

Equiano was kidnapped from his home at the age of eleven and forced into slavery.

Equiano died at the age of fifty-two.

Equiano was born in 1745.

Final Olaudah Equiano Quiz

Question

When was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano published?

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1789.

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What type of text is Equiano's book?

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Autobiography.

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What was Equiano's home country called?

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Eboe.

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What is the modern name for Equiano's home country?

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Nigeria.

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What are two key themes in Equiano's text?

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Racial prejudices and religion.

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Which branch of Christianity does Equiano eventually join?

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Methodism.

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On his first overseas voyage, where is Equiano brought?

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Barbados.

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What is an Abolitionist?

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One who wishes to abolish slavery.

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Which Abolitionist group in London did Equiano join?

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Sons of Africa.

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Why does Equiano describe his home in such detail at the beginning of his text?

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To show that Africans aren't inferior to white people, they just have a different culture.

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Why are letters from white friends included in the preface to Equiano's autobiography?

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To give the text validity in a racist society.

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Which profession does Equiano gain expertise in?

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Seafaring.

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How does Equiano earn the money to buy his freedom?

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By selling small goods while working at sea.

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What issue does Equiano have with Christianity?

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Many of the cruel enslavers he has met have been Christian.

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How does Equiano conclude his autobiography?

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By imploring the British government to abolish slavery and treat black people with respect.

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When was Olaudah Equiano born?

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1745.

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What was the name of Olaudah's home country?

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Eboe.

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At what age was Equiano forced into slavery?

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Eleven.

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Where did Equiano work on a plantation?

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Virgina.

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What profession did Michael Henry Pascal work in?

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He was a naval officer.

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What was Equiano's first introduction to Christianity?

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Pascal's relatives helped him to get baptised.

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Where did Equiano have his moment of religious epiphany?

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On a voyage to Spain.

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How did Equiano's autobiography contribute to the abolishing of slavery?

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It exposed the horrors that enslaved people faced.

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Which act abolished slavery in Britain?

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The Slave Trade Act of 1807.

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Who are two other prominent writers of slave narratives?

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Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup.

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In which countries did Equiano do a book tour?

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England, Ireland, and Scotland.

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What was the name of Equiano's wife?

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Susannah Cullen.

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What did Equiano include in the preface to his book?

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Letters from his white friends that proved he was from Africa.

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What important phrase was included in the title of Equiano's autobiography?

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'Written by himself'.

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When did Equiano die?

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1797.

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