In This Article Olaudah Equiano

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Primary Texts
  • Film and Theater Adaptations

American Literature Olaudah Equiano
by
Vincent Carretta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0047

Introduction

Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa (b. 1745?–d. 1797), tells us in Edwards 1969 (originally published in 1789, cited under Primary Texts) that he was born into an Igbo ruling-class family in 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria, and was kidnapped and enslaved at around the age of eleven by fellow Africans. He writes that he was then sold to Europeans, who forced him to endure the transatlantic Middle Passage from Africa to the West Indies. Within a few weeks, he says, he was brought to Virginia. Recent biographical discoveries cast doubt on Equiano’s story of his birth and early years. Baptismal and naval records say that he was born in South Carolina sometime between 1745 and 1747. If they are accurate, he must have invented his African birth, and thus his much-quoted account of the Middle Passage on a slave ship. The truth about the place and date of his birth may never be known. A planter in Virginia sold him to Michael Henry Pascal, an officer in the British Royal Navy. Pascal renamed him Gustavus Vassa, which remained his legal name for the rest of his life. He is commonly known today as Equiano because that is the name he either reclaimed or assumed when he published his autobiography, even though he continued to use the name Vassa before, during, and after the publication of his book. Pascal brought Equiano to London in 1754, and for the next eight years, Equiano saw military action with Pascal during the Seven Years’ War. Pascal shocked Equiano at the end of the war in 1762 when he refused to grant him his freedom, instead selling him into the horrors of West Indian slavery. Equiano was able to save enough money to buy his own freedom in 1766. As a free man, Equiano went on voyages of commerce, adventure, and discovery to North America, the West Indies, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the North Pole. His travels enabled him to observe and comment on the many types of involuntary servitude known during the 18th century. After Equiano returned to London from his voyage toward the North Pole in 1773, he converted to Methodism. He became an outspoken opponent of the transatlantic slave trade during the 1780s, first in letters and book reviews in London newspapers, and then in his autobiography. In 1792 Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, with whom he had two daughters. One of his daughters survived to inherit the sizeable estate he left at his death on 31 March 1797.

General Overviews

This category is necessarily highly selective, emphasizing the historical and literary contexts of Equiano’s autobiography. Historians, literary critics, and the general public have over the past fifty years increasingly recognized the author of The Interesting Narrative as one of the most accomplished writers of his time, and unquestionably the most accomplished author of African descent. Excerpts from the book now appear in every anthology and on any website covering American, African American, British, and Caribbean history and literature of the 18th century. The most frequently excerpted sections are the early chapters on his life in Africa and his experience on the Middle Passage crossing the Atlantic to America. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any historical account of the Middle Passage that does not quote his eyewitness description of its horrors as primary evidence (Rediker 2007). Fryer 1984, Hochschild 2005, and Brown 2006 recognize Equiano’s role in the movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. Andrews 1986 and Bruce 2001 discuss Equiano’s place and significance in literary history. Walvin 1998 and Carretta 2005 are the only full-length treatments of Equiano’s life, times, and works. Carretta 2005 is the authoritative study.

  • Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

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    More capacious than its subtitle suggests, one of the first, and still one of the most discerning, attempts to place Equiano’s autobiography in the context of narratives by and about enslaved people of African descent. See pp. 56–60.

  • Brown, Christopher Leslie. Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

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    Important account of the intellectual and political origins of the rise of the movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, noting Equiano’s role in that movement.

  • Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. The Origins of African American Literature, 1680–1865. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.

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    Identifies Equiano as one of the early “Afro-British” writers who greatly influenced the development of African American literature (p. 63).

  • Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005.

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    The authoritative account of Equiano’s life, art, and times, incorporating significant new primary sources.

  • Fryer, Peter. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto, 1984.

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    The standard history of people of African descent in Britain. Considers Equiano “the first political leader of Britain’s black community” (p. 102).

  • Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005.

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    A reliable popular account of the British abolition movement that sees Equiano as playing a major role in it. Argues for accepting as true Equiano’s account of his birthplace.

  • Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007.

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    Devotes a chapter to Equiano’s account of the Middle Passage, noting the controversy about whether he experienced it himself.

  • Walvin, James. An African’s Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745–1797. London: Cassell, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    A very readable account that relies heavily on Equiano’s autobiography, rather than offering new biographical information.

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