African American Studies Olaudah Equiano
by
Bryan Wagner, Parker Kjellin-Elder
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0084

Introduction

Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, as he was known during his lifetime (b. 1745?–d. 1797), was a writer and polemicist of extraordinary abilities. His Interesting Narrative informs readers that he was born into a ruling-class Igbo family in 1745 and was kidnapped at the age of eleven. He tells readers that he was then sold to Europeans on the Gold Coast and made to endure the dreaded transatlantic Middle Passage to Virginia. After this time, he was sold to Michael Henry Pascal, an officer in the British Royal Navy, who, against Equiano’s will, named him Gustavus Vassa, a name that Equiano used throughout the rest of his life. Traveling with Pascal to England, Equiano was officially baptized, he tells us, in 1759. After his baptism, Pascal recruited Equiano for the Seven Years’ War. Equiano mistakenly assumed that Pascal would free him at the end of the conflict. Instead, Pascal sold him into West Indian slavery. From there, Equiano worked to save enough money and purchase his own manumission in 1766. With his new freedom, Equiano sailed the world, gaining the rank of able seaman, as he traveled across the Atlantic and even to the North Pole. After that harrowing journey, Equiano experienced a spiritual conversion to Methodism in 1774, and grew publicly involved with the antislavery debate, through letters, speeches, and his own Interesting Narrative. He married a white Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, in 1792, and had two daughters, only one of whom survived to inherit the estate that Equiano left for her when he died on 31 March 1797. Biographer Vincent Carretta suggests that aspects of Equiano’s life story, including his African nativity, may be fabricated, as Equiano’s baptismal record lists him as “a Black born in Carolina 12 years old,” a possibility supported by one ship’s muster logs. Following on Carretta’s research, critics continue to debate important questions about genre, evidence, imagination, authenticity, testimony, and authorship.

General Overviews

This category attempts to place Equiano’s Interesting Narrative within the historical context of the 18th century, focusing especially on his place within the black Atlantic, African American and Afro-British history, the transatlantic slave trade, and the British abolition movement, in which Equiano and his Narrative played a major role. Fryer 1984, Hochschild 2005, Brown 2006, and Boulukos 2008 establish Equiano’s role within the British movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, and each highlights the at times hypocritical forces at work within the abolition movement that Equiano had to navigate. Bolster 1998 explicates Equiano’s place in the maritime culture of the 18th century, particularly in the opportunities and restrictions it provided to enslaved Africans. Davis and Gates 1985 and Bruce 2001 situate Equiano’s life within the broader historical context of slave narratives, autobiography, and black resistance. Wiecek 1974 provides useful historical context for teaching Equiano’s Narrative, explicating the significance of the Somerset decision in Britain, which directly impacted Equiano. Carretta and Gould 2001 highlight the multifarious critical landscape of black Atlantic writing in the 18th century, and Equiano’s contribution to it.

  • Bolster, Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Historical account surveys African American mariners from the 18th to the 19th centuries and suggests that “the rise and fall of African American seafaring in the age of sail was central to the creation of black America” (p. 6). Bolster highlights relevant quotes from Equiano’s text to demonstrate how the mariner culture “Europeanized” his identity (p. 39). Cites corrupt 1814 edition.

  • Boulukos, George. The Grateful Slave: The Emergence of Race in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Boulukos provides an insightful reading of the trope of the “grateful slave” and how it acts as an 18th-century sentimental vehicle to enable slavery while simultaneously purporting to critique it. Looks at how Equiano critiques racial privilege and sees the trope as evidence of white privilege in contrast to the metropolitan ideas he champions. See especially pp. 173–200.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses how the British abolitionist movement of the 1780s was “fortuitous” rather than by design, and that the American Revolution provided the moral capital needed to engender broad public support (p. 461). Touches on Equiano’s role in shaping colonialist approaches to abolition, as well as the Sierra Leone project. See pp. 259–330.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Bruce offers a historical account of the voices that contributed to African American literature and expression in the 17th through 19th centuries. Discusses Equiano as an “Afro-Britain” who follows conventions established in the 17th century and contributes to the “moral authority” present in the African American voice (pp. 63, 314).

  • Carretta, Vincent, and Phillip Gould, ed. Genius in Bondage: Literatures of the Early Black Atlantic. Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A bipartite examination of 18th-century black Atlantic writers, with sections on race and gender as well as market culture and racial authority. Includes a chapter discussing Equiano’s masculinity, and another about his economic independence through the publication of the Narrative. Carretta elaborates on this economic independence in Equiano, the African (Carretta 2005, cited under Biography and the “Origins” Debate), pp. 270–302.

  • Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Slave’s Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985

    E-mail Citation »

    Davis and Gates present an extensive and fascinating collection of essays that chronologically assesses the interpretation of slave narratives from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Includes contemporaneous reviews of Equiano’s narratives and Paul Edwards’ archival look at Equiano’s life (pp. 175–198).

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Fryer’s work is the thoroughly and richly researched standard history of people of African descent in Britain. Notes Equiano as “the first political leader of Britain’s black community,” the “chief spokesman of Britain’s black community,” and as a forebear to 20th-century Pan-Africanism (pp. 104, 213, 277).

  • Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. London: Macmillan, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    A popular historical account of the British abolitionist movement that outlines the major political moments of the late 18th century and early 19th century leading to abolition. Tells of Equiano’s role in the abolition movement, particularly focusing on his book tour, his public presence in the abolition debate, and his intricate ties to other leading members of the movement. Addresses the question of Equiano’s birthplace (pp. 369–372).

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on the terror as opposed to the sheer quantitative violence of slave ships, Rediker’s account explores how the slave ship embodied the conflict over slavery, particularly in the relationships between captains, sailors, the enslaved, and abolitionists. Devotes a chapter to Equiano’s account of the Middle Passage, and includes corroborating historical details about cultural practices of the Igbo people as they relate to Equiano’s text.

  • Wiecek, William M. “Somerset: Lord Mansfield and the Legitimacy of Slavery in the Anglo-American World.” University of Chicago Law Review 42.1 (1974): 86–146.

    DOI: 10.2307/1599128E-mail Citation »

    A thoroughly researched legal review of how Lord Mansfield’s 1772 Somerset v. Stewart opinion, particularly in its suggestion that slavery arose from positive law and not natural law, was interpreted in English and American contexts (p. 141). Though not explicitly discussed here, the implications of the Somerset opinion are crucial historical context for 18th-century abolitionist arguments, like Equiano’s.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down