Royal Naval Museum

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)

Heroes of the Squadron

NAME

Olaudah Equiano

LIVED

1745 - 1797

POSITION IN THE SQUADRON

Olaudah was not a member of the West African Squadron, but was one of the major abolitionist voices of his time.

WHEN DID HE JOIN THE SQUADRON?

Olaudah Equiano never joined the Squadron.  He was born in West Africa, probably in Nigeria, as the son of a chief. At around the age of eleven, he was kidnapped with his sister, though they soon became separated. Equiano was shipped across the Atlantic or 'Middle Passage' to Barbados as a slave. He was taken on to Virginia and bought by a British naval officer, a captain named Henry Pascal, who renamed him 'Gustavus Vassa' after the 16th-century Swedish king. Later he was sold to Robert King, a Quaker merchant in Philadelphia. He learnt to read and write and was taught about Christianity.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT HIM

Equiano saved his money very carefully and in 1766 he was able to buy his freedom. He then became a sailor, travelling all over the world, including to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the Arctic, the latter in a failed attempt to reach the North Pole. 

Back in London, Equiano became involved in the movement to abolish slavery.  He worked closely with Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Equiano spoke at a large number of public meetings where he described his experiences of the cruelty of the slave trade.  He was an active member of several other political societies, including the London Corresponding Society, which campaigned to give everyone equal rights to vote.

In 1792 Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen and they had two daughters.

WHAT IS HE BEST REMEMBERED FOR?

He is best remembered as a central figure in the Abolitionist movement.  In 1787 Equiano helped his friend, Offobah Cugoano, also a former enslaved and freed African, to publish an account of his experiences, Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of America.  Equiano later decided to write a book of his own, which described his childhood and his experiences as a slave.  The book was published in 1789 and was called The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Equiano travelled throughout England promoting the book and it quickly became a bestseller. 

Equiano’s book significantly helped the abolitionist cause, and made him wealthy. It is one of the earliest books published by a black African writer. Olaudah Equiano was also appointed to the expedition to settle former black slaves in Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa. However, he died on 31st March, 1797 before he could complete the task.

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