Olaudah Equiano - Biography

Olaudah Equiano

If it weren’t for “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, or “The Gustavus Vassa”, the world may not have known about Equiano from a closer perspective. Both these books were written by the author/poet himself, where he talks about his early life and coming of age experience.

Olaudah Equiano was somewhere around 1745 (the exact date is unknown and mostly misrepresented in most of the biographies), in “Eboe” – Guinea. In different areas of modern Nigeria, “Eboe” is known as Igbo or Ibo. Equiano wasn’t meant to live the life of a slave because his native African family were living as a free souls. He was the son of a tribal chief, so freedom couldn’t be in any better form for him.

At the age of 11, young Equiano was playing in the local vicinity of his tribe, when out of nowhere; a group of hooligans kidnapped him and his sister. They were immediately marched to the coast, where there were other slaves just like them. The ship was bound for the “New World”. A world of opportunities, a world of racism and yet again… a world like none he had seen before.

Olaudah Equiano’s biography is present in different forms. Some editions suggest that he may not have been born in Africa. Maybe he was born to slavery in South Carolina, at a time when the thirteen British Colonies and North American culture were at their highest. However, these statements are subject to a lot of conditions, such as: Equiano’s baptismal records, slave life, and other things. If all else holds true, then perhaps, we can safely say that this poet, writer and intellectual giant, was born a slave.

Based on the biographical records of Olaudah Equiano, late authors have written that Equiano’s origins maybe didn’t have a sense of legitimacy. He was 11 and whenever someone inquired about him regarding his birthplace and ancestors, the kid would say that he hailed from Carolina. His birthplace also stresses the fact that probably Equiano was not sure about his childhood life. Maybe, as a kid, he got so “used” to slave life that he forgot completely about his African family. The truth, in this poet’s case, is not known. There are no proper facts, but still, the story of his life is interesting all the more.

The Summer of 1754:

Of all the years that Equiano lived, the Summer of 1754 was somewhat different. It was a stepping keystone that began to transform his life. At one point, he got sold to a Royal Navy Officer: Michael Pascal, while from this point onwards, Olaudah Equiano’s biography acquired a sturdy pace. As a cruel slave master, Pascal did what pleased him the most.

He gave a new name to Olaudah Equiano; it was known as Gustavus Vassa. It’s true that the original Gustavus Vassa was a great Swedish legend who rose against the system to free his people. Followed by the war of independence against the Danes, Gustavus was crowned as the first Swedish king. People regarded him as a guy who set hundreds and thousands of slaves free. However, Equiano was nowhere like that, his new name was just a “practical joke” that was a mockery against slavery.

The naval life wasn’t that bad for young Olaudah Equiano. At least he managed to learn different ship and on board terminologies. He was exposed to different cultures and shores as he moved along, which was quite rare for a plantation slave of his times. Among many of his “tours”, his first stop was England, where he saw people of different cultures. Some of the English men were not that harsh towards slaves, as their open mindedness bid them to educate and provide new clothes to the slaves.

Pascal somehow found it in his heart of hearts that a proper education and tutoring of Olaudah Equiano will make him look good in the masses. He thought that he needed to polish this slave a little, to make him worthy of suiting his overall attire. Hence, Equiano was sent to one of the schools in London. The year was 1750 and at the same time, the Great British Empire was at war against the French. The battle was imperial and France required control of the Caribbean and North American regions.

As a result, Pascal was called to action several times. It led the “noble” captain to interrupt Equiano’s ongoing schooling sessions. The kid was made to carry gunpowder and soon enough, people started calling him the Powder Monkey on board. Once engaged in the battle, the whole crew was expected to behave in a disciplined manner, even the “powder monkeys” as well.

During this Great War, Olaudah Equiano was shaken by an awakening. He wanted to claim prize/salary for his services to the Royal Navy and sought freedom because somewhere, it was written that the crew members of the Navy were entitled to this form of treatment. However, this would-be poet was cheated and ended up being sold to a Quaker, known as “Robert King”.

By then, he had more experience and education, as compared to any other slave. King observed the boy’s potential and had him appointed at a very important post. It was the job of a Gauger, a guy who measures, weighs and gauges different shipments. Currently, the same job is known as a “quality control manager”, and it rather respected a lot in the modern world.

The price of Equiano’s freedom was 40 quid, a huge amount that took him ages to save up. He exploited his job to personal benefits, and took three years to come up with £40. The effort was worth it and by 1766, he went back to England. The Royal Navy was glad to pay him his wages, but Captain Pascal, on the other hand, refused to give the prize money to Equiano.

While in London, Equiano worked actively towards the political and legal efforts to outlaw slavery and slave trade. He became in contact with Lord Mansfield, who was also against the same things as Equiano. Both of them worked together in collaboration with British campaigners to give an independent life to African slaves.

Olaudah Equiano, during one of his voyages to Spain, also happened to embrace Christianity. He had been questioning his faith for a long time, but Spain somehow unraveled beams of faith unto him. In his own accounts, he felt as if God gave him a second chance - A “rebirth” phase, which was mostly excluded by publishers in the later years to come.

Do bear in mind that 1770’s were void of a proper anti-slavery movement. However, Equiano’s logic was always in the favor of slaves. During his stay at the Caribbean regions, he’d go out of his way to “provide comfort to the poor creatures.”

As far as the subject of writing autobiography was concerned, Equiano had to pull a lot of strings. Printing the autobiography of a black man was a tough job, and Olaudah Equiano had to contact a lot of political parties. Strictly, under the context of a slave narrative, Equiano’s autobiography was well received. Already, by 1790, the white anomalies were reprinting his work because of its brutal honesty. It’d be safe to say that Olaudah Equiano was one of the founders of the “subscription” system.

Due to the fact that he was cheated a lot on the issue of money, he devised an upfront payment method. Since, the Prince of Wales and Duke of England were too keen on reading his books, Olaudah Equiano would request them to pay in advance so that he could write more for the masses. The offer was considered positively and the poet/author was fending for himself in a well off manner.

Olaudah Equiano passed away in March 1797, a full decade before the slave system in the British Navy was finally brought down to its knees. 68 years later, this heinous act was condemned and finally put to a stop in the United States of America.