Olaudah Equiano

“Olaudah Equiano, the African “Gentleman” Olaudah Equiano was a slave in the middle to late 18th Century, albeit an educated one. His claim to fame was the biography he himself wrote entitled “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” and published by subscription in the year 1789 just eight years before his death. Included in the narrative were the statements that he was abducted in Africa along with his sister when he was about ten years old. Yet history recounts a different tale.

Sometimes fiction is stranger than fact. In the book Olaudah writes that he was born in the village of Ibo near the Niger River in West Africa. It seems Olaudah was fated to be a chief or an elder when fate twisted cruelly. Slave traders abducted Olaudah and his sister, separated them and sold Olaudah to British traders and carried him by slave ship to America. A local planter purchased Olaudah in 1756 and sold him to Michael Henry Pascal who took him to England in 1757.

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History tells a different story altogether, his baptism record and Royal Navy muster roll indicate he was born in South Carolina in 1745 and later purchased by Pascal who was an Officer in the British Navy. It is not argued that Pascal took Olaudah to England just the circumstances surrounding his birth and the circumstances of his introduction to slavery. Olaudah, was renamed Gustavus Vassa by Pascal and sent him to school in London, where Equiano learned to read and write.

Olaudah also served with Pascal in the British Navy where he was denied the prize money promised all sailors on ship and further cheated of the freedom that Pascal promised. Pascal sold Olaudah back into slavery in the West Indies in 1762 where a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia named Robert King bought him and allowed Olaudah to engage in his own trading business, with which he was finally able to purchase his freedom from King for the equivalent of $3000. 00 by today’s standards on July 11, 1766. Working at various trades during the final decades of his life, Olaudah elped form the “Sons of Africa”, writing hostile newspaper reviews of pro-slavery books and campaigning against slavery and the slave trade. One has to wonder if Olaudah is bitter and angry because he was forced into being a slave or because he was born one, given the taste of being a free man then having it taken away from him back into slavery (where he himself bought and sold slaves to gain his freedom) and then having to buy his freedom when it was promised to him by someone he considered to be his mentor and then denied.

We may never know the real truth of how Olaudah became a slave, the first part of his life is very vague. We do however know how it ends. Maybe the how’s and why’s are not as important as the fact that he was a slave in the eighteenth century and still became a very educated and well written man. He fought for what he considered wrong, worked in a white man’s world and fought the system. Sounds like an American to me.

History does not tell if he was a wealthy man just a very determined one. We all have skeletons in our closet, why not dress them in silk and jewel’s. A man can dream can’t he? References: Equiano, Olaudah/” Introduction” and “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”/ London, England /1789/Bedford Anthology of American Literature/Volume One/Ed. Susan Belasco, Linck Johnson. /Boston, MS/ Bedford/St. Martin’s/2008/pages 414-426

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