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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Written by Himself”, edited with an introduction by Robert J. Allison

222 pages, Bedford Books, ISBN-13: 978-0312111274

Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in Eboe, in what is now Nigeria. When he was about 11-years-old he was kidnapped and sold to slave traders headed to the West Indies. Though he spent a brief period in the state of Virginia, much of Equiano’s time in slavery was spent serving the captains of slave ships and British navy vessels. One of his masters, Henry Pascal, the captain of a British trading vessel, gave Equiano the name Gustavas Vassa, which he used throughout his life, though he published his autobiography under his African name. In service to Captain Pascal and subsequent merchant masters, Equiano traveled extensively, visiting England, Holland, Scotland, Gibraltar, Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and South Carolina. He was purchased in 1763 by Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia, for whom he served as a clerk and in King’s trading sloops. Equiano, who was allowed to engage in his own minor trade exchanges, was able to save enough money to purchase his freedom in 1766. He settled in England in 1767, attending school and working as an assistant to scientist Dr. Charles Irving. Equiano continued to travel, making several voyages aboard trading vessels to Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Jamaica, Grenada, and North America. In 1773 he accompanied Irving on a polar expedition in search of a northeast passage from Europe to Asia. Equiano published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, in 1789 as a two-volume work. It went through one American and eight British editions during his lifetime. Following the publication of his Narrative, Equiano traveled throughout Great Britain as an abolitionist and author. He married Susanna Cullen in 1792, with whom he had two daughters. Equiano died in London in 1797.

Olaudah Equiano did invaluable service to cultural historians the world over when created a record of the 18th Century slave trade through his first-hand knowledge and experiences and the writing of this book. A slave, by definition, is chattel and not a full person in his or her own right and, thus, is permitted no identity other than as a slave. Olaudah Equiano, however, was an exception and managed to create an identity beyond the life of an African slave while preserving his sense of humanity, despite his many arduous ordeals. Equiano’s genial attitude towards his many masters and strict sense of personal pride distinguished him from other slaves, while his differentiating characteristics allowed him to establish an identity within the sphere of slavery while, concurrently, preserving his humanity. No mean feat, that.

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