23 October 2017

Nigeria: Olaudah Equiano - the Guts of a Slave Who Became a Writer

The story of Olaudah Equiano, the Igbo slave, who played key role in the abolition of slave trade after becoming free 270 years ago, has been trending on Google search since last week. Google's Taiwo Kola-Ogunlade said Google celebrated Equiano's achievement with a Google Doodle, which made Nigerian users to race to Google to read more about the history behind the Doodle.

Here, CHRIS ONUOHA briefly looks at the guts, life, and works of Equiano:

The history of black literature will not be complete without the name of Olaudah Equiano. He was an African writer, abolitionist, seaman and civil rights campaigner who was enslaved, but later became the most prominent Black anti-slavery activist and lobbyist in 18th century Britain. He is popularly held to be the country's first Black political leader.

Equiano is believed to have been born to the Igbos of Nigeria around 1745. He was only 11 years old when he was kidnapped from his village and enslaved alongside his sister.

They were separated from each other and Equiano was shipped across to Barbados, surviving the horrifying journey on board a slave ship. Having survived the harrowing experience across the sea, he fell into the hands of wicked masters who brutalised him in no smaller measures. Equiano wrote in his autobiography:

"These overseers are indeed for the most part, persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, by not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes."

He was bought by a Royal Navy captain, Captain Pascal, who renamed him Gustavas Vassa, after a Swedish noble who had become a king. He spent a lot of time at sea serving Pascal, including during the Seven Years' War with France where he worked as a valet and hauled gun powder to the gun decks. Equiano spent much of his time living with relatives of Pascal, who resided in Blackheath, London and there, learned how to read and write English - skills that had a great impact on his future.

With first-hand experience of life as a slave, Equiano became friends with and supported many people involved in the abolitionist movement to end the slave trade. Some of his abolitionist friends encouraged him to tell his life story, and thus the idea of his autobiography was formed.

Equiano was a founding member of the group of previously enslaved Black writers and activists known as the Sons of Africa, a small abolitionist group. They are recognised as Britain's first Black lobby group.

Their literacy allowed them to petition parliament on issues, write letters to newspapers, and speak at lectures. They often detailed the harrowing conditions of the Middle Passage, to help provoke debate about opposition to slavery.

The Sons of Africa also worked for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, as well as in Britain itself. Equiano led delegations of the Sons to Parliament to campaign for the abolishment of international slave trading.

Equiano married Susan Cullen in 1792, a White British woman, at a Soham church. They had two children, Anna Maria and Joanna.

Of their two daughters only Joanna survived to adulthood and at the age of 21 she inherited £950 from her father's estate. She married the Congregational minister Henry Bromley in 1821. They had no children. Joanna died in 1857 and her grave stands in Abney Park cemetery, London.

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