Olaudah Equiano born around 1745 but died on 31 March 1797,known in his lifetime as Gustavus Vassa, was a writer and abolitionist from the Igbo region of southeastern Nigeria. Enslaved as a child, he was taken to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, and later to a Quaker trader. Eventually, he earned his own freedom in 1766 by intelligent trading and careful savings.
According to his memoir, Equiano recounted an incident when an attempted kidnapping of children was foiled by adults in his Igbo village, Isseke (present-day Imo State), in the southeastern part of present-day Nigeria. When he was around the age of eleven, he and his sister were left alone to look after their family premises – as was common when adults went out of the house to work. They were both kidnapped and taken far away from their hometown of Essaka, separated and sold to slave traders. After changing ownership several times, Equiano met his sister again, but they were separated once more, and he was taken across a large river to the coast, where he was held by European slave traders.He was transported with 244 other enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to Barbados in the West Indies. He and a few other slaves were sent further away to the British colony of Virginia. Literary scholar Vincent Carretta argued in his 2005 biography of Equiano that the activist could have been born in colonial South Carolina rather than Africa based on his discovery of a 1759 parish baptismal record that lists Equiano’s place of birth as Carolina and a 1773 ship’s muster that indicates South Carolina. Carretta’s conclusion is disputed by other scholars who believe the weight of evidence supports Equiano’s account of coming from Africa.
In Virginia, Equiano was bought in 1754 by Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Pascal renamed the boy “Gustavus Vassa”, after the Swedish noble who had become Gustav I of Sweden, king in the sixteenth century. Equiano had already been renamed twice: he was called Michael while on board the slave ship that brought him to the Americas; and Jacob, by his first owner. This time, Equiano refused and told his new owner that he would prefer to be called Jacob. His refusal, he says, “gained me many a cuff” – and eventually he submitted to the new name.:62 He used this name for the rest of his life, including on all official records. He only used Equiano in his autobiography.
Pascal took Equiano with him when he returned to England and had him accompany him as a valet during the Seven Years’ War with France. Also trained in seamanship, Equiano was expected to assist the ship’s crew in times of battle; his duty was to haul gunpowder to the gun decks. Pascal favoured Equiano and sent him to his sister-in-law in Great Britain so that he could attend school and learn to read and write.
At this time, Equiano converted to Christianity. He was baptised at St Margaret’s, Westminster, on 9 February 1759, when he was described in the parish register as “a Black, born in Carolina, 12 years old”. His godparents were Mary Guerin and her brother, Maynard, who were cousins of his master Pascal. They had taken an interest in him and helped him to learn English. Later, when Equiano’s origins were questioned after his book was published, the Guerins testified to his lack of English when he first came to London.
Pascal sold Equiano to Captain James Doran of the Charming Sally at Gravesend, from where he was transported back to the Caribbean, to Montserrat, in the Leeward Islands. There, he was sold to Robert King, an American Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean.
Marriage and Family
After settling in England, Equiano decided to marry and have a family. On 7 April 1792, he married Susannah Cullen, a local woman, in St Andrew’s Church in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The original marriage register containing the entry for Vassa and Cullen is held today by the Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies at the County Record Office in Cambridge. He included his marriage in every edition of his autobiography from 1792 onwards. Critics have suggested he believed that his marriage symbolised an expected commercial union between Africa and Great Britain. The couple settled in the area and had two daughters, Anna Maria (1793–1797) and Joanna (1795–1857).
Susannah died in February 1796, aged 34, and Equiano died a year after that on 31 March 1797, aged 52 (sources differ on his age.[who?]). Soon after, the elder daughter died at the age of four, leaving the younger child Joanna Vassa to inherit Equiano’s estate, valued at the considerable sum of £950 (equivalent to £97,000 in 2018). A guardianship would have been established for her. Joanna Vassa married the Rev. Henry Bromley, and they ran a Congregational Chapel at Clavering near Saffron Walden in Essex. They moved to London in the middle of the 19th century. They are both buried at the Congregationalists’ non-denominational Abney Park Cemetery, in Stoke Newington North London.