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In The Spotlight: Olaudah Equiano

Category: BAME, black history month

As part of our Black History Month celebrations we will be highlighting contemporary and historic figures, hoping to share characters both familiar and lesser known. Alongside our featured stories, these profiles hope to reinforce the richness of BAME figures throughout history.

Olaudah Equiano

Writer and abolitionist

“Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends, to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?”

Olaudah Equiano was Georgian writer and abolitionist who claimed to have hailed from Ihiala, a region of what is today southeastern Nigeria. He was enslaved as a child and taken from his home to the British West Indies where he was sold to a captain in the Royal Navy. In 1766 he eventually had to purchase his freedom, which he managed by clever investments and saving money.

In 1786 in London, he became involved in the movement to abolish slavery. He was a prominent member of the 'Sons of Africa', a group of 12 black men who campaigned for abolition. Equiano gained fame through the publication of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). The book was a great success and opened the minds and hearts of many who would never had had the opportunity to share the life of a slave in Georgian Britain, and beyond. Nine editions were printed and it was integral to helping to secure the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, which led to the abolishon of the African slave trade. 

Equiano is an inspirational character of strength and determination and truly highlights the power of storytelling and shared experience. He overcame being robbed of his identity and freedom, he triumphed over depression and suicide, finding strength in faith. He embraced his new home and married an English woman and had two daughters. Through his storytelling he was able to enact positive change in his British countrymen. With calm clarity he was able to paint a picture of his experience and rattle the establishment through finding empathy amongst his readers. You can see it here in this passage, “The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon connected with terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.” The sense of drama and realism must have been deeply impactful at the time.

He died in Middlesex on 31 March 1797, leaving a lasting legacy through his campaign work and his writing. In his will he provided for projects he considered important. He bequeathed half his wealth to the Sierra Leone Company for continued assistance to West Africans, and half to the London Missionary Society, which promoted education overseas. His story compounds the importance of storytelling for change.

You can read his autobiography online here or purchase it online from all major literature retailers.

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