- This excerpt
is taken from the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa,
an ex-slave. It was published in 1789 and was very successful, becoming
a best seller of its time. The book also helped to promote the anti-slavery
- In his
autobiography, Equiano recounts how he and his sister were kidnapped
when they were children and marched off to the coast. He served with
two families before being put on a slave ship sailing to the West Indies.
On his arrival, Equiano was bought by a Royal Navy Captain called Pascal
who renamed him Gustavus Vassa.
did not lead a typical slave's life. He accompanied his master on many
voyages serving as a personal servant and as a 'powder monkey'. He was
also sent to school where he was taught the 3 R's (reading, writing
and arithmetic). His education came to an end when he was sold to Captain
Doran who took him back to the Caribbean. Here Equiano was sold again,
this time to a Quaker merchant called Robert King. King treated his
slaves reasonably well and Equiano was set to work as a guager. This
was a very responsible role. As part of his work, Equiano had to travel
around the islands in the Caribbean. Taking advantage of this, he started
to trade in small items and was eventually able to earn enough to purchase
his freedom. After becoming a free man, Equiano tried a few jobs before
returning to sea working as a hairdresser or steward.
- The 1770s
were a crucial period for Equiano. In 1773 he became involved in the
anti-slavery campaign. A friend and fellow ex-slave, John Annis, had
been captured by his former owner who was trying to send him back to
the West Indies. This practice had been declared illegal the previous
year and Equiano approached Granville Sharp for help. The two men worked
together to try to save Annis but they eventually failed. However, Equiano
was now in contact with Sharp.
- The early
1770s also saw Equiano convert to Christianity. Following his conversion
he worked for a time as a missionary in the Carribbean trying to convert
fellow Africans and work to improve their conditions. While he was in
the Caribbean a slaver tried to re-enslave him and he only just managed
to escape. He returned to England where he worked as a servant for 7
- In 1786
Equiano became involved in the Sierra Leone resettlement project. The
idea behind this project was to return blacks to Africa where they could
live as free men and women. Equiano was made Comissary of Provisions
and Stores - the person in charge of buying all the food and provisions
the new colony would need. However, he soon started to complain of official
corruption and he was sacked. He returned to England where he started
to write his autobiography.
- In 1792
Equiano married an English woman called Susanna Cullen and the couple
had two daughters (one died aged 4). Equiano died in 1797.
- Few slave
owners behaved like King. Most owners favoured the use of the whip to
keep their slaves in line rather than treating them well. Many slaves
died young as a result of exhaustion and/or ill treatment. Indeed, it
has been estimated that between 1710 and 1810 over 600,000 slaves were
took to Jamaica but by 1834 only 250,000 of them (or their descendants)
remained. Supplies of slaves were maintained by bringing in fresh imports
of slaves rather than allowing the slave population to increase naturally.