In his autobiography, Olaudah Equiano writes that he was born in the Eboe province, in the area that is now southern Nigeria. He describes how he was kidnapped with his sister at around the age of 11, sold by local slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic to Barbados and then Virginia.
In the absence of written records it is not certain whether Equiano’s description of his early life is accurate. Doubt also stems from the fact that, in later life, he twice listed a birthplace in the Americas.
Apart from the uncertainty about his early years, everything Equiano describes in his extraordinary autobiography can be verified. In Virginia he was sold to a Royal Navy officer, Lieutenant Michael Pascal, who renamed him ‘Gustavus Vassa’ after the 16th-century Swedish king. Equiano travelled the oceans with Pascal for eight years, during which time he was baptised and learned to read and write.
Pascal then sold Equiano to a ship captain in London, who took him to Montserrat, where he was sold to the prominent merchant Robert King. While working as a deckhand, valet and barber for King, Equiano earned money by trading on the side. In only three years, he made enough money to buy his own freedom. Equiano then spent much of the next 20 years travelling the world, including trips to Turkey and the Arctic.
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.
In 1789 he published his autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African’. He travelled widely promoting the book, which became immensely popular, helped the abolitionist cause, and made Equiano a wealthy man. It is one of the earliest books published by a black African writer.
In 1792, Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, and they had two daughters. Equiano died on 31 March 1797.