MEET OLAUDAH EQUIANO: THE LEGACY OF A SLAVE TRADE ABOLITIONIST

Year of Birth:       1745

Place of Birth:     Essaka (now known as Ashaka in Ndokwa East Local Government Area, Delta State, Nigeria)

Area of Birth:       Eboe (now known as Aboh in Ndokwa East Local Government Area, Delta State, Nigeria)

Kidnapped:          1756 (aged 11-12)

Dialectic Classification: Ukwani and Ndosumiri (West of River Niger)

Other Names: Gustavus Vassa

Died:          31st March, 1797 (aged 51-52)

Autobiography: 1789 (The Interesting Narrative)

Occupation: Explorer, Writer,              Merchant, Abolitionist

Known for: Influence over British      Abolitionists.

Spouse: Susannah Cullen

Children: Joanna Vassa and Anna Maria Vassa

Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 31 March 1797) also known as Gustavus Vassa, was a prominent African involved in the British movement for the abolition of the slave trade. He was enslaved as a child in his home town of Essaka (now known as Ashaka in Ndokwa East Local Government Area, Delta State), in what is now southern Nigeria, shipped to the West Indies, moved to England, and successfully purchased his freedom. Throughout his life, Equiano worked as an author, a seafarer, merchant, hairdresser, and explorer in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Arctic, the American colonies, and the United Kingdom, where he settled by 1792. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, depicts the horrors of slavery and influenced the enactment of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 by the British Parliament through a Bill presented by William Wilberforce.

In his account, Equiano gives details about his hometown, Essaka (now known as Ashaka in Ndokwa East Local Government Area, Delta State) and the laws and customs of the Essaka people, within Eboe Province of Benin Kingdom (now known as Eboh or Aboh in Ndokwa East Local Government Area, Delta State), he also gave description of some of the communities he passed through as he was forced to the coast. His biography details his voyage on a slave ship, the brutality of slavery in the West Indies, Virginia, and Georgia, and the disenfranchisement of freed people of colour (including kidnap and enslavement) in these same places. Equiano was particularly attached to his Christian faith which he embraced in 1759 and is a recurring theme in his autobiography; he identified as a Protestant of the Church of England.

As a free man, Equiano’s life was still filled with stresses and even had suicidal thoughts before he became a born again Christian and found peace in his faith. Earlier in his freedom, he resolved never to visit the West Indies or the Americas again because of the brutality about, but was drawn back there because of his duties to various captains. Later life, Equiano married an English woman named Susannah Cullen and had two children, Joanna Vassa and Anna Maria Vassa. He died in 1797; the exact location of his gravesite is unknown, although there are plaques commemorating his life lived in buildings around London.

There have been efforts in Nigeria to find out his birthplace and home town, Essaka (now known as Ashaka in Ndokwa East Local Government Area, Delta State). Additionally, there have been contentions, even in his lifetime, that Equiano was not African born at all, instead, a slave from The Carolinas, with apparent documented evidence. A few hypotheses have been made to support his African origin and to find the whereabouts of his hometown, none of which have been substantiated, before this present write up by Chief Anthony Ashinedu Aroh of The Olaudah Equiano Association, Nigeria.

Early life and enslavement

According to his own account, Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 to the Essaka people (now known as Ashaka in Ndokwa East Local Government Area, Delta State), within Eboe Province of Benin Kingdom (now known as Eboh or Aboh in Ndokwa East Local Government Area, Delta State) in the former Mid Western Region, later known as Bendel State, but now known as Delta State, Nigeria.

His name, Olaudah Equaino has a contextual meaning in the dialect of the Ukwani/Ndosumiri people of the Ndokwa Area of Delta State, Nigeria.

His First Name; OLAUDAH, can be divided into two (2) words, OLA and UDAH. In the dialect of the Ukwani/Ndosumiri people of the Ndokwa Area of Delta State, Nigeria, OLA means to drink or depicts the act of drinking, whilst UDAH refers to a local native spice, known by the same name, udah, thus the name ola-udah would depict drinking a portion made from local and native udah spice.

His Surname; EQUIANO, is similar to the Ukwani/Ndosumiri word; Ekwuanu, which appears in an ancient and old Local native proverb of the Ukwani/Ndosumiri People of Ndokwa Area, Delta State, Nigeria which states thus, “Ekwuanu Negbu Igoshi” Meaning “unheeded warning/advice leads to the demise/destruction of a child”.

From the foregoing, one can easily make a comparison between the words E QUI ANO and E KWU ANU.

As the youngest son, he had five older brothers and a younger sister. His father was a titled man who he remembered bearing scarifications on his forehead which signified his father’s status; Equiano expected when he was matured to receive the same scarification as males did in his community. Equiano recollected his mother teaching him self-defence and Equiano also witnessed her partaking in communal wars. His mother particularly impressed on him the religious rites of his country as he recounted the times she would carry him along to an ancestral shrine in the wild where his maternal grandmother was buried and would give offerings to the shrine and also weep by its side. His early life was filled with what his people considered good omens or mysterious signs, particularly he was on a path in his village when he accidentally stood on a large snake and was left unharmed.

Equiano remembered an incident when an attempted kidnapping of children was thwarted by adults in his village. Around the age of eleven, he and his sister were left alone to look after their family’s compound as was usually done when adults went out of the house for work. Before they could act, they were kidnapped and taken far away from their hometown, separated, and sold to slaveholders. After changing hands several times, he met his sister again, but they were separated for the last time and he was taken over what he described as a large river which he had never seen 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, from where he

and a few others were soon transferred to the British colony of Virginia. Literary scholar, Vincent Carretta argued in a 2005 biography that Equiano may have been born in colonial South Carolina, not in Africa.

He was bought 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 16th century. Equiano had already been renamed twice: he was called Michael while on 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 said, “gained me many a cuff” – and eventually he submitted to the new name.

Equiano wrote in his narrative that domestic slaves in Virginia were treated cruelly and suffered punishments like the “iron muzzle” (scold’s bridle), which was used around the mouth to keep house slaves quiet, leaving them unable to speak or eat. He thought that the eyes of portraits followed him wherever he went, and that a clock could tell his master about anything Equiano did wrong. Shocked by this culture, Equiano tried washing his face in an attempt to change its colour.

As the slave of a naval captain, Equiano was trained in seamanship and traveled extensively with his master during the Seven Years War with France. Although Pascal’s personal slave, Equiano was expected to assist the 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, to attend school and learn to read.

At this time, Equiano converted to Christianity. His master allowed Equiano to be baptized in St Margaret’s, Westminster, on February 1759. Despite the special treatment, after the British won the war, Equiano did not receive a share of the prize money, as was awarded to the other sailors. Pascal had promised his freedom, but did not release him.

Pascal sold Equiano to Captain James Doran of the Charming Sally at Gravesend, from where he was transported to Montserrat, in the Caribbean Leeward Islands. He was sold to Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia, who traded in the Caribbean. Pascal had instructed Doran to ensure that he sold Equiano “to the best master he could, as he told him Equiano was a very deserving boy, which Captain Doran said he found to be true.”

Release

King set Equiano to work on his shipping routes and in his stores. In 1765, when Equiano was about 20 years old, King promised that for his purchase price of forty pounds, the slave could buy his freedom. King taught him to read and write more fluently, guided him along the path of religion, and allowed Equiano to engage in profitable trading on his own, as well as on his master’s behalf. Equiano sold fruits, glass tumblers, and other items between Georgia and the Caribbean islands. King enabled Equiano to buy his freedom, which he achieved by his early twenties; he urged Equiano to stay on as a business partner, but Equiano found it dangerous and limiting to remain in the British colonies as a freedman. While loading a ship in Georgia, he was almost kidnapped back into slavery. He was released after proving his education. Equiano returned to Britain, after the ruling by Lord Mansfield in James Somerset’s case of 1772, where men believed they were free of the risk of enslavement

 

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