Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa

  A Biography of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa 'The African'

Olaudah Equiano was born c.1745 in the Eboe Lands of South Eastern Nigeria. He was captured in c.1755, aged 10 by neighbouring people and sold to English slave traders. At the age of 12 he was taken to the West Indies and within a few days, he had been transported to Virginia and sold to a local plantation owner.

After about a month he was sold on to a visiting British Naval Officer called Michael Henry Pascal, who brought him to London (after docking in Falmouth) in 1757: he then accompanied Pascal on many naval and military actions, notably those in the Seven Years War, and became a proficient able seaman. During this time Pascal renamed him 'Gustavus Vassa' after a 16th-century Swedish nobleman who successfully led the Swedes in a war of independence against the Danes to become the first Swedish King - an ironic, almost cruel renaming on behalf of Pascal. In between his voyages he spent his time in Westminster, London in the company of two sisters who had taken him under their wing and taught him how to read as well as sending him to school. He was baptised in 1759, with his new name of 'Gustavus Vassa' at St. Margaret’s Church, St. Margaret Street, Westminster, London.

Gustavus Vassa - Baptism Westminster

Recent research has shown that it is from these Baptism records in London as well as records of naval muster rolls that Equiano may in fact have been born in Carolina, USA. This evidence has questioned whether he was ever captured in Nigeria as a young boy and enslaved as he states in his book. Historians have never discredited the accuracy of Equiano's narrative, nor the power it had to support the abolitionist cause so successfully, particularly in Britain during the 1790's. However, parts of Equiano's account of the Middle Passage may have been based on already published accounts or the experiences of those he knew around him. It's possible that at one time he may have found it in his self-interest to lie about his real birthplace but it could also have simply been a case of language barriers. The debate still wrangles on...but the outcome of his efforts to help end the slave trade will never be forgotten.

Slave ShipSlaves packed into a slavery ship

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