Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)
Tireless Campaigner Against Slavery
Olaudah Equiano was arguably the most important anti-slavery campaigner in the history of the United Kingdom. In 1789, Equiano published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. This detailed his life from his kidnapping into slavery at the age of 11 in Africa to his final freedom.
Born in Benin, Equiano was kidnapped and sold into slavery aged 11. Being sold to several successive masters, Equiano experienced horrific abuse as a slave, but at the age of 21 bought his freedom with the little money he had been able to save; one year later he became the first Black member of the London Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. In 1789 he published his account of his life as a slave, The Life Of Olaudah Equiano the African, which became an international bestseller and the most important book of the abolitionist movement. Equiano became the de facto spokesperson for the Black British community. He died on an expedition to resettle freed slaves in Sierra Leone.
Equiano’s book was immensely significant. Published at the height of British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, it offered a clear account of the brutality of slavery and the arguments against it. It also dismantled the racist myths that supported slavery by showing that Africans were the intellectual equals of their oppressors. Furthermore, Equiano exhibited no bitterness or anger, revealing a moral superiority over his tormentors that spoke volumes about the potential of the human spirit.
Equiano financed his book by subscription (getting people to pay for their copy before it was printed) and promoted it on nationwide book tours. Urbane, charming and immensely articulate, he was the perfect antidote to the racist bigotry of the supporters of slavery and a critical asset to the anti-slavery cause.
Equiano came to the city of Norwich in 1794. He stayed for a number of months, giving lectures and taking part in local events. To Norfolk’s lasting credit, he received a warm welcome. Large numbers subscribed to his book, and the eighth edition was actually printed in Norwich. Equiano came to Norfolk because he knew that many ordinary working people here sympathised with the enslaved. They joined his campaign, boycotting the produce of slavery and signing petitions against this evil in their thousands. This is a heritage of which Norfolk should be proud.