Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Olaudah Equiano, b. 1745
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. II.
London: Author, [1789].

Summary

Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in Eboe, in what is now Nigeria. When he was about eleven, Equiano was kidnapped and sold to slave traders headed to the West Indies. Though he spent a brief period in the state of Virginia, much of Equiano's time in slavery was spent serving the captains of slave ships and British navy vessels. One of his masters, Henry Pascal, the captain of a British trading vessel, gave Equiano the name Gustavas Vassa, which he used throughout his life, though he published his autobiography under his African name. In service to Captain Pascal and subsequent merchant masters, Equiano traveled extensively, visiting England, Holland, Scotland, Gibraltar, Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and South Carolina. He was purchased in 1763 by Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia, for whom he served as a clerk and sailor on King's trading sloops. Equiano, who was allowed to engage in his own minor trade exchanges, was able to save enough money to purchase his freedom in 1766. He settled in England in 1767, attending school and working at various times as an assistant to scientist Dr. Charles Irving. Equiano continued to travel, making several voyages aboard trading vessels to Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Jamaica, Grenada, and North America. He also accompanied Irving in 1773 on a polar expedition in search of a northeast passage from Europe to Asia. Equiano published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789 as a two-volume work. It went through one American and eight British editions during his lifetime. Following the publication of his Interesting Narrative, Equiano traveled throughout Great Britain as an abolitionist and author. He married Susanna Cullen in 1792, and they had two daughters. Equiano died in London in 1797.

DocSouth has published a summary of the first volume of the Interesting Narrative in which Equiano writes about his native African culture, his enslaved life in service to captains of ships and merchant masters, and the beginnings of his own entrepreneurial ventures.

The second volume of the Interesting Narrative maintains the chronological structure of the first and focuses on Equiano's life as a freeman, his adventures as a tradesman and world traveler, and his spiritual transformation. Motivated by Robert King's promise to allow him to buy his freedom for forty pounds, Equiano views each voyage as "an opportunity of getting a sum large enough to purchase" his liberty through his own trades (p. 2). He describes mercantile runs to numerous American ports as well as to the West Indies in addition to his own trade exchanges along the way. Equiano eventually acquires forty-seven pounds, and, supported by his captain, surprises his master with the requisite sum and receives his manumission papers. Because King and the captain implore him to continue working for them, Equiano sails with Captain Farmer as a free man with the intention "to make a voyage or two, entirely to please these my honoured patrons; but . . . determined . . . [to] see Old England once more" (p. 20). Still faithfully serving his captain and continuing his own trading ventures, Equiano exercises his new freedom, refusing to be "imposed upon" and threatening, at times, to leave the ship when he feels "mortified at [his] usage" (p. 26, p. 28). Ultimately, Equiano and the captain maintain a close relationship, and he is deeply affected at the captain's untimely death at sea: "I found that I did not know, till he was gone, the strength of my regard for him . . . he was to me a friend and a father" (p. 33).

Despite his desire to travel to England, Equiano continues to sail on merchant ships throughout the West Indies and Americas under King's newly appointed captain, William Phillips. He describes in detail two shipwrecks in which his ship is damaged by rocks but does not sink, thus avoiding utter disaster and resulting in exploratory adventures to uninhabited islands. Equiano believes the catastrophes are divine punishment for his own sins and views their rescue as a sign of forgiveness or "the mercy of God" (p. 62). He makes his way back to the West Indies and then to Savannah, Georgia, but is faced with new dangers as a free black man. He is persecuted by patrollers who know that he has no master to protect him from abuse, and two white men attempt to kidnap him by claiming that he is a runaway slave. Equiano escapes re-enslavement by calling out this "trick," and he is left alone: "one said to the other—it will not do; and the other answered that I talked too good English. I replied, I believed I did" (p. 70).

Equiano continues his trading ventures throughout the West Indies under a new captain, but his wish to go to England remains firm. He travels to Montserrat to take leave of his former master, Robert King, with "many sincere professions of gratitude and regard" (p. 79). Equiano books passage on a ship to London, reunites with his former patrons in England, the Miss Guerins, both of whom were introduced in Volume I. Finding no employment as a servant, Equiano learns a new trade: he becomes a hair-dresser to Dr. Charles Irving, but finds his wages insufficient and "thought it best, therefore, to try the sea again in quest of more money, as I had been bred to it, and had hitherto found the profession of it successful" (p. 86). Equiano hires out as hair-dresser and steward to the captains of ships sailing to Turkey as well as the West Indies and describes impressions of the various Mediterranean and West Indian countries and cultures found where his ship docks. Equiano also joins Dr. Irving on an expedition "to find, towards the north pole, what our Creator never intended we should, a passage to India," and details the unusual arctic landscape and animals as well as a perilous event in which his ship becomes trapped in the ice for eleven days (p. 102).

Equiano returns to London with Dr. Irving and remains with him for some time, but the near-tragic events of their arctic journey "made a lasting impression on my mind, and . . . caused me to reflect deeply on my eternal state" (p. 115-116). Determined to become a "first-rate Christian," Equiano embarks on a spiritual journey in which he attends multiple churches, closely reads The Bible, and even researches the principles of other faiths (p. 116). He finds some measure of comfort with mentors who discuss Christian doctrines and guide his religious education, but he suffers a crisis of conscience and struggles to parse the difference between faith and works. His spiritual crisis peaks while working as a steward on a ship traveling to Spain. He experiences a vision in which "the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with his bright beams of heavenly light; and in an instant as it were, removing the veil, and letting light into a dark place" (p. 146). Transformed, Equiano returns to London "rejoiced in spirit, making melody in my heart to the God of all my mercies" (p. 154).

Though content to remain in England, Equiano is convinced by friends to again join his ship during its next voyage. He thus continues his travelogue, describing another minor shipwreck outside of Cadiz and the riches and festivals of Malaga. He reunites with Dr. Irving and travels with him to the West Indies to assist him in establishing a plantation on the "Musquito Shore" outside of Jamaica, acting as Dr. Irving's overseer and helping to maintain good relations with the Musquito Indians (p. 172). Eventually, missing Europe and tired of "living in this heathenish form," Equiano begs leave of Dr. Irving and attempts to make his way back to England by hiring out on sloops who promise him passage to Jamaica (p. 192). Though he is forced to work for dishonest captains who delay his journey home, Equiano eventually arrives in England and describes the events after his return as "more uniform . . . the incidents of it fewer, than in any other equal number of years preceding" (p. 215).

Having grown "heartily disgusted with the seafaring life," he is determined "not to return to it" and works in service for some time, though it isn't long before he returns to sea, working on voyages to New York and Philadelphia (p. 215). In November 1786, Equiano is appointed commissary for the British government's Sierra Leone expedition, which is an attempt to return members of the country's free African population to a colony on the continent of Africa. Unfortunately, in his capacity as commissary, Equiano witnesses "flagrant abuses" and government inefficiency, and his efforts to remedy these problems not only go "without effect," but they cause his dismissal from his post (p. 234). Equiano remains involved with the plight of Africans, however. He includes in the narrative a copy of a 1788 petition to the Queen in which he "supplicate[s] your Majesty's compassion for millions of my African countrymen, who groan under the lash of tyranny in the West Indies" (p. 244). Equiano's stance on slavery is complicated throughout the text, and his criticisms often denounce the abuse of slaves and immoral practices against them rather than the practice of slavery itself. Despite his earlier ambivalence, Equiano closes the narrative with an elaboration of his abolitionist views and the self-effacing hope that readers will find in the details of his life story "a lesson of morality and religion," that will help its readers "become better and wiser" (p. 255).

Works Consulted: Costanzo, Angelo, "Equiano, Olaudah," The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 257-258; Shields, E. Thomson, "Equiano, Olaudah," American National Biography Online, 24 January 2008, http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-00512.html.

Jenn Williamson

Document menu