Olaudah Equiano: the Atlantic Slave Trade through the Eyes of a Victim

On February 23, 1807, the British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, which abolished the trading of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, millions of human beings were kidnapped and shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean or the United States to work as slaves, mostly in plantations.

One of these slaves was the leading and pioneer abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. Equiano was born around 1745 in what is now Nigeria. In the eighteenth century, the Bight of Biafra, located on the eastern coast of Nigeria, was the busiest slave port in Africa: only between 1730 and 1770 more than one million slaves were forcefully put into slave ships and sent to the Americas.

Thanks to the autobiography Equiano wrote as a freedman, we have a lot of details about his life in bondage. At the age of eleven, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped by slave traders. They were soon separated and sold several times as slaves until Equiano was forced into a slave ship and sent to the New World.

The journey across the Atlantic constituted a life sentence for many slaves. Of the 12 million slaves that were dispatched from Africa, 1.5 million died on board of slave ships. Slaves were confined in the lower decks, where the apartments were so crowded that slaves barely had room to turn themselves.

After a stop in Barbados, the ship that transported Equiano docked in Virginia, where he was sold to Mr. Campbell (probably a planter) who in turn sold him to Michael Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. It was a common practice among masters to deprive slaves of the only thing that attached them to their origins: their names. Thus, Pascal assigned a new name to Equiano, who would thereafter be known as Gustavus Vassa.

As a sailor at the service of Pascal, Equiano fought in several battles during the Seven Year War against France. While in England, he learned to read and write with his master’s sister-in-law. After being sold to a ship captain, he ended up in the island of Monserrat, where he was purchased by a Quaker who would manumit him a few years later.

The access to freedom was one of the main differences between the slave system in the US and other slave systems. As the Austrian-American historian Frank Tannenbaum points out in his work Slave and Citizen, it was very uncommon in the Antebellum era that a slave was allowed to purchased her freedom. In contrast, manumissions were frequent in Brazil or the Caribbean.

In 1789, Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, where the author narrated his relentless quest for freedom. Equiano’s autobiography possesses an incalculable historical value for two main reasons. First, Equiano’s testimony became a propaganda tool in the hands of the abolitionist movement in England. In fact, during his lifetime, his book was edited multiple times.

Second, and as pointed out by American historian Markus Rediker, Equiano was “the first person to write extensively about the slave trade from the perspective of the enslaved”. Thus, his testimony contributed to better understand the slave experience from within, emphasizing the human dimension of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Equiano’s narrative was by no means naïve. On the contrary, it had a very clear political aim: to promote anti-slavery ideas; ideas he helped spread as an active member of the English abolitionist movement until his death on March 31, 1797. Only 18 years after the publication of his book, the Atlantic Slave Trade was abolished in the British Empire.