Olaudah Equiano described his 1745 place of birth as “a charming vale, named Essaka” in the kingdom of Benin (in today’s southeastern Nigeria). His father occupied an important place among the Igbo people, and was himself a slave owner. The Igbo, Equiano said in his writings, were “almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets,” who found frequent occasions of celebration and rejoicing.
From Ship to Ship
But Equiano’s happy life with his people didn’t last long. He was only eight when slave raiders intruded into his house, kidnapped him and his sister, and took them, together with other captives, on a long march toward the sea. At one point during the journey, the raiders woke up Equiano and his sister while they were lying “clasped in each other’s arms” and sent them on separate routes. It was a traumatic experience for Equiano, who couldn’t stop crying for days, and had to be force-fed to prevent him from dying of starvation.
After a difficult voyage across the Atlantic, Equiano was moved from place to place and from owner to owner until 1754, when he was sold to an English naval officer, Michael Pascal. Pascal took him to England and renamed him Gustavus Vassa (after the sixteenth-century Swedish king). From then on, Equiano served as a sailor on British ships, participating in a few battles of the Seven Years’ War.
For two years, he enjoyed the friendship of a young American sailor, Richard Baker, who “at the age of fifteen, discovered a mind superior to prejudice.”The two became inseparable, comforting each other during the worst moments of the war. But Baker died suddenly in 1759, at only 15 years of age.
Another influential man in Equiano’s life was Daniel Queen, the captain’s assistant, who taught the young slave to read, write, and perform basic math. Queen introduced Equiano to the Bible and discussed various passages with him. “He was like a father to me,” Equiano said. Equiano was baptized at the Anglican Church of St Margaret, at Westminster, on 9 February 1759.
Once again, this relationship ended abruptly in 1762, when Pascal sold Equiano, without warning, to Captain James Doran, a tough man who complained that the slave “talked too much English.” This came to a surprise to Equiano, who had mistakenly thought Pascal had freed him after his baptism.
At first, Equiano saw this new setback as a chastisement from God for some offense he had committed. After asking God for forgiveness, he was comforted by the thought that “trials and disappointments are sometimes for our good. … I thought God might perhaps have permitted this in order to teach me wisdom and resignation.”
The ship took Equiano to Monserrat, one of the Caribbean islands, where he was sold to Captain Robert King, who trained him as a trader. This gave Equiano the opportunity to do some business on the side and to raise some money that he used in 1766 to buy his own freedom. He then went back to London, where he worked for some time as a hairdresser.
A Freeman by Law and in Christ
He soon returned to the sea, this time as a free man, traveling extensively and running into various dangers, such as a shipwreck in the Bahamas and a perilous venture to the North Pole (along with the young Horatio Nelson). The hazards of this last journey brought him to deeper reflections on his eternal salvation and to a greater commitment to Christ.
He was determined, he said, to “work out [his] salvation.” In this effort, he attended multiple churches, searching the Bible and seeking the advice of others, but his attempts were frustrated by his confusion about law and gospel, works and faith.
Clarity came during a journey to Spain. “In the evening of the same day, as I was reading and meditating on the fourth chapter of the Acts, twelfth verse, under the solemn apprehensions of eternity, and reflecting on my past actions, I began to think I had lived a moral life, and that I had a proper ground to believe I had an interest in the divine favour; but still meditating on the subject, not knowing whether salvation was to be had partly for our own good deeds, or solely as the sovereign gift of God; in this deep consternation 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, I saw clearly with the eye of faith the crucified Saviour bleeding on the cross on mount Calvary: the scriptures became an unsealed book, I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law, which came with its full force to my conscience, and when ‘the commandment came sin revived, and I died.’ I saw the Lord Jesus Christ in his humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, sin, and shame. I then clearly perceived that by the deeds of the law no flesh living could be justified. I was then convinced that by the first Adam sin came, and by the second Adam the Lord Jesus Christ) all that are saved must be made alive.”
Equiano gave up sailing in 1777, when he returned to London and worked as a servant for Mathias Macnamara, former governor of the Province of Senegambia. Impressed by Equiano’s faith and knowledge of Scriptures, Macnamara recommended him as missionary to Africa. The Church of England, however, rejected the application, largely because in the meantime Macnamara had discredited his reputation.
In London, Equiano worked closely with anti-slavery campaigners. He was particularly instrumental in exposing the mass killing of 130 African slaves on the British ship Zong, where the captain ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard due to lack of drinking water. The court trial brought the cruelty of this common practice to the attention of the general public.
By that time, the opposition to the slave trade was growing in England, and Equiano continued to add his voice. In 1788, he sent a letter to Queen Charlotte on behalf of all Africans, asking her to intercede in their favor. The following year, he published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.
It was not the first book of this kind, but it was unique in many ways. Using the marketing skills he had acquired in his career, Equiano chose to self-publish and to promote the book by finding a large number of subscribers. This allowed him to publish an undiluted message, revealing the atrocities of the slave trade and exposing the cold-heartedness of its perpetrators in no uncertain terms.
“O ye nominal Christians!” he wrote as he related his childhood anguish at the forced separation from his sister. “Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God? Who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”
Equiano used the same Bible verse again while talking to a man who had amputated the leg of a runaway slave. To his defense, the man said it was common policy – a frequent justification with slave owners. If the law allowed a certain deed, they assumed it was lawful in every way. Equiano helped his readers to look beyond conventional mindsets – including those that tried to find support in a faulty reading of Scriptures.
The book was an immediate success, and was reprinted several times, bringing Equiano considerable revenues – something unusual for any author at that time (black or white). This financial security allowed him to propose marriage to a British woman he had met during a book tour: Susanna Cullen, an intelligent lady who was about seven years younger than him.
Shortly after their marriage, Susanna accompanied Equiano on a book tour through Scotland, the land of her ancestors. Later, they settled in Soham, Cambridgeshire, where they raised two daughters, Ann Mary and Joanna. In the meantime, Equiano kept a home in London, where he continued to conduct his business and where he died in 1797, one year after the death of his wife (from a long illness). Ann Mary died shortly after her father, possibly of measles.
Britain abolished the slave trade ten years after Equiano’s death. His narrative continued to be one of the most comprehensive accounts of the trade, encouraging other nations (especially America) to bring it to an end.
 Olaudah Equiano, Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, London, 1794, p. 3 (see also https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/equiano2/equiano2.html)
 Ibid., p. 7
 Ibid., p. 33
 Ibid., p. 64
 Ibid., p. 112
 Ibid., p. 115.
 Ibid., p. 118.
 Ibid., 283, 284
 Ibid., 57, quoting Matthew 7:12