American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

EQUIANO, OLAUDAH (1745-1797). Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo of noble birth, grew up in the area of West Africa that is present-day Nigeria. At age eleven, he was kidnapped into slavery and eventually sold to a British sea captain. While on board naval vessels, two sailors, Richard Baker and Daniel Queen, helped Equiano adjust to life at sea and encouraged his conversion to Christianity. Equiano served under various captains, and ultimately, Captain Thomas Farmer convinced Equiano’s master to sell the slave his manumission in 1766. When Farmer died at sea, command temporarily fell to Equiano, who navigated the ship to Antigua and then safely to port in Montserrat.

During the Seven Years’ War, Equiano saw action on various warships of the Royal Navy. Serving under Vice-Admiral Boscawen, he participated in General Wolfe’s 1758 attack against the French in Louisbourgh and in 1759 carried powder for gunners during a battle between Boscawen and the French under Le Clue. In 1761 he accompanied Commodore Keppel on the successful siege of Belleisle and subsequently served under such prestigious leaders as Commodores Stanhope, Dennis, and Lord Howe. Surviving the shipwreck* of a slave ship on which he worked in 1767, Equiano set out on the Race Horse with Constantine John Phipps (later Lord Mulgrave) on his 1773 expedition in search of the Northeast Passage, which Equiano took on one of the earliest explorations to the Arctic.* A year later, while on a merchant voyage to Smyrna, Equiano rescued another free black sailor from reenslavement through the help of abolitionist attorney Grenville Sharp. In between various merchant voyages, in 1776 Equiano lived in Central America with the Miskito Indians.

All told, Equiano’s experiences made him one of the most-traveled men of his time. Equiano wrote about those travels and his experiences of slavery in his autobiography, whose subscription list included the Prince of Wales and other members of Britain’s social elite. Published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (Written by Himself) is one of the first and most popular slave narratives,* running through nine editions in his lifetime and appearing in posthumous translations into German and Dutch. [See also AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA]

FURTHER READING: Allison, Robert J., ed. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Written by Himself. Boston: Bedford, 1995; Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997; Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. The Slave’s Narrative. Oxford/New York: Oxford UP, 1985; Malloy, Mary. African Americans in the Maritime Trades: A Guide to Resources in New England. Sharon, MA: Kendall Whaling Museum, 1990.

Arnold Schmidt