Today marks the two hundredth and seventy-second post-humous birthday of one of the icons of the abolitionist movement in Britain and the world, Olaudah Equiano.
For those who don’t know him, Olaudah, an Igbo speaking slave, claimed his ancestry from somewhere around Bini in Nigeria. Born this day in 1745, he and his sister were kidnapped from their homestead by marauding slave traders when he was about eleven years old and sold separately, and thus his journey into the world of slavery begun. Sold several times, he finally arrived at Barbados together with other African slaves, and then later on to Virginia, which was then a British colony.
In 1754, he was bought by a British Naval Officer called Michael Paschal who renamed him Gustavus Vassa, a name which he objected to because he’d already been renamed twice by his former owners. His master, however, prevailed on him with “many a cuff” according to Equiano and he relented and used the name on all his official records, only returning to his birth name in his biography “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” written in 1789.
When Paschal returned to London, he took Olaudah with him, even giving him an education due to his favoured position. He was baptised and Paschal’s sister and her husband, who were his teachers and mentors, acted as his godparents.
This ended when he was resold, this time ending up in the possession of an American Quaker trading in the Caribbean. It was this master who, in 1765, told Equiano he could buy his freedom if he earned him up to 40 pounds (current equivalent £6,000), and he achieved this in 1767.
After regaining his freedom in 1767, he declined his master’s offer of staying on with him as a partner due to the rise in the kidnapping and reselling of freed slaves: he himself escaped one such attempt. Returning to London, he worked as a deckhand on ships and traveled widely, showing an aptitude for business and a genuine love for learning. He got involved in the abolitionist movement in the 1780s and made many friends among the members of his cause, and soon he became an influential voice for the abolitionist movement. This was solidified when he wrote his memoirs, which was sponsored by other abolitionists, wealthy members of the peerage and religious figures. His accounts of his life and experiences are one of the most comprehensively written works chronicling the life of a black slave and freedman in a white society. He married and had two daughters, and his wife died just a year before he did in 1797.
Countless books have been written on his life and adapted into movies, feature films and plays. He is not just revered by Nigerians as a man who rose above the tag of slavery and made a fulfilling life in difficult times, he is also a holy man in the Anglican church, honoured annually on July 30 together with other notable figures like William Wilberforce that worked towards the abolishment of slave trade. Today we remember him for his industry, his resourcefulness and his triumph over segregation and racism to carve a mark for himself in the annals of history.