Historical Notes: The autobiography of an African slave

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IN MARCH 1797 an African, Olaudah Equiano, died in England leaving an estate of about pounds 1,000. He was the best-known member of a contemporary British black community. Like others, he had been a slave. Captured in his Nigerian homeland as a child, Equiano had been shipped to Barbados, then Virginia, before finding his home as an enslaved sailor on British ships and in London.

It was a remarkable life. He emerged from the ranks of miserable slavery to the status of freedom and some prosperity. Equiano was an industrious man, always keen to trade and save wherever he sailed, between the West Indian islands and the North American colonies. With the profits from his independent trading he purchased his own freedom, celebrating by throwing a party for fellow slaves in Montserrat.

Taught by British sailors, Equiano became literate - and a devout Christian. He criss-crossed the trade routes of the Atlantic, sailing to the Eastern Mediterranean, and even on an expedition to the Arctic. He visited and corresponded with black friends in Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston and throughout the Car-ibbean; an example of those remarkable networks which linked black communities throughout the world of the enslaved Atlantic empire.

Born into an Igbo family, Equiano recalled his African origins in terms designed to appeal to the growing abolitionist sentiment of late-18th- century Britain. But for most of his life Equiano was known as Gustavus Vassa. Yet he published his autobiography under his African name. Renaming slaves was part of the European uprooting of all African slaves, who were given classical or simple names in an attempt to divorce them from their African cultures.

Equiano's autobiography was the story of a self-made, religious working man. It was aimed at a British reading public likely to be impressed by the story of an ambitious and devout autodidact. But it was much more than that. Though Equiano told the story of one man's emergence from slavery, that system saw 12 million Africans loaded onto slave ships on the West African coast. Equiano thus spoke for the millions denied a voice.

Equiano however was unusual. He became a devout Christian and even contemplated the life of a missionary in Africa. But his fame was really established through his appointment by the British government as agent in the scheme to recruit London's black poor to settle in Sierra Leone. The scheme proved a disaster, though Equiano had quit the fleet in angry dispute with white officials. With his name in the London press, Equiano resolved to publish his own autobiography in 1789. It soon became something of a best-seller, and in the next eight years ran to nine editions. It was published in Dutch, Russian, German and in New York. Equiano promoted his book by travelling relentlessly throughout Britain. But after his death in 1797 both he and his book were soon forgotten, only quoted in the 1850s in the campaign against US slavery.

In the 1960s however he was revived and reprinted, first as a spokesman for African independence, then, thanks to the literary scholar Paul Edwards, as the founder of a distinctive black literary tradition. Today, his book sells in huge numbers, especially in the United States, where he is considered the effective founder of an "African-American" tradition. Yet how are we to describe him? Born in Africa, Equiano grew up as a slave in the Caribbean, in England and on the high seas, occasionally visiting North America.

His importance lies not in any precise label we choose to attach to him. Equiano was an international figure; one example of that massive diaspora of African people on both sides of the Atlantic. For that reason alone, his voice, and his book, resonate down to the present day.

James Walvin is the author of `An African's Life: the life and times of Olaudah Equiano 1745-1797' (Cassell, pounds 25)