Olaudah Equiano, the First of Many.
Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, was a former slave who lived from around 1745 to 1797. His work is still extremely influential today as he left his footprint in literature as one of the first writers who had formerly lived under the terrors of slavery, as well as being extremely significant in the fact his work The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written By Himself is among one of the most read and among the first of slave narratives. This work is recognized not only as one of the first works written in English by a former slave, but perhaps more important as the paradigm of the slave narrative, a new literary genre.(“Olaudah Equiano.” ‘s Life.)
In the absence of written records it is not certain whether Equiano’s description of his early life is accurate. Doubt also stems from the fact that, in later life, he twice listed a birthplace in the Americas.(BBC) Despite some criticism regarding his origin story, the content and message of his autobiography are very real and accounted for. In Virginia he was sold to a Royal Navy officer, Lieutenant Michael Pascal, who renamed him ‘Gustavus Vassa’ after the 16th-century Swedish king. Equiano would stay with this “master” for roughly eight years while being lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn religion and the learn the ability to read and write. (BBC) This even Equiano would often admit he was very fortunate for. He was in the minority of slaves who had these kinds of chances. His curiosity even as a young man thrown onto a ship at age eleven showed his natural and almost instinctive thirst for knowledge. In his work he writes “ I was still at a loss, and soon got into an endless field of inquires, as well as I was able to speak and ask about things.”(Equiano pg. 233) This constant pursuit of knowledge is what more than likely led himself to be one of the fortunate slaves to learn anything at all during this time.
After purchasing his freedom in his early 20’s, Equiano found his way to England where he would become apart of the abolishment movement. He was often surrounded by other abolitionists who urged him to make an account of his many journeys and life story. He was even a member of the group “Sons of Africa”, which was a group of twelve black men who campaigned for abolition. (BBC) This is when he decided to write his now famous autobiography. The popularity of the book was outstanding, it’s immediate response rivals that of Robinson Crusoe. It’s release was in 1789, and during just the last 8 years of his life he would develops several editions while selling a plentiful amount of copies. This technically making him the first black best selling author. His narratives would path the way for other former slaves and their own literary progress.
Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 868-870, 879-888. Print.
“Olaudah Equiano (c.1745 – 1797).” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2013.
“Olaudah Equiano.” ‘s Life. The Equiano Foundation, n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2013.