Our Archivist, Dr Ruth Frendo, writes: To mark Black History Month, we’re highlighting a very significant document from our archive. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African was registered in our Entry Book of Copies on its first publication in 1789.
Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745–1797) was born in west Africa, and was sold into slavery as a child. In his memoir, he describes his home and upbringing as the son of an Eboe (Igbo) dignitary. He calculates that he would have been eleven years old when he was kidnapped by slave raiders. He was then sold on several times, each time taken further away from home, eventually finding himself on an Atlantic slave ship. There followed years of hardship, during which he learned to read and write English, worked his way up to the rank of able seaman, and purchased his freedom. He subsequently became a passionate activist for the abolition of slavery, and a defender of London’s black poor (many of whom had fought on the British side in the American War of Independence, and retreated from North America with the defeated British in 1783).
The Interesting Narrative… was published by subscription: in other words, the publication was financed by a group of individuals, all of whom received a copy, much as happens today with crowd-sourcing initiatives such as Kickstarter or Unbound. This was not an uncommon publishing model in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – notably, the first illustrated edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dryden’s translation of Virgil, and Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language were all published by subscription schemes. The list of subscribers to Equiano’s Narrative is now, of course, an interesting historical document in its own right, and illustrates how sympathy for abolition had gained ground among different social groups. Those who contributed include the Prince of Wales (subsequently George IV) and several members of the aristocracy, as well as Equiano’s fellow abolitionist Granville Sharp, and a long list of individuals whose histories, other than as supporters of the abolitionist cause, are now lost to us. Other prominent members of the African British community also subscribed: Ottobah Cugoano was himself a published author by this point, and his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species was an important abolitionist tract. Also on the list is ‘William, son of Ignatius Sancho’. Ignatius Sancho was an author and composer, and the first Briton of African heritage known to have voted in a British election.
Equiano’s use of two names in his authoring of the book is significant. In the book, he explains that Gustavus Vassa was the name given to him by his ‘captain and master’ on board the slave ship that first carried him to England. Prior to this, he notes, he had been assigned random names by different slavers: ‘In this place I was called Jacob, but on board the African Snow I was called Michael.’ But he also recounts that as a child he was named ‘Olaudah, which in our language, signifies vicissitude or fortune, also, one favoured, and having a loud voice and well spoken’. Reclaiming that name is clearly part of reclaiming his dignity from the dehumanising narrative enacted by enslavement.
Equiano’s memoir played a vital role in the abolitionist campaign. It’s not the first testimonial of slavery registered at Stationers’ Hall; earlier texts detail the sufferings of Europeans taken captive by soldiers and privateers of the Ottoman Empire, such as Francis Knight’s A true and strange relacion of seaven yeares slaverie Under the Turkes of Argeere suffered by an English Captive Merchant (1640). This tradition of writing used biblical imagery to express the self-perception of Christian Europe in relation to an alien ‘Other’, and was subsequently developed by English settlers in America into the genre of captivity narratives, memoirs of settlers enslaved by Native Americans. Equiano’s literary intervention appropriates and subverts this rhetoric, showing the Europeans as the enslaving ‘Others’. It’s a brilliant strategy of empowerment, and by registering the book at Stationers’ Hall, Equiano injects this subversion directly into the mainstream discourse.
It took another 40 years of dedicated campaigning for the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. The shift of perception engendered by texts such as Equiano’s should not be underestimated in this campaign, and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano stands among the earliest works in a genre which, as developed by writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Solomon Northup, was to become particularly significant in American literature and the American struggle for emancipation.