The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa: A book review by Bob Morris

The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano: The Black History Classic
Olaudah Equiano, with an Introduction by Michael Taylor and Edited by Tom Butler-Bowdon
Capstone/A Wiley Brand (October 2021)

Here’s “a painful and often shocking” but nonetheless riveting account of a free man’s enslavement

A few months ago, I re-read and then reviewed Frederick Douglass’ classic Narrative (first published in 1845). Since then, I have read two other volumes in “The Black History Classic” series: this one and Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, first published in 1853. Both have received far less attention than Douglass’ classic, although a film (2013) based on Northrup’s classic has been both a critical and commercial success, winning six Oscars, including Chiswetel Eliofor’s for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Well-deserved.

Here’s a brief timeline:

o Around !745: Olaudah Equiano was born in Essaka, Eboe, in the kingdom of Benin in Nigeria.
o 1756: He and his sister were kidnapped.
o Months later, he and 244 other slaves were transported to Barbados in British West Indies, then on to Virginia
o 1759: Converted to Christianity
o 1766: Purchased his freedom from Robert King for £40 (worth about £5600 in 2020)
o 1768: Relocated to England which became his home until his death.
o 1773: Equiano enlisted on HMS Racehorse for an exploratory voyage to the Arctic in search of the elusive north-eastern passage to India
o 1787: Established a society known as the Sons of Africa with other once-enslaved Britons
o 1789: Published Interesting Narrative
o 1792: Married Susannah Cullen who bore him two children
o 1797: Olaudah Equiano died in Westminster. His widow’s inheritance was £950, an estate approaching £100,000 in today’s money
o 1807: Ten years later, the British Oarliament finally passed the Sklave Trade Act but was only the start of slavery’s abolition.

Over the years, I have reviewed several thousand books for Amazon and the purpose of each review is the same: to help those who read it to decide (a) whether or not the given work is worth checking out and (b) what may be of special interest and value to them. These are brief excerpts from Michael Taylor’s superb Introduction:

o “In the opening of his 1789 memoir, the black British abolitionist Olaudah Equiano presents himself as an everyman. ‘I offer here the history of neither saint, a hero, nor tyrant,’ he tells his readers. ‘I believe there are few events in my life which have not happened to many.'”

o “It was Equiano’s misfortune that he was born in the mid-1740s in what was then the kingdom of Benin, a prime hunting ground for European slave traders.”

o “Few people have described the horrors of the Middle passage — that is, the ocean voyage from the African coast to the American colonies — with as much colour and clarity as Equiano.”

o “By 1777, Equiano was back in London, which he had come to regard as ‘home’, and where abolitionism was emerging from the crucible of dissenting Protestant thought.”

o “Equiano’s Narrative was not published in a vacuum; nor did he publish autobiography as an unknown. On the contrary, he wrote with the political and financial support of many significant figures in British society who demonstrated that support by subscribing to the first edition; that is, they committed to buy a copy and paid the price up-front, so that Equiano could live upon these early proceeds as he concentrated on writing.”

o ” Besides slavery, the second great theme of the Nasrrati8ve is Christianity. As such, it falls squarely within the genre of spiritual autobiography, and Equiano sought explicitly to immerse himself in the same religion that was practised by his readers.”

o “Equiano makes frequent references to the Israelites of the Old Testament…[His] equation of British slaves with the Jews of Exodus also played into the contemporary fashion to imagine Britain itself as the heir of Jerusalem.”

o “The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 further vindicated Equiano, but his greatest legacy is arguably in the United States. His Narrative created a literary template, setting the scene for Frederick Douglass’s Narrative…of an American Slave (1845), Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), and even Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901). These G iants followed in Equiano’s footsteps. A man who was prevented from receiving any formal education, and who instead led a life of sea-going and spiritual adventure, ended up founding a new literary tradition.

According to Paul E. Lovejoy, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa  (1789), the book went through nine editions in his lifetime. It is one of the earliest-known examples of published writing by an African writer to be widely read in England. By 1792, it was a best seller and had been published in Russia, Germany, Holland and the United States. It was the first influential slave narrative of what became a large literary genre. But Equiano’s experience in slavery was quite different from that of most slaves; he did not participate in fieldwork, he served his owners personally and went to sea, was taught to read and write, and worked in trading.

Hearty congratulations to Michael Taylor and Tom Butler-Bowdon as well as their Capstone colleagues for creating the definitive edition on this Black History Classic. Bravo!

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.