Written by David Dabydeen
Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo free slave, a freedom fighter and an abolitionist. He joined William Wilberforce in abolition movement and became the wealthiest black man in the English-speaking world.
When Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography in England in 1789, he achieved instant celebrity. Several thousand copies were sold, the subscribers including the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and the Duke of Cumberland. The book went through nine editions between 1789 and 1794, and pirated versions appeared in Holland, New York, Russia and Germany.
He was a best-selling author, and became the wealthiest black man in the English-speaking world. He was so well off that he dabbled in moneylending to English people.
His daughter inherited £950 and a silver watch from his estate. Two centuries on, Equiano continues to sell – there are more than half a dozen editions on the market, including a Penguin Classics. He is required reading in every British, American or African University teaching black studies. Chinua Achebe called him “the father of African literature”.
Henry Gates claimed him for America as “the founding father of the Afro-American literary tradition”. In Britain, where he spent much of his life, he is deemed the founder of black British literature and has pride of place in the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Black British History.
A major reason for Equiano’s popularity is that his autobiography contains a detailed account of his birth and childhood in Nigeria, with rare descriptions of the culture of 18th-century Igbo society. His narrative of the Atlantic crossing in a slave ship is as unique as it is moving.
The early chapters are much anthologised since they offer a first-hand record of an African kidnapped at the age of ten, taken to the coast, sold to European merchants and despatched to the Americas. Equiano writes passionately and vividly of his separation from his mother and sister, of his initial horror at seeing Europeans (they behaved so brutishly and were so alien to behold
- “white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair” – that he feared they were cannibals bent on eating the cargo of slaves), of the astonishment of seeing a ship for the first time and, on the transatlantic journey, of the strange and exotic sight of flying fish and other sea creatures. In the midst of dreadful suffering the child-Equiano asserts the magical beauty of life. A sympathetic white sailor lets him look through a quadrant.
“The clouds appeared to me to be land, which disappeared as they past along. This heightened my wonder and I was now more persuaded than ever that I was in another world, and that everything about me was magic.”