Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African

Frontispiece from Olaudah Equiano’s self-published book ‘The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African’ (London, 1789). It is the only securely attributed image that we have of Equiano.

The book went through eight editions prior to his death in 1797. It describes his capture in Africa, the horrors of the Middle Passage, and his life as a slave and then as a free man. It was one the most important books in the abolition campaign. Equiano (who called himself Gustavus Vassa for most of his life) claimed to have been born in present-day Nigeria in about 1745, although his African birth is now questioned. He was purchased by a sailor, and served aboard merchant ships, before eventually purchasing his freedom in 1766. As a free man he gained employment in a wide range of occupations, including serving on the Arctic expedition of Constantine Phipps (1744–92) in 1772. In the 1780s he became acutely interested in the plight of poor black people in London, and in the emerging abolition campaigns. Equiano actively promoted abolitionism (and his book) in a series of public lectures around Britain. His presence as a well-dressed, educated, articulate and Christian black man helped reinforce the inhumanity of the institution of slavery. Equiano’s book remains a powerful and moving account of the brutality and indignity of slavery.

Object Details

ID: ZBA2657
Collection: Fine art; Special collections
Type: Print
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Orme, Daniel; Vassa, Gustavas Denton, W.
Date made: 1789
Exhibition: The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire; Enslavement and Resistance
People: Orme, Daniel; Vassa, Gustavas Denton, W.
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Michael Graham-Stewart Slavery Collection. Acquired with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund
Measurements: Sheet: 171 mm x 116 mm; Image: 106 mm x 81 mm

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