Olaudah Equiano known in his lifetime as Gustavus Vassa was a prominent African in London, a freed slave who supported the British movement to end the slave trade.
His autobiography, published in 1789, helped in the creation of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which ended the African trade for Britain and its colonies.
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In London, Equiano was part of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group composed of prominent Africans living in Britain, and he was active among leaders of the anti-slave trade movement in the 1780s.
He published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), which depicted the horrors of slavery.
It went through nine editions and aided passage of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the African slave trade As a free man, Equiano had a stressful life; he had suffered suicidal thoughts before he became a Protestant Christian and found peace in his faith.
In Virginia, Equiano was bought in 1754 by Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Pascal renamed the boy “Gustavus Vassa,” after the Swedish noble who had become Gustav I of Sweden, king in the sixteenth century
Equiano had already been renamed twice: he was called Michael while onboard the slave ship that brought him to the Americas; and Jacob, by his first owner
Pascal sold Equiano to Captain James Doran of the Charming Sally at Gravesend, from where he was transported back to the Caribbean, to Montserrat, in the Leeward Islands. There he was sold to Robert King, an American Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who traded in the Caribbean
Equiano expanded his activities in London, learning the French horn and joining debating societies, including the London Corresponding Society. He continued his travels, visiting Philadelphia and New York in 1785 and 1786, respectively
Equiano was befriended and supported by abolitionists, many of whom encouraged him to write and publish his life story. He was supported financially in this effort by philanthropic abolitionists and religious benefactors. His lectures and preparation for the book were promoted by, among others, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.
Equiano commented on the reduced rights that freed people of colour had in these same places, and they also faced risks of kidnapping and enslavement. Equiano had embraced Christianity at the age of 14 and its importance to him is a recurring theme in his autobiography; he identified as a Protestant of the Church of England. He was baptized while in London.
After settling in England, Equiano decided to marry and have a family. On April 7 1792, he married Susannah Cullen, a local woman, in St Andrew’s Church in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The original marriage register containing the entry for Vassa and Cullen is held today by the Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies at the County Record Office in Cambridge.
Although Equiano’s death is recorded in London in 1797, the location of his burial is undocumented. One of his last addresses appears to have been Plaisterers’ Hall in the City of London, where he drew up his will on 28 May 1796. He moved to John Street, Tottenham Court Road, close to Whitefield’s Methodist chapel. (It was renovated in the 1950s for use by Congregationalists, now the site of the American International Church.) Lastly, he lived in Paddington Street, Middlesex, where he died.