EQUIANO, OLAUDAH (1745–1797). Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo of noble birth, grew up in the area of West Africa that is present-day Nigeria. At
age eleven, he was kidnapped into slavery and eventually sold to a British
sea captain. While on board naval vessels, two sailors, Richard Baker and
Daniel Queen, helped Equiano adjust to life at sea and encouraged his conversion to Christianity. Equiano served under various captains, and ultimately, Captain Thomas Farmer convinced Equiano’s master to sell the slave
his manumission in 1766. When Farmer died at sea, command temporarily
fell to Equiano, who navigated the ship to Antigua and then safely to port
in Montserrat.
During the Seven Years’ War, Equiano saw action on various warships of
the Royal Navy. Serving under Vice-Admiral Boscawen, he participated in
General Wolfe’s 1758 attack against the French in Louisbourgh and in 1759
carried powder for gunners during a battle between Boscawen and the
French under Le Clue. In 1761 he accompanied Commodore Keppel on
the successful siege of Belleisle and subsequently served under such prestigious leaders as Commodores Stanhope, Dennis, and Lord Howe. Surviving
the shipwreck* of a slave ship on which he worked in 1767, Equiano set
out on the Race Horse with Constantine John Phipps (later Lord Mulgrave)
on his 1773 expedition in search of the Northeast Passage, which Equiano
took on one of the earliest explorations to the Arctic.* A year later, while
on a merchant voyage to Smyrna, Equiano rescued another free black sailor
from reenslavement through the help of abolitionist attorney Grenville
Sharp. In between various merchant voyages, in 1776 Equiano lived in Central America with the Miskito Indians.
All told, Equiano’s experiences made him one of the most-traveled men
of his time. Equiano wrote about those travels and his experiences of slavery
in his autobiography, whose subscription list included the Prince of Wales and other members of Britain’s social elite. Published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (Written by Himself) is one of the first and most popular slave
narratives,* running through nine editions in his lifetime and appearing in
posthumous translations into German and Dutch.