This next Potential Period Film Fodder appeared as a character in the movie Amazing Grace, which was about the British abolitionist Member of Parliament William Wilberforce. Olaudah Equiano has also been the subject of documentaries and even an animated short film.
But he hasn’t had a full-length feature film made about him and I think that’s a shame because his story is fascinating.
Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vasa, as he was sometimes known, was born in Africa–probably in what is now part of Nigeria, as a member of the Igbo in about 1745. Enslaved as a child, Equiano was kidnapped to the Caribbean, sold a few times, and eventually sold to a Royal Navy officer in Virginia. This Naval officer took Equiano with him to England, where Equiano served the officer during the Seven Years’ War (The French and Indian War). Equiano wrote accounts of several battles during this war.
Taught to read and write, Equiano was baptized into Christianity, then sold again, then one more time, to a Quaker merchant in Philadelphia. This merchant allowed Equiano to purchase his freedom, which he did in 1766. By 1777, after odd jobs and a failed stint in Central America, Equiano traveled to England.
In London, Equiano came into contact with the British abolitionist movement. As a formerly enslaved African, his experiences and insights were invaluable to the movement. He gave lectures around the country and then wrote his memoir, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, which was first published in 1789.
The book was a bestseller. It was printed in Holland, Russia, Germany and the United States. The book showed readers not only Equiano’s experiences in slavery but also the basic fact that yes, Africans could not only be literate but be moving in their humanity. The narrative helped bolster the British abolitionist movement by bringing a real former slave’s experiences to a wide audience, in his own words.
The book went through nine editions just in Equiano’s lifetime.
Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susannah Cullen, in 1792. They had two daughters, Anna and Joanna. His wife died in 1796. Olaudah Equiano died in 1797.
The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and slavery was abolished in 1833.