• Jonathan Chan

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O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you -- Learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends, to toil for your luxury and lust of gain?

- Olaudah Equiano

On a plaque affixed outside of St. Andrew’s Church Chesterton in Cambridge, there reads a tribute honouring the life of Anna Maria Vassa. Her parents, Gustavus Vassa and Susanna Cullen, had married in Soham, Cambridgeshire in 1792. Engraved in stone, the plaque displays a poem:


Should simple village rhymes attract thine eye, Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by, Know that there lies beside this humble stone A child of colour haply not thine own. Her father born of Afric’s sun-burnt race, Torn from his native field, ah foul disgrace: Through various toils, at length to Britain came Espoused, so Heaven ordain’d, an English dame, And follow’d Christ; their hope two infants dear. But one, a hapless orphan, slumbers here. To bury her the village children came. And dropp’d choice flowers, and lisp’d her early fame; And some that lov’d her most, as if unblest, Bedew’d with tears the white wreath on their breast; But she is gone and dwells in that abode, Where some of every clime shall joy in God. [1]

The provenance of the plaque is unknown, as is the authorship of the verse itself. The poem may have been composed by Martha Peckard, whose surviving verse epitaph to a former churchwarden in Fletton, near Peterborough, bears some similarities. She was the widow of Reverend Peter Peckard, Master of Magdalene College Cambridge and an early supporter of the anti-slavery movement. As Magdalene’s Master, Peckard oversaw the setting of the legitimacy of slavery as the subject of the college’s 1785 Latin essay prize, which would inspire Thomas Clarkson’s abolitionist career. [2] As Vassa’s friend and patron, Peckard may have introduced him to Susanna Cullen, who became his wife.

The poem itself demonstrates, in an elegiac pentameter, how uncommon the presence of an African and his family was in a Cambridgeshire village at the end of the eighteenth century, as well as the respect with which Gustavas Vassa, better known as Olaudah Equiano, and his achievements were regarded. Equiano left his daughters in the care of a friend in Cambridgeshire in order to return to London, hoping to consolidate his estate and provide for his family. He passed away in March of 1797, just four months before his own daughter Anna. At the time, Equiano was the most widely published author of African descent in the English-speaking world and is regarded today as one of England’s most important abolitionists. Ten years after Equiano’s death, Britain would go on to abolish the slave trade. [3]

Equiano composed and published his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself in 1789 and it continues to be one of the most comprehensive accounts of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. He recounted the horrors and brutality he witnessed and experienced having been kidnapped from the Eboe region in West Africa as a child, enslaved, taken to Barbados, and sold to a Royal Navy officer. He was sold twice more before purchasing his freedom in 1766, his manumission constrained by the base illogic of slavery. As a slave, working mainly onboard ships, he learned to read and write, and as a free man, he worked as a sailor. In 1773, he returned to London after travelling to the Arctic on an expedition to find a northeast route to India, a harrowing voyage during which he almost drowned. His proximity to death prompted him to reflect ‘deeply on [his] eternal state, and to seek the Lord with full purpose of heart ere it was too late’. [4] Equiano had converted to Christianity in 1759 as a slave, but would only be ‘determined to work out’ his ‘own salvation, and in so doing procure a title to heaven’ in the face of death. [5]

Equiano continued on in his ship work thereafter, participating in an abortive venture to establish a plantation on the Mosquito Coast in Central America where his role included selecting the necessary slaves to be managed on a sugarcane plantation.[6] Appointed Commissary for a government project to resettle former slaves in Sierra Leone in 1786, he suspected corruption in the British administration and resigned. Settled in London, Equiano began to attend Anglican churches and Quaker meetings, studying Roman Catholic and Jewish teachings, driven by the spiritual hunger that his proximity with death had aroused. At the time, he had consented to read the four Gospels, ‘and whatever sect or party I found adhering thereto such’ he ‘would join.’ [7] It was the conviction of his Christian piety that would lead him to refute the idea that darker skin denoted inferiority, arguing from the book of Acts that God ‘hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.’

In 1788, Equiano joined the anti-slavery campaign, writing to Queen Charlotte ‘on behalf of my African brethren’, and became associated with leading abolitionist figures - Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and William Wilberforce. Historian Eric Washington asserts that what distinguished Equiano from that of other abolitionists was his first-hand experience of the horrors of slavery, a historically unique position informed by his faith. [8] As he writes in his autobiography:

Now every leading providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then, in my view, as if it had but just then occurred. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me, when in truth I knew it not: still the Lord pursued me.

Equiano then began a series of actions and campaigns to better the conditions of those who were enslaved. This culminated in 1788 with him leading a delegation to the House of Commons in support of William Dolben's bill to limit the number of enslaved Africans a ship could transport. [9] Understanding that his life story would be one of the most powerful tools in fighting the slave trade, he published his autobiography in 1789. His book was a huge commercial success and made a dramatic contribution to the campaign for abolition. Equiano became a celebrity, touring Britain to promote his writing as well as the abolitionist cause. [10] This included a visit to Cambridge to meet with fellow campaigner Thomas Clarkson.


Equiano’s writerly authority derived from the piety of the Christian convert, the moral indignation of the abolitionist, and the self-assured eye of the traveller. [11] Many elements of his autobiography would come to define key elements of the African American slave narrative, [12] including depictions of violence and flogging, the empowerment accorded by literacy and education, and a climactic conversion to Christianity, an assurance to a white audience of one’s ‘humanity’. As discomfiting as this may seem to a 21st-century reader, the solidarity of Christian kinship was one way that those of African descent could disabuse themselves of dehumanising, zoomorphic stereotypes in recalling their experiences of enslavement. Abolitionists such as Wilberforce and Hannah More are often lauded for their forceful anti-slavery denouncements, but such attention is not often accorded to the enslaved and formerly enslaved, themselves driving the abolitionist cause through eloquent and eviscerating critiques of slavery as an institution.


In his Interesting Narrative, Equiano invites his readers into the visual recreation of his first encounter with a slave ship, writing, ‘When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.’ [13] What is striking is how Equiano’s spectatorial eye sweeps over the ship and registers the horrors set before him. The sheer scale of the slave-trading enterprise and despair of the multitude of slaves elicits a sense of shock and despair.


The cruelty of flogging and whipping inflicted upon slave writers galvanised sympathetic responses as well. Equiano yokes the suffering of physical violence with that of starvation, writing of his time as a slave, “I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me”. Equiano’s refusal to eat culminates with two white men ‘[holding] me fast by the hands, and [laying] me across I think the windlass, and [tying] my feet, while the other flogged me severely.” [14] Equiano invites the reader to imaginatively dwell in the nexus of starvation, suicidality, and the helplessness of physical punishment. As the sensory focus shifts from sight to touch, what emerges is a visceral sense of Equiano’s suffering, one that would heighten readerly sympathy for other slaves that continued to face harrowing violence.


Throughout his life, Equiano strived to galvanise the abolitionist movement, expose the horrors of slavery, and reveal the fragmentations engendered by shattered personhoods. As we look to the end of the Black History Month as celebrated in the United Kingdom, it would be wise to take heed of the monumental roles played by Equiano and his fellow abolitionists of African descent, many driven by the deep conviction of their faith in Christ, a transformational liberation that sustained his writing and oratory for the antislavery cause. As Equiano writes:

I early accustomed myself to look for the hand of God in the minutest occurrence, and to learn from it a lesson of morality and religion; and in this light every circumstance I have related was to me of importance. After all, what makes any event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser, and learn 'to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God?’

Sources

- Brycchan Carey, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

- Carole Fabricant, ‘Eighteenth-century travel literature’ in The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660-1780, ed. by John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 707-744

- ‘Church history: Olaudah Equiano’, St Andrew’s Church Chesterton <https://www.standrews-chesterton.org/church-history/olaudah-equiano/>

- ‘Church of St Andrew’, Historic England Archive, 23 October 2007 <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1112541>

- Eric Washington, ‘Olaudah Equiano’s Argument Against Slavery Was His Life Experience’, Christianity Today, 14 May 2019 <https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2019/june/olaudah-equiano-slave-memoir-trade-interesting-narrative.html>

- Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (Great Britain: Amazon.co.uk Ltd, 2014)

- ‘Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson & the Abolition of the Slave Trade’, Creating My Cambridge, <http://www.creatingmycambridge.com/history-stories/equiano-clarkson-abolition>

- Philip Gould, ‘Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Literary Imagination’ in The Cambridge Companion to Slavery in American Literature, ed. by Ezra Tawil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 16-31

- Simonetta Carr, ‘Olaudah Equiano – Waking Up Christians to the Evils of Slavery’, reformation21, 26 May 2020 <https://www.reformation21.org/blog/olaudah-equiano-waking-up-christians-to-the-evils-of-slavery>

- Vincent Carretta, ‘Olaudah Equiano: African British abolitionist and founder of the African African slave narrative’ in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, ed. by Audrey Fisch (USA: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 44-60

[1] ‘Church history: Olaudah Equiano’, St Andrew’s Church Chesterton <https://www.standrews-chesterton.org/church-history/olaudah-equiano/>. [2] ‘Church of St Andrew’, Historic England Archive, 23 October 2007 <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1112541>. [3] Simonetta Carr, ‘Olaudah Equiano – Waking Up Christians to the Evils of Slavery’, reformation21, 26 May 2020 <https://www.reformation21.org/blog/olaudah-equiano-waking-up-christians-to-the-evils-of-slavery> [4] Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (Great Britain: Amazon.co.uk Ltd, 2014) [5] Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. [6] ‘Church of St Andrew’, Historic England Archive, 23 October 2007 <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1112541>. [7] Eric Washington, ‘Olaudah Equiano’s Argument Against Slavery Was His Life Experience’, Christianity Today, 14 May 2019 <https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2019/june/olaudah-equiano-slave-memoir-trade-interesting-narrative.html> [8] Washington, ‘Olaudah Equiano’s Argument Against Slavery Was His Life Experience’. [9] ‘Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson & the Abolition of the Slave Trade’, Creating My Cambridge, <http://www.creatingmycambridge.com/history-stories/equiano-clarkson-abolition> [10] ‘Church of St Andrew’, Historic England Archive. [11] Carole Fabricant, ‘Eighteenth-century travel literature’ in The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660-1780, ed. by John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 707-744 (p. 736). [12] Vincent Carretta, ‘Olaudah Equiano: African British abolitionist and founder of the African African slave narrative’ in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, ed. by Audrey Fisch (USA: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 44-60 (p. 44). [13] Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, p. 24. [14] Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, p. 25.

Bearing Witness to Slavery: Olaudah Equiano

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