Olaudah Equiano

This engraving of Equiano is probably based on the frontispiece of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, which was published in 1789 and immediately became a bestseller.

In his autobiography, Equiano describes not only how he was kidnapped into slavery but also how, many years later, he gained his freedom. His master, a merchant named Robert King, had promised freedom if Equiano could raise the £40 he had paid for him. Working on one of King’s ships, Equiano was able to do a little trading on his own account and by July 1766 he had accumulated sufficient funds:

‘When I got to the office and acquainted the Register with my errand, he congratulated me on the occasion, and told me he would draw up my manumission for half price, which was a guinea. I thanked him for his kindness; and, having received it and paid him, I hastened to my master to get him to sign it, that I might be fully released. Accordingly he signed the manumission that day; so that, before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master, and completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced; and my joy was still heightened by the blessings and prayers of many of the sable race, particularly the aged, to whom my heart had ever been attached with reverence.’

National Portrait Gallery D8546 (March 1789)
By courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London



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