In America, the most famous “slave narrative” was written by Frederick Douglass. In England, the most famous such book was written by Olaudah Equiano.
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” was published in 1789... more than 50 years before Douglass’s autobiography.
The book was popular and very influential in the British anti-slavery movement.
Olaudah Equiano, according to his memoir, was born near the River Niger and kidnapped into slavery by other Africans. But there is controversy about this. Some scholars say he was born in South Carolina.
The details of Equiano’s adult life are unchallenged. Owned as an adolescent by a British naval officer, Equiano was trained as a seaman and taught to read. He was also baptized a Christian in Westminster, England.
Sold to a Quaker merchant, Equiano was able to buy his freedom in his early twenties. He moved to England, became an active abolitionist, married an Englishwoman, and fathered two kids.
The text of Equiano’s autobiography can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.
BBC Radio produced a dramatization of Equiano’s autobiography in 2007. I’m streaming a 5-minute excerpt of “Grace Unshackled: The Story of Olaudah Equiano” on my Vox blog. The adult Equiano is portrayed by Afro-British actor David Oyelowo.
In this excerpt, Equiano tells the story of his purchase by Michael Pascal, the British naval officer, who assigned him the name Gustavas Vassa. Click here to listen.