Olaudah Equiano in Georgia – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
Author of one of the oldest and most influential slave stories, Olaudah Equiano was an enslaved African of Igbo descent who became a master sailor and traveled the world. The central concerns of his extraordinary life were work on the high seas, struggles for abolition and personal emancipation, and conversion to Christianity. His experiences in Royal Georgia are among the most dramatic in his autobiography.
Equiano, born around 1745, tells in The interesting account of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African the memories of his childhood in a village in the interior of present-day Nigeria, the shock of his abduction and transport to the coast, the agony of separation from his family and the horror of the Middle Passage. (Some scholars, notably Vincent Carretta, have questioned the authenticity of this part of his story, citing evidence from a birthplace in South Carolina; the issue is unsettled.)
Equiano writes that he was sold at the age of eleven to Michael Pascal, a Royal Navy lieutenant who took the prerogative of a slave owner and renamed him Gustavus Vassa after a 16th century Swedish king. century. With Pascal, Equiano learns navigation; from his childhood, he saw naval combat in the Canadian and Mediterranean theaters of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). In 1762, believing his freedom to be imminent, Equiano was stunned when Pascal sold him to Captain James Doran, who in turn sold him to Robert King of Montserrat, a Quaker. Traveling the coastal circuit of the West Indies and North America, Equiano became a skilled sailor.
Savannah features prominently in Equiano’s story. King’s ships shipped many enslaved Africans from the Caribbean as part of the Atlantic slave trade to Savannah. Equiano also traveled the Savannah River as a trader working for both his master and his, eventually hoping to buy his freedom, which he accomplished at Montserrat in 1766.
Equiano’s gripping accounts of navigating the alligator-infested waters of Georgia, as well as the many “impositions” he suffered at the hands of white men, are rich in incidents: a severe feverish illness due to overwork in 1764; a near-fatal beating by a drunken local slaver and his overseer in 1765; suffered repeated kidnapping attempts as a free man at the hands of slave patrolmen and other whites; abuse and assault from various sides, including a belligerent slave in Savannah; and the fraudulent dealings of white people who thought a black man was an easy target.
Kinder memories of Savannah include the gentle care of a white physician, Dr. Brady, who cared for Equiano after the beating in 1765, and warm company among African Americans, including a friendship with a slave woman named Mosa. Historian and biographer Carretta demonstrates that Equiano heard the famous Methodist preacher George Whitefield deliver a sermon in Savannah in February 1765 (although in his account Equiano says he heard the preacher in Philadelphia in early 1766). The port of Savannah is also the scene of a tragicomic incident of 1766: a dying goldsmith promises Equiano and his master riches in thanks for their care; his treasure chest is then revealed to be empty.
Equiano’s terse account of his last farewell to Georgia is not spared, however: in late spring 1767 he took his “last leave” from a colony where “the treatment I had received there disgusted me a lot of the place”. Such were his feelings, indeed, about much of the “American quarter of the globe.”
Later voyages included accompanying Phipps’ Arctic Expedition in 1773 and voyages to the Mosquito Coast of Central America, Italy, Portugal and Turkey. He participated in a colonization plan to “return” black Americans to Africa but was fired for denouncing embezzlement. Equiano was about forty-four years old when his interesting story was published in London in 1789. This powerful text was a considerable achievement, as was its publication. Equiano sold subscriptions to fund the book and toured extensively, promoting it and the anti-slavery cause. He is widely considered the founder of African-American autobiography.
Equiano died in London on March 31, 1797.