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Gustavus Vassa: Olaudah Equiano

An attempt to establish a settlement at Freetown, then known as Province of Freedom, was made in 1787. A committee of philanthropists had come up with the idea as a solution to bringing relief to the ‘black poor’ in London; destitute veterans of the American Revolution and former slaves and seamen and their families. The plan, supported by the government and the leading abolitionist Granville Sharp, was to send these people to Sierra Leone as colonists. The man appointed as ‘Commissary of Provisions and Stores for the Black Poor to Sierra Leona’ was the former slave Gustavus Vassa, acquaintance of Sharp, and with this job the first black man in Britain to hold a government post.

In late 1786 a fleet of three ships, the Atlantic, the Belisarius and the Vernon, and their naval escort the Nautilus, left London with 411 passengers (Vassa had expected more than seven hundred) set for Sierra Leone. Those making the journey included ‘black poor’ and white artisans and their families, and about seventy white women, sometimes thought to have been prostitutes but more likely the wives of black men.

After meeting bad weather, the fleet re-assembled in Plymouth on 18 March 1787, where Vassa and the fleet’s superintendent, Joseph Irwin, fell out. Vassa accused Irwin of embezzlement whilst Irwin blamed Vassa for organising unrest among the black passengers. Something had to give, and Vassa was relieved of his position, although he was later awarded £32 compensation and £18 outstanding wages. Whilst in Plymouth the passengers were allowed ashore and into town. They caused quite a stir amongst the local population and were not welcomed, and were subsequently confined to their ships.

On 9 April the fleet sailed from Plymouth, arriving off the coast of Sierra Leone a month later. It was the beginning of the rainy season and the settlers’ foothold on their patch of land, which they named Granville Town, washed away with the floods. Whilst crops failed and disease spread, more than one hundred souls perished and the majority of those remaining, both white and black, took paid labour in nearby slave factories. By the end of 1789, and despite relief sent by Sharp, Granville Town was burnt out and deserted following squabbles with local Africans.

Gustavus Vassa was born Olaudah Equiano in about 1745, and by his own account was the son of an Igbo chief in present-day Nigeria. When no more than eleven years of age, the young Equiano was abducted from his village in the African interior and taken in to slavery. He was shipped first to Barbados, then to Virginia where he was sold to Michael Pascal, an officer in the Royal Navy who renamed him Gustavus Vassa. Once he had accepted his new name, Vassa never again referred to himself in print as Equiano, except in the title of his autobiography (see below).

Vassa came to England in 1757 and served on board British ships with Pascal for the next five years. He was taught to read and write and, from instruction and experience, became a committed Christian. His faith was strengthened by an event he witnessed during his first visit to Plymouth whilst on board the fifty-four gun Jason in late-1757. In his own words:

One night, when I was on board, a woman, with a child at her breast, fell from the upper deck down into the hold, near the keel. Every one thought that the mother and child must be dashed to pieces; but to our great surprise, neither of them was hurt…  In [this], and in many more instances, I thought I could plainly trace the hand of God, without whose permission a sparrow cannot fall.

Vassa was sold again in 1762, to Captain James Doran, and again in 1763 to Robert King, a Quaker merchant in Montserrat, where he witnessed first-hand the abhorrent "oppression, cruelty, and extortion... practiced upon the slaves". At Montserrat Vassa was able to accumulate the funds necessary to buy his freedom in 1766. From then he travelled far and wide, until: “On January the seventh, 1777, we arrived at Plymouth. I was happy once more to tread on English ground; and, after passing some little time at Plymouth and Exeter among some pious friends, whom I was happy to see, I went to London…”

By now an ardent abolitionist, Vassa petitioned the Bishop of London for ordination, and to send him to Africa as a missionary. The Bishop refused. He set off once again, including to America where in Philadelphia in the mid-1780s he met with American Quakers and saw first-hand what could be done to improve the lives of ‘Africans’. After his dismissal as Commissary to the ill-fated Sierra Leone expedition, Vassa petitioned Queen Charlotte on behalf of “the wretched Africans”, appealing to her “well known benevolence and humanity”. He signed himself “the oppressed Ethiopian”.

In 1789 Vassa published an autobiographical account of his life: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. The book sold well, with eight further editions being issued during Vassa’s remaining lifetime (he died in 1797), making him a small fortune. The third edition, advertised in the Times on 1 December 1790 included “an elegant print of the author; and a plate showing the manner in which he was shipwrecked.

The kind reception which this work has met with from many hundred persons of all denominations, demands the author’s most sincere thanks to his numerous friends; and he most respectively solicits the favour and encouragement of the candid and unprejudiced Friends of the Africans.

Episodes described in the book may have been embellished or exaggerated. But, Vassa's/Equiano’s story of his own slavery and ill-treatment, and his description of the Atlantic crossing, the appalling middle passage of the triangular slave trade, and the terrible treatment of slaves on plantations was timely and did a huge amount to further the cause of the abolitionists.


Learn more about slavery and abolition and the Plymouth connection:

John Hawkins

Slave Trade Triangle

Abolition

Conclusion

Glossary

Slavery and abolition web links


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