Gustavus Vassa and the Abolition of the British Slave Trade

Paul E. Lovejoy FRSC CRC
Distinguished Research Professor, York University
The Harriet Tubman Institute

This project on Gustavus Vassa (Olaudah Equiano) focuses on the abolition movement. The subject of the project is the life of Olaudah Equiano, alias Gustavus Vassa, the African, whose Interesting Narrative, published in 1789, has been credited as influential in the abolition of the British slave trade, implemented in 1807, and which is widely read in English literature and Black Studies courses, and remains in print in several popular editions. There are over 25,000 sites on the web relating to this most interesting African and black Briton. His story is a classic slave narrative, written in the richness of eighteenth-century literature, by someone who did not know any English until he was eleven. In the early 1790s, the heady days influenced by Revolutionary France on those interested in Parliamentary reform, the abolition of the slave trade, and the ending of slavery. Vassa was arguably the most influential black in London, at a time when the black community numbered perhaps 20,000, making London one of the largest “African” cities, if not the largest, in the world at the time.

There has been a considerable body of information collected, much of it published in the various editions of the Interesting Narrative, and most fully in the edition by Vincent Carretta. Moreover, there is some very good scholarly analysis of different aspects of Vassa/Equiano’s life and significance. This project builds on that knowledge. Considerable historical work remains to be undertaken, particularly with regard to the relationship of Vassa to the black poor of London, his friendship with radical leader Thomas Hardy, who was tried for treason in 1794, his marriage to a white woman, and their children, his commercial activities and observations in the Caribbean, his involvement in the Mosquito Shore venture of Dr. Charles Irving and Vassa’s fascination with the Muslim world of the Ottoman Empire. The papers of the leading abolitionists, intellectuals and political figures of the late eighteenth century and those who subscribed to the various editions of the Interesting Narrative are being searched. Moreover, research is being conducted on places and individuals that were important in Vassa’s life.