Gustavus Vassa and the Abolition of the British Slave Trade

Paul E. Lovejoy FRSC

Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History
Distinguished Research Professor, York University
The Harriet Tubman Institute

Gustavus Vassa (Olaudah Equiano), the African, was a key figure in the abolition movement. His Interesting Narrative, published in 1789, was a major influence in mobilizing public opinion in Britain against the slave trade, eventually resulting in the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. Vassa's autobiography is widely read in English literature and Black Studies courses, and remains in print in several popular editions. Some of his achievements are referenced on the web, revealing the influence of this most interesting African and black Briton. His story is considered a classic "slave narrative" written in the richness of eighteenth-century literature, by someone who could not speak English until he was about twelve. In many ways, however, his autobiography was a "freedom narrative" because it recounted his personal enslavement in Africa and his transition from a member of a family to a slave, who was sold repeatedly from shortly after his kidnapping in about 1753, experiencing the notorious "Middle Passage," until he became the slave of a British naval officer. For much of his slavery, he risked the hazards of naval action in the Seven Years War, before being sold to a merchant in the Caribbean. Through his own perseverance and fate, he regained his freedom in 1766. His remarkable career subsequently took him to the Mediterranean, the Arctic, and the Mosquito Shore of Central America. He became prominent in the movement to abolish the slave trade, initially through efforts to protect his friends and associates, then in providing information to prominent abolitionists, before emerging as the acknowledged spokesman for the black poor of London. His association with the first effort to found Sierra Leone as a Province of Freedom floundered, but with the publication of his autobiography in 1789, he achieved wide recognition as a leading abolitionist and orator. The popularity of The Interesting Narrative propelled Vassa into the vanguard of radical thinking in Britain. 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, Suzannah Cullen, 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.

This website is divided into different sections that establish the context in which Vassa lived, explore the places where he traveled, and the people whom he knew. There is also a section that raises questions surrounding Vassa's life, including where he was born to his views on race and slavery, and hosts a forum for discussion and queries. Studying Equiano provides access to primary documents, published scholarly analysis and web links relevant to times and places of Equiano's World. Taken together, Equiano's World is an adventure into the history of abolition, accessible to scholars, students and the interested public.