The Ex-Slave Abolitionist

Author Melinda Penner Published on 11/13/2014

Olaudah Equiano was born in an Igbo village in West Africa about 1745. He and his sister were captured and sold as slaves when he was 11 years old. Marc Baer, author of Mere Believers, argues “that because Equiano became a believer, the enslavement of Africans by Europeans came to an end.”

Equiano led an extraordinary life. He was brought to the Virginia colony on a slave ship and sold to a British naval officer. Equiano became a skilled seaman, learning “English, mathematics, the art of navigation, and several trades.” These are skills he would put to use in adventures all over the globe and make a living when he was free.

On July 10, 1766, he bought his freedom. He said later in his autobiography that it was the happiest day he had ever experienced.

On October 6, 1774, he experienced an even happier day. He “acknowledged my transgression to God, and poured out my soul before him with unfeigned repentance.” He had been reading the Bible but had thought that he was a moral person, obeying enough of the law to please God. On that day, he meditated on Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Equiano became a spokesman for abolition. His personal experience and his Christian convictions gave him the moral justification to show why slavery was horrendously wrong. He “became the most important Afro-British voice in the growing opposition in the 1780s to the slave trade.” He pointed out what is taught in Acts 17:26—all of us have one ancestor and we’re all made by God. “He publicized the true identity of those oppressors as nominal or false Christians because they did what God would not, placing shackles on other humans, and thus had behaved as if they were greater than God.”

He published his autobiography in 1789, which became a bestseller for years. “He was the first ex-slave to tell the story of his African roots, kidnapping, the horror of traveling on a slave ship and the terrible experiences that followed.” He self-published his book with the sponsorship of two British women, the Countess of Huntingdon and Hannah More. Equiano printed eight more editions and promoted the book across the British Isles.

His book influenced John Wesley and William Wilberforce. It rallied readers to the abolitionist movement. Wilberforce introduced a bill outlawing the slave trade six weeks after its publication. It was the beginning of many years of persuasion before it passed.

Equiano gave “voice, respect and dignity to black seamen and other poor African men and women who daily negotiated for their very survival in the colonies and in London.”