The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano


Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold in America. Very few had the chance to describe their experience to the world. One who did was an African named Olaudah Equiano. He wrote an amazing autobiography that described his life's journey from freedom to slavery and back to freedom again.

Olaudah Equiano was born into a rich West African family in 1745. They lived far from the sea, in an area which is now part of Nigeria. Olaudah Equiano's father was a village chief. He had seven children and many slaves, so Equiano grew up in a slave society.

When he was eleven, Equiano was captured by African slave traders. He was alone at home with his sister when two men and a woman seized them and ran off with them to the nearest woods. Equiano and his sister tried to resist but their mouths were shut and their hands tied.

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano


The slave traders separated him from his sister and during the next months he was sold from one African master to another. Finally a wealthy widow bought him. She treated him well and even let him sit at the table with her and her son. Everything here made him forget that he was a slave. One morning he was awoken and put on a slave ship that took him to America.

The journey from Africa to America was called "The Middle Passage." It was the middle leg of the triangular slave trade which began and ended in Europe. Three or four hundred Africans were packed into the ship’s cargo deck which was very small. You couldn't even stand up in it. The air was hot and the smell of human bodies was unpleasant.

Disease and death were common. Up to 25 percent of a slave ship's Africans died during the voyage. The captain and crew fought to keep their valuable cargo alive. They made the Africans dance on deck for exercise. Sometimes they forced the slaves to eat , so that they wouldn’t die.

When the slave ship carrying Olaudah Equiano and hundreds of other Africans finally reached Barbados they were soon put up for sale. No one purchased Equiano, who was still just a boy. So he was shipped north to a plantation in Virginia. His new owner was a lieutenant in the British navy named Michael Henry Pascal. He gave Equiano a new name but the slave refused to be called by it. Under Pascal, Equiano learned to be a sailor. He spent much time in England, where he also managed to educate himself. He even fought for Britain in the Seven Years' War.

After a few years, Equiano had grown comfortable with his fate. So he was shocked once again when his owner sold him and he returned to the Caribbean where his new owner was a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia : Robert King. King treated Equiano well. But Equiano had tasted freedom and couldn't accept a slave's life anymore. His urge for freedom grew even greater when King put him to work aboard a Caribbean slave ship.

Equiano didn’t want to give up. He began trading glasses and other objects on the side. As time went on he saved 40 pounds (equal to about $3,700 today) which was enough to purchase his freedom.

The stations in Olaudah Equiano's life

The stations in Olaudah Equiano's life


As a freeman, Equiano continued working as a sailor for years. He travelled a lot , but his personal struggle against racism and slavery continued. One day, a ship's captain decided to make Equiano a slave again. He was tied up with ropes around his ankles and wrists. Then white sailors put him on the mast where he hung all night long . In the morning, he begged to be released. The crew brought him down because his body was blocking the sails. . The ship's carpenter persuaded the captain to put Equiano ashore. There he thanked God for "this unexpected release" and found another ship that was heading to Jamaica.

He returned to England and became a public speaker. In 1789, he wrote his autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano. It was an immediate best seller— the first anti-slavery book to reach a wide audience. Equiano became England's leading speaker for blacks and the abolition of slavery.

Olaudah Equiano died in 1797. Ten years later, Britain and the United States abolished the slave trade.


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  •   abolition = the official end of something
  •   accept = to agree to or say yes to
  •   amazing = so surprising that you can hardly believe it
  •   ankle = the moveable part of your body between your foot and leg
  •   anti-slavery = against slavery
  •   ashore =on land
  •   audience = here : the people who read a book
  •   autobiography = a book in which someone writes about their own life
  •   beg = to ask for something that you want very much
  •   block = to be in the way
  •   capture =to catch a person and keep them as prisoner
  •   cargo =the products that are carried on a ship, train or airplane
  •   cargo deck = the part of a ship that is reserved for goods
  •   Caribbean = the islands between North , Central and South America
  •   carpenter = a person who makes and repairs things made out of wood
  •   chief = the leader of a tribe
  •   comfortable = to like something
  •   common = if something happens very often
  •   disease = illness
  •   exercise =to move around
  •   experience = things that have happened to you
  •   fate =future, things that will happen to someone
  •   few = not many
  •   force = if you have to do something that you don’t want to do
  •   freeman = someone who is not a slave
  •   head = to go towards
  •   human =from a person
  •   immediate = at once
  •   journey = trip
  •   leg = part of something
  •   lieutenant = a lower rank in the army or navy
  •   manage = to somehow do something that is very hard to do
  •   mast = tall pole on a ship on which you hang flags or sails
  •   master = a person who has control over someone else
  •   merchant = person who buys and sells things
  •   on the side =secretly, so that nobody knows about it
  •   owner =the person who owns someone
  •   pack = to put as many people as possible into a small place or room
  •   persuade =to make someone decide to do something
  •   public speaker = a person who speaks at places where a lot of people can listen
  •   purchase =buy
  •   put up for sale =to offer to someone
  •   Quaker = member of a religious group that was founded in America . They don’t have priests and are against violence
  •   racism = if you do not treat people the same because they have a different skin colour
  •   refuse = not want to
  •   release = to let go
  •   resist =refuse, not to go
  •   rope =very strong, thick string mad by twisting together many thinner strings
  •   sailor = someone who works on a ship
  •   seize = to catch someone and see that they cannot get away
  •   separate =divide
  •   Seven Years’ War = a war about French and English colonies fought in Europe and America between 1756 and 1763
  •   ship = transport
  •   shut = closed
  •   society =people in general
  •   struggle = fight
  •   tie = to hold together with a rope
  •   trade = to buy and sell things
  •   trader = a person who buys and sells things
  •   treat =to behave towards someone
  •   treat =to behave towards someone
  •   triangular = three sides
  •   unexpected = surprising, because you did not think it would happen
  •   unpleasant = not very good
  •   urge = a strong wish
  •   valuable = very important
  •   village = very small town in the countryside
  •   voyage = long trip in a ship
  •   wealthy = very rich
  •   widow = a woman whose husband has died and who has not married again
  •   wrist = part of your body where your hands and arms meet