Olaudah Equiano was one of seven children, born into a distinguished black family in Nigeria, Africa. While still a boy, he was captured by slave takers, who were themselves black Africans, and sold into bondage to another African family living far from his home. Slavery was not alien to his experience, for his own family had black slaves, and the institution of slavery was ancient among his people. Not long after he was first taken from his home he was again sold to slavery and transported to the “Slavery Coast” of West Africa, on the Atlantic Ocean. There he was bought by white owners of a slave ship and transported to America, to the West Indies, where he was put up for sale in a slave market on the island of Barbados. He was eleven years old.
From Barbados, Equiano was shipped to the mainland of North America, to a plantation in the English colony of Virginia. In less than a year, Equiano was sold again, this time to an English sea captain. Equiano’s new master renamed him Gustavus Vassa, after a famous sixteenth-century Swedish king, and took him to England, where he was put to work as a house servant. Later he went to sea with his master, on trading voyages from Europe to the islands of the West Indies and the colonies of English North America. During this time his shipmates and his master’s English friends taught him to read and write and introduced him to the ideas of Christianity. In London, in 1759, he was baptized as a Christian with the name Gustavus Vassa.
After the Seven Years War (1756-1763), when Equiano served with his master on British warships battling the French, Equiano's owner took him to the island of Montserrat and there, in 1763, sold him to an island merchant. Equiano worked first as the merchant’s clerk and servant, but his experience as a sailor made him more valuable as a seaman, so his master assigned him to one of his merchant ships carrying merchandise and slaves to islands of the West Indies and to North American ports. Equiano was permitted to bring small supplies of goods aboard ship and trade them independently as he traveled from seaport to seaport. Eventually he acquired enough money, forty English pounds, to buy his own freedom, and on July 11, 1766, he was officially emancipated. As a freeman, he worked a year for his former master, but in 1767, he returned to England, where slavery was prohibited. There he worked as a hairdresser and barber. During the 1770s, he shipped out on merchant vessels.
Returning to London in 1777, Equiano joined the growing movement in Britain for the abolition of slavery. He traveled widely through the British Isles, speaking out against slavery in British colonies and for an end to the widespread, and lucrative, transportation of slaves from Africa to America in English ships. In 1789, while living in London, he published his autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself. It was an immediate success.
Equiano’s account of his unusual life helped to establish a pattern for numerous slave narratives that followed: presenting the everyday details of slave life and the agonies of Christian slaves oppressed by owners who also professed to be Christians. But it is the portrayal of his worldly adventures that has most fascinated his readers, echoing the form of picaresque adventure stories. And his self-portrait as an enterprising young man, rising in the world, seems to hold out the promise that it might be possible to escape even the most oppressive life.