The amazing life of Olaudah Equiano
From slave to seaman to merchant to free man to a successful author who married a white Englishwoman and became father of two daughters, Olaudah Equiano’s life story simmers with heartache as much as it shimmers with blessings.
In his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African. Written by Himself, Equiano details his life story — beginning with his birth, which he places in 1745 in Guinea, Africa, and ending with his 1792 marriage to Susanna Cullen in Cambridgeshire, England.
In an age when most people didn’t travel beyond their immediate borders, Equiano became a world traveler, sailing even to the Arctic. Though enslaved and taken advantage of year after year, Equiano noted the “good hand of God” in many instances. Schooled and baptized in England, he had a curious nature and possessed an entrepreneurial spirit. During his years at sea, he made certain that he learned about navigation, tides and wind. He also sold cargo on his own, making small profits at various ports.
His business savvy served him well, especially after he became free and published The Interesting Narrative. Unlike other authors, Equiano retained his copyright, which proved to be a smart decision. The first edition was released in 1789, with eight other editions to follow before his death.
Networking was an avenue to success for both booksellers and authors of the eighteenth century.
Equiano biographer Vincent Carretta points out in Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man that Equiano networked with publishers and booksellers, plus kept abreast of politics and public debate. From the way in which he constructed The Interesting Narrative to the many ways in which he promoted the book, Equiano proved himself to be a talented writer and shrewd networker. He advertised the book and did a great deal of hand-selling. Carretta explains that Equiano offered the book bound or unbound, and even in a pocketbook size, the latter of which would appeal to a large audience due to the cost.
Listed as subscribers in a November 1788 advertisement are more than ten London booksellers, all with street names long known for bookselling, such as Fleet, Bond, and Chiswell Streets. Also listed are booksellers in such places as Dover, Exeter, and Plymouth, which are areas in southern England where Equiano had made associations due to his seafaring years. Equiano “no doubt traveled with a wagonload of mostly less expensive unbound copies of his book, which local printers could then bind for buyers” (Carretta 338).
Similar to today’s indie author, Equiano was fully engaged in the marketing and selling of his work. He passed away in March 1797, leaving a large legacy to his surviving daughter.
Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. New York: Penguin Group, 2005. Print.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. Ed. Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Images at top (from left):
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Olaudah Equiano [Gustavas Vassa](1745?-1797)." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1790 - 1793. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-b9cf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Olaudah Equiano [Gustavas Vassa](1745?-1797)." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1790 - 1793. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-b9cf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Negroes just landed from a Slave Ship." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1810. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-704f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99