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Shropshire Archives is open in a phased way from 21 April 2021.

Katherine and Olaudah Equiano

October 29, 202110:18 amNovember 3, 2021 2:06 pmLeave a Comment

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African

Members of The Society for the Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade actively recorded and publicised the brutal treatment of slaves. One notorious case was the Zong massacre, where over 130 slaves were thrown overboard and the ship’s owners made an insurance claim for their loss of property. These horrific events had been brought to attention of Grenville Sharp, later the society’s chairman, by Olaudah Equiano (otherwise known as Gustavus Vassa) in 1783.

Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa (open source)

Equiano was a former slave who had been able to buy his freedom in 1766. He led an extraordinary life which he published in his autobiography in 1789. In, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African’ he recounted how he was kidnapped (in current day Nigeria), sold to slave traders and transported to Barbados and then Virginia. Unlike many slaves who worked on plantations, Equiano was bought by Lieutenant Michael Pascal, a Royal Navy officer and served as his valet during the Seven Years’ War with France (1756–1763). Pascal named him Gustavus Vassa after a 16th century king of Sweden and it was a name he continued to use throughout his lifetime. While working on board ships, Equiano learned to read and write English and travelled the world. He continued to work as a seaman after gaining his freedom and in 1773 was a member of the crew on a voyage to the artic.

In the 1780s he settled in London and became active in the Abolitionist movement. When he published his autobiography, he used the name Olaudah Equiano as well as his given name. He toured the country giving lectures, promoting his book and the anti-slavery cause. The book was an immediate success and went through nine editions during his lifetime, the sales made him financially secure.

It was on one of his tours that he visited Shropshire. Katherine Plymley records his visit in 1793. Equiano had visited Mr Leighton and was hoping to see Katherine’s brother, Joseph Plymley, who he had been introduced to in London but he was away from home. However, Equiano dined at Longnor in the company of  Plymley’s wife, sister Ann and the children including Katherine’s nephew Panton.

“the little people, though they had not been accustomed to blacks, immediately went to him, offered their hands and behaved in their pretty friendly way. Whilst my sister was out of the room he gave Panton one of the little pamphlets against the use of sugar. When Ann returned & Panton said, see what this gentleman has given me, she told him what warm friends they were to the abolition, & that they had long left off sugar. He gave Panton one of his memoirs & wrote his name in it himself, & desired him to remember him… Ann, Mrs. Plymley and the little people were much pleased with him.”

Katherine Plymley diary, 19 May-17 Aug 1793, Shropshire Archives ref 1066/17

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African is thought to have been one of the earliest books published by a Black African author. It continues to be published in various editions today. The most recent edition, with a foreword by David Olusoga, is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

You can read more at Olaudah Equiano | Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African

Written by alisonm - Modified by sarahd

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