There’s a building in the West End, not far from Oxford Circus, where a plaque tells us that Olaudah Equiano lived in a house, now demolished, on that street, It was there he wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative, published 1789, a book still in print and widely available, now with a new introduction by David Olusogo.
Equiano had been enslaved and had served in the Royal Navy under his then master. As a sailor he had travelled the world, survived naval combat, shipwreck and an expedition to the Arctic. Now a free man, he was living in London. He was baptised at St Margaret’s Westminster, where you can also find a plaque. He was literate, formidable and well connected; a man who had witnessed all aspects of the slave trade and was uniquely qualified to talk about them. He had even worked selecting and managing slaves on a plantation on the Mosquito Coast in Central America.
He was not only a keen reader of newspapers, but also a keen writer of letters to editors usually praising anti-slavery books, praising abolitionist friends, or attacking pro-slavery speeches in parliament. In The Interesting Narrative he tells how he and his sister, children of a chief in Benin, now part of Nigeria, were snatched from their compound, enslaved and separated. His account of his birth has now been questioned, some scholars claiming he was born a slave in South Carolina. In 1777 he came to live in London, a place he had already got to know as the slave of RN Lt Michael Henry Pascal, and quickly came to know Thomas Clarkson and others involved in the campaign to abolish slavery.
Clues and references to London’s involvement in the architecture and later abolition of the slave trade can be found across the city.
Equiano is a key figure in the story of abolition. He is equally a key figure in the story of Black London.
Editor’s Note: this post is from the pen of Isobel, who guides our Slavery in the City walks (virtual and shoe-leather-on pavement). She’ll be doing her Slavery in the City Virtual Tour on Thursday, January 20, 2022. And here’s one of her podcasts on the subject.