March 31st 1797: Olaudah Equiano dies

On this day in 1797, the abolitonist Olaudah Equiano died in London aged 51/52. Equiano wrote in his autobiography that he was born in Nigeria, and was kidnapped and sold into slavery when he was 11. He was shipped to Barbados then Virginia before being sold to a British officer in the Royal Navy. During this time, Equiano travelled widely with his new master, and experienced battle in the Seven Years’ War. He was taught to read and write by the sailors, and was baptised in 1759. He was later sold to a merchant in the West Indies, and worked as a deckhand, valet and barber. Equiano began to trade privately, independent of his master, and eventually earned enough money to buy his own freedom. After years of enslavement, Equiano was now a free man. He spent the following years traveling extensively, and in the 1780s returned to London. There, he became deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement, joining the ‘Sons of Africa’ group of black abolitionists and working with the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The publication of his autobiography in 1789 highlighed the horrors of slavery, describing in graphic detail the horrendous conditions endured by African slaves. Equiano’s candid account was a bestseller and, coupled with his powerful speaking tours across Britain, it bolstered the abolitionist cause. Equiano’s involvement contibuted to Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807, which was followed by the total abolition of slavery throughout the empire in 1833.  Equiano married in 1792, and became involved in the campaign for universal suffrage. He was tasked with settling former slaves in Sierra Leone, but died before he could emark on the expedition. Olaudah Equiano has been hailed as the father of African literature, and is remembered for his role in bringing an end to the slave trade.

“But is not the slave trade entirely a war with the heart of man? And surely that which is begun by breaking down the barriers of virtue involves in its continuance destruction to every principle, and buries all sentiments in ruin!”
- from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano


Local Black History: A Beginning in Devon
Lucy MacKeith
Archives and Museum of Black Heritage, Brixton, 2003


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||| Publisher’s Blurb |||
This booklet about black history in Devonshire is short because the work is only just beginning, not because there is no evidence to uncover… To move towards a more accurate, inclusive view of history, we need to separate out the different elements, which have been ignored previously. The evidence is available. The history waits to be written. Black history is not only for black people. It is not only to be found in the history of big cities and ports. Looking at black history in Devon, and similar parts of Britain, helps us to understand the links between local, national and world history. There are stories about black people to be discovered in all walks of life and in all areas. I hope to show that there is more to discover and that we need this information to get a balanced view of our country, and our country’s past. This is the ‘missing part of our history’.

||| Contents |||

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Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, is one of the earliest examples of a slave narrative.  In it, Equiano describes his abduction from Africa, his separation from his sister, his forced voyage through the Middle Passage, and his life as a slave.  After Equiano purchased his own freedom in 1767, he moved to Britain, feeling it unsafe to remain in the British colonies as a freed African; there, he became one of the leaders of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group made up of Africans living in London.

The book was very successful and went through eight editions before Equiano passed away in 1797.  Pictured here, we have here the third edition, which was published in 1790 and bears an engraving of Equiano on the frontispiece.


August 1st 1834: Britain abolishes slavery

On this day in 1834, slavery was abolished in the British Empire as the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act came into force. Britain had dominated the Atlantic slave trade for hundreds of years, with millions of people being forcibly taken from Africa to the Americas while businessmen in Britain profited from their plight. The campaign for abolition began in the late eighteenth century, countering claims that slaves were content with the brutal reality of life aboard a slave ship and toiling in a plantation. One of the primary actors in the movement to abolish the slave trade was freed slave Olaudah Equiano, whose eloquent autobiography articulated the horrors of slavery. The slave trade was thus banned in 1807, and this was enforced by the British navy on the West African coast, but the practice continued and captains would throw slaves overboard to avoid fines. The Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1823 to campaign for the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire, led by the politician William Wilberforce. The abolition movement was partly fueled by humanitarian concern, but also changing economic interests, as the newly industrial Britain no longer relied on slave-based goods, and slave rebellions in Haiti and Jamaica indicated that slavery was becoming unprofitable. The 1833 act was passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, before receiving Royal Assent from King William IV in August; Wilberforce died three days after hearing that the bill would pass. Due to come into effect a year later, it provided for the eventual emancipation of slaves in the British Empire (they were to become ‘apprentices’ for six years before freedom), while providing £20 million (nearly £70 billion in modern currency) in compensation for slaveowners. Whilst this act ostensibly ended slavery, it did not completely eradicate the practice, as some areas of the British Empire were initially exempt and others continued to secretly sell slaves throughout the nineteenth century.

Although Black people were present in Britain in the Roman and medieval periods, and  there has been a continuous settlement of people of African heritage from the sixteenth century to today, Black peoples’ experiences and also the role they have played in shaping British history has often been hidden or marginalised. Up until recent decades, Black British history pre-1945 was little examined in public discourse and academic history writing.
As a result of the work of some historians, genealogists, and grass-roots organisations this situation has improved. Still, much more needs to be done, particularly in terms of mainstreaming Black and other diverse ethnic histories into general academic writing on Britain, and in documenting the various and multiple everyday interactions between people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and to explore these interactions in regards to gender, class, sexuality, political identity, and other intersectional identities.
Olaudah Equiano, author and slavery abolitionist
  • Olaudah Equiano, author and slavery abolitionist
  • The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Olaudah Equiano, author and slavery abolitionist (1745- 1797).

“Equiano was naturally attracted to the parallel campaign against the slave trade. On 21 March 1788 he took the remarkable step of sending a petition, or personal letter, ‘on behalf of my African brethren’ to Queen Charlotte (Walvin, 156). In the following year he added to a rising level of abolitionist propaganda with the publication of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. It proved a remarkable success and went through numerous editions during his lifetime. Thanks to Equiano’s energetic promotional efforts the Narrative sold well, helping to provide the author with a modest estate. This was also helped by his marriage on 7 April 1792 to Susanna Cullen (1761/2–1796) of Soham, Cambridgeshire, where the couple made their home, though Equiano maintained an address in London.”

The Story of Olaudah Equiano is one of over 200 episodes available from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s podcast archive. New episodes are released every second Wednesday. 

Image: An Unknown Sitter (formerly thought to be Olaudah Equiano, c.1745-1797) by the Royal Albert Museum, Exeter. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

7 Historical Black/Mixed Race European Stories That Need to Be on Film

Want to learn more about black and mixed-race people in the 18th century? Listen to this podcast lecture!

I initially wrote this post sometime last year when Moniqueblog was still up and running. Since this post, there has been news of another film about a historical person from the diaspora; Cary Fukunaga has been attached to direct the John Legend-produced film, The Black Count, detailing the true life of French Revolution-era general Thomas-AlexandreDumas (and the inspiration for his son Alexandre Dumas’ book, The Count of Monte Cristo). I decided to repost this since I feel it’s valuable when it comes to thinking critically about the biopics that are out there and who they represent (or don’t represent). More of this nature will be coming soon. 

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Lucy MacKeith has started a research project tracing Black History in Devon, England. The map is explored in this document, which offers a brief exploration of primary documents, artworks, and records. It is downloadable and translates well into an educational handout.

Further exploration and thematic writing is available here on the following topics:

Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa c.1745-1797

Olaudah Equiano was born in a village in Nigeria. At the age of 11 he was abducted and sold into slavery. He was eventually sold to Michael Pascal, a British Naval Officer, who renamed him Gustavus Vassa. During the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France 1756 -1763, Equiano served as a powder carrier with the Royal Navy.

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Black 18th Century

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” Muhammad Ali.

I’ve been thinking about this since the death of Muhammad Ali, about the importance of black people in society through history and that even nowadays is hardly represented. And in the 18th century, even less represented.

So, let me tell you that finding this images was not easy at all. First of all, since my inspiration was Ali’s black pride, I didn’t want portraits showing black men, women or children in slavery or service position. I wanted beautiful, proud and powerful portraits. And I found them :)

Of course I also wanted some strong characters from tv and film and, you know what? IT WAS FUCKING HARD. Not because there are not many black strong characters in 18th century dramas (even though there actually are not many), BUT because there are not many images of them in the internet. Which, let me tell you Internet, THAT SUCKS.

For example, try googling “Abigail Jordan Turn”. Google it, I’ll wait here (or click the link). There are just a few images of any of both actors (Idara Victor and Aldis Hodge) and of those there are even less with just the two of them or any of them alone. There’s usually also a white character in that photo.

Of course Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s photos were easier to find, since she’s the main actress of “Belle”, it would have been ridiculous to not find photos of her. On the other hand, have you seen Amazing Grace? Do you remember the ONLY black character of this movie? Well, apparently there are only A FEW of different photos of Youssou N'Dour as Olaudah Equiano on a fast Google search.

Finally let me tell you I saw a Mexican/Spanish film this weekend called El Baile de San Juan (I’ll make a full post about that) about a pair of lovers in the last decade of the 18th century in the New Spain. There are two black characters, and one of them is this woman called María Fé (portrayed by Sylvie Henry) who is basically the link between all stories and characters, so she’s there the WHOLE movie, the story flows because of her. She’s got a son (Jacinto, portrayed by the beautiful Yotuel Romero) which is a small character. Her costume is very likely one of the most historically accurate from the movie and it’s gorgeous (from the earrings she wears, to her hair, her chintz print petticoat… everything). But you know something? The photo I posted here is the only decent one on the internet of her, no promo shots, no stills, no nothing. As if the only characters in the movie are the two (boring) main characters and the European ones.

And this is only a little example of the lack of representation nowadays of black people. But, let me let you go with this thought: this post is about black people and it was hard, if I would have looked for mestizo and mixed raze representation in the 18th century (and nowadays) I would have to stick to casta painting and a few American portraits just to get that in the media, we Latin people (and all people of colour) are pretty invisible.

But let’s better take a look at the photos from top and you all should reblog and add images of 18th century black people <3

  1. “Portrait of a Young Woman”, 1790s, Jean-Étienne Liotard.
  2. “Portrait of a Man”, ca. 1802, Joseph Ducreux
  3. “Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray”, ca. 1778, Johann Zoffany
  4. Youssou N'Dour as Olaudah Equiano in “Amazing Grace”, dir. Michael Apted, costume design by Jenny Beavan.
  5. Idara Victor as Abigail and Aldis Hodge as Jordan in “Turn”, costume design by Donna Zakowska.
  6. “De Negro y India; China cambuja”, 1763, Miguel Cabrera
  7. “Portrait of a Young Black Italian Man”, 1760s, Alessandro Longhi
  8. Sylvie Henry as María Fé and Yotuel Romero as Jacinto in “El Baile de San Juan”, dir. Francisco Athié, Costume Design by Leticia Palacios, 2010.
  9. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle in “Belle”, dir. Amma Asante, costume design by Anushia Nieradzik, 2013.
  10. “Portrait of Two Society Women", 1740s, Stephen Slaughter
  11. “A Young Black (thought to be Francis Barber)”, undated, Sir Joshua Reynolds

an old woman in a white turtleneck with a wooden walking stick approached me while i was doing my am lit reading and asked what i was reading

i told her (oloudah equiano’s memoir) and she proceeded to sit down with me, introduce herself as a episcopalian reverend/buddhism nun/lesbian and tell me about 1. lesbian poets in the 1920s 2. lesbian poets in the AIDS crisis 3. her wife’s work w zika 4. saint francis (prompted by a sighting of a small dog) 5. the buddhist heart sutra, which she chanted for me

i has to go to rehearsal but i feel moderately visited by god?

Getting to know the Archives: Rare Books

What is a rare book?

Recently J. Murrey Atkins Library celebrated the donation of the two millionth volume; a rare copy of the slave narrative, Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (London, 1793, 6th ed.), donated by Dr. Julian Mason and his wife, Elsie. But what makes any book rare? Our favorite cataloger, Joseph Nicholson answers this question in today’s post. 

Establishing a clear demarcation between “rare” books and “ordinary” books is not an easy matter. Age, for instance, is often considered to be a defining attribute of rare books, but not all old books are rare, and some recently published books are in fact quite rare. The autograph of a famous author on a book’s endpapers may seem to make it inarguably rare, particularly if the book also includes the author’s bookplate and marginalia; but an autograph alone is not necessarily an indication of great rarity or value, as thousands of such specimens are now produced at crowded book signing events by authors flogging their latest bestsellers. Though an elaborately decorated binding can seem an indication of great rarity, it may prove on closer examination to be the bibliographic equivalent of cheap knockoff wear, showy garb that adds no value or distinction to what is inside. All that glisters is not gold.

What generally determines a book’s rarity is not some predictable checklist of features but something more ineffable: the supply of the book falls short of the demand for it. In other words, the book is difficult to obtain or replace. There are several characteristics that may place a book in this category. Age is one, certainly, despite the caveat above. Books published before 1501 are without question rare, as are English books printed before 1641, books that were printed in North and South America before 1801, and books printed in the South and west of the Mississippi before 1850. Good physical condition will tend to increase the value and hence the “rareness” of an older book, while missing pages, a damaged spine, and other signs of significant wear and tear will decrease it. Books that have seminal, path-breaking importance in their subject areas, controversial texts that were once suppressed or outlawed, and first editions of notable works of literature or history are generally rarer than books with a more ordinary history and more humdrum content, for the simple reason that books with a distinguished or troubled past tend to be scarcer. Striking physical characteristics like original color plates, fine illustrations, and distinctive bindings also increase a book’s rarity.

Yet no failsafe formula for determining whether a book is “rare”—admittedly a rather arbitrary category—exists. What seems rare to the untrained eye may in fact not be. A miniature artist’s book published by a notable small press a decade ago may be more rare than a handsomely decorated edition of Dickens’ collected works from the late 19th century. A limited, signed book by a famous poet published last year could exceed in rarity an elementary school primer from the 1880s. Making astute judgments about what is rare and what is not requires care, discrimination, patience, and the ability to weigh several complex types of bibliographic evidence.