equiano

Black history month day 6: Olaudah Equiano.

Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vaasa, was a prominent African in London. He was a freed slave who supported the British movement to end the slave trade. His autobiography, published in 1789, helped in the creation of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which ended the African trade for Britain and its colonies. Equiano was part of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group composed of prominent Africans living in Britain, and he was active among leaders of the anti-slave trade in the 1780s.

Equiano’s book, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African”, is one of the earliest-known examples of published writing by an African writer to be widely read in England. By 1792, it was a best seller: it has been published in Russia, Germany, Holland, and the United States. It was the first influential slave narrative of what became a large literary genre. Equiano’s experience in slavery was quite different from that of most slaves as he did not participate in field work. Rather, he served his owners personally and went to sea, was taught to read and write, and worked in trading. Even after his freedom he continued to be an explorer and travel extensively everywhere from the Arctic to the United States.

His Life as a freed slave was stressful, and he suffered from suicidal thoughts until he became a born-again Christian and found peace in his faith. He married in English woman, Susannah Cullen, and together they had two children.

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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

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.

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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.

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?

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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.