Olaudah Equiano, Gustavus Vassa

When he was eleven years old, Olaudah Equiano (1745?–1797), born in Benin (now part of Nigeria; some sources say born in Essaka and some sources say born into an Igbo community in what is now part of modern-day Nigeria ) to well-to-do parents, was captured by slave traders and taken to Barbados and then Virginia. He was sold to a British naval officer, who taught him the skills of a mariner, gave him the name Gustavus Vassa, and took him to England, where he was schooled and where, years later, he became an active abolitionist. Six years after being sold to the naval officer, he was sold to a Philadelphia Quaker from whom he learned the merchant trade and later bought his freedom. His 1789 books, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (published in nine English editions and translated into Dutch, German, and Russian) and Miscellaneous Verses, reveal an idealized view of Africa and pride in the African way of life. The writings also attack Africans who trafficked in slavery. These literary works position him as the originator of the slave narrative. An edition of The Interesting Narrative.... edited by Werner Sollors and published in 2001 includes additional scholarly writings about the narrative: an introduction, variants of the editions, contextual documents, and criticism. In the early 21st century, scholars discovered new documents that suggest the published account may have been fictionalized, based on reading rather than on memory, and that also suggest he was born in North America, not in Africa. These issues remain unresolved.

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