BBC Radio 4 talk on Olaudah Equiano 1996
by Graham Kings
Date added: 26/07/2020
Script by Canon Graham Kings
for the BBC Radio 4 series ‘Ten to Ten’
Broadcast on 19 July 1996
It is precisely 200 years ago that Henry Martyn came up to St John’s College, next door to this library, and also 200 years ago that a famous African former slave died, who had laid the foundation for the black tradition in English literature - Olaudah Equiano.
The rise of the modern missionary movement from Britain intertwined with the rise of the campaign against slavery. In fact many people, including William Wilberforce, also of St John’s, were engaged in both.
Olaudah Equiano had been kidnapped at the age of 11 by African slave traders from an Igbo village formerly in north east Nigeria. He was shipped across the Atlantic, to Barbados, sold, and worked in Virginia and on a slave ship. He took part in major naval battles in the Seven Year’s War and eventually bought his freedom, settled in England and travelled the country campaigning against slavery with Granville Sharp.
He married an English woman, at Soham near Ely and one of his daughters is buried in a Cambridge churchyard. His story is still gripping as I discovered when I took an assembly in the nearby school: I read some extracts, asked for a response, and was inundated with detailed questions so much so that the assembly time overan!
Equiano’s autobiography, written in a beautiful style, was published in 1789 and immediately became a best seller and a leading document for the abolition of slavery. It went into 9 editions before his death, including American, German and Dutch editions. Nine more editions were published before 1837. At the time it rivalled Robinson Crusoe in popularity.
As well as housing historical books on mission the Henry Martyn Library has access to modern research through the Internet. The other day, I found a site entitled the Equiano Foundation Online which celebrates his memory. I’ll bring it up on the screen now. Here we are.
The Equiano Foundation aims to provide a valuable educational vehicle through which to resurrect, restore and celebrate the meaningful contribution of Olaudah Equiano to Western, African and African American culture particularly through his publication of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by himself.
And here is a magnificent portrait of Equiano, dressed in a red jacket with a white collar. The same portrait is on the cover of the modern edition of his book over here in the biography section. Paul Edwards edited this.
Equiano describes some aspects of his Igbo traditional culture and then the sheer horror of conditions on the slave ship when aged about 11, he was about to make the Atlantic crossing:
The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. They shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable.
In Barbados he was sold as a slave and was about 12 years old when he arrived in England for the first time, at Falmouth. He describes his first impressions:
I was astonished at the wisdom of the white people in all things I saw: but was amazed at their not sacrificing, or making any offerings, and eating with unwashed hands, and touching the dead. I likewise could not help remarking the particular slenderness of their women, which I did not at first like; and I thought they were not so modest and shamefaced as the African women.
I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning: for that purpose I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.
While working on the slave ship he learnt to read with the help of Dick his young friend and was baptised at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster and educated in London with the help of two kind women. After many further adventures, at last gained his freedom in July 1766.
Equiano also had a fine sense of the irony and the comic. After his emancipation he was employed for a while amongst the Miskito Indians of Central America. One day there was a nearly a riot when the leading Indian, the Governor, turns up drunk and Equinao remembers a ruse he had read in the life of Columbus:
I went in the midst of them; and taking hold of the Governor, I pointed up to the heavens. I menaced him and the rest; I told them God lived there, and that he was angry with them, and they must not quarrel so; that they were all brothers, and if they did not leave off, and go away quietly, I would take the book (pointing to the Bible), read, and tell God to make them dead. This was something like magic. The clamour immediately ceased, and I gave them some rum and a few other things; after which they went away peaceably. (p. 147)
The blurb on the back of this book says "a beautifully written document , which among other things, set down for the Europe of his time something of the life and habit of his people in Africa in an attempt to counteract the lies and slander invented by some Europeans to justify the slave trade."
This is a quotation from Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, who like Equiano is from Eastern Nigeria. It is his son, Ike Achebe, who has been reading these extracts and is a member of this library. Ike is researching Nigerian history for a PhD in the University and is a member of Trinity College.
[At St Andrew’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge]
I’ve come now away from the Henry Martyn Library to our local church, St Andrew’s Chesterton, in Cambridge, where I help out on Sundays as an honorary curate. Over here, high up on the outside wall near the porch is an amazing plaque, you could easily miss it. What is interesting is that it mentions the daughter of Equiano.
And with me is Ike Achebe. Ike, what fascinates you about Equiano?
Ike Achebe: I’m an Igbo. And this is a remarkable story of an Igbo boy who survives great hardship as a slave and tells his story in a book. He forces the attention of the people of his day onto the horrors of slavery. He died 200 years ago and his daughter Anna Marie is buried right here.
Graham Kings: The name Equiano does not appear on the plaque, he is called Gustavus Vassa, why is this?
Ike Achebe: This was the name given to him by his master, the captain of a slave ship. We think he was named after a Swedish King, but in his writings he much preferred his Igbo name. In 1792, he married an English woman Susannah Cullen at Soham, not far from here in the Fens. They had 2 daughters. His wife died in 1795 and Equiano in March 1797.
Let me read the plaque for it includes a wonderful poem which mentions the local children of Chesterton. Tomorrow morning we have a special service here to mark the bicentenary
Near this place lies interred.
ANNA MARIA VASSA
Daughter of GUSTAVUS VASSA, the African.
She died July 21 1797
Aged 4 years.
Should simple village rhymes attract thine eye,
Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by,
Know that there lies beside this humble stone
A child of colour haply not thine own.
Her father born of Afric’s sun-burnt race,
Torn from his native field, ah foul disgrace:
Through various toils, at length to Britain came
Espoused, so Heaven ordain’d, an English dame,
And follow’d Christ; their hope two infants dear.
But one, a hapless orphan, slumbers here.
To bury her the village children came.
And dropp’d choice flowers, and lisp’d her early fame;
And some that lov’d her most, as if unblest,
Bedew’d with tears the white wreath on their breast;
But she is gone and dwells in that abode,
Where some of every clime shall joy in God.