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Remembering Olaudah Equiano




March was the memorial month of Africa’s pioneer writer and human rights activist – Olaudah Equiano, 1745 – 1797. He was a navigator and antislavery crusader of global repute in the eighteenth century. He immortalized his name with the publication of his autobiography with the title The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano written by Himself. The book, first published in 1789, the year of the French revolution, he initiated a literary tradition of African literature. The quality of his literary work is classic and comparable to John Milton’s Paradise Lost and John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress with eloquent references to the Bible and European Classics.

Equiano was born in what is now Ashaka (Isseke) town in Ndokwa East, Delta State, Nigeria. At the age of eleven, he was kidnapped along with his sister and sold into slavery. He was sold and resold to many slave masters in England, Caribbean and the Americas. A British slaver called Pascal purchased him and his life assumed a fateful turn. Here the servant of Pascal named Richard Baker taught him how to read and write. Under Pascal, he also learned a skill, how to navigate the ship. He was baptized in 1759. By 1763, Equiano was already literate and an accomplished sailor.

He took part in many adventurous voyages and expeditions including one to the Antartic Ocean and the North Pole. He fought in many naval wars between England and France. He worked and saved money to buy his freedom for forty pounds. Armed with his autobiography he toured and campaigned in many cities. He petitioned the British Parliament to make laws to abolish slave trade.

This came to pass in 1807; 10 years to his demise.

Equiano formed the anti-slavery movement and linked it up with other British and American anti-slavery movements. He was appointed a commissioner to the Sierra Leone expedition for the resettlement of freed slaves. He was the only black official appointed. Equiano later resigned due to the corrupt nature of the white members of the commission. He was married to Sussan Cullen in 1792 and had two daughters, Anna Maria and Johanna.

He is considered the first Nigerian Literary narrator, a titan of the book culture, the first Nigerian navigator and sailor, the first Nigerian anti-slavery crusader. Equiano died on March 31, 1797. Considering his legendary achievements even when blacks were regarded as beasts of burden without intellectual capacity, we appeal to well endowed Nigerians and the Ndokwa people in particular to sponsor academic chairs and research programmes in honour of this great African icon – Olaudah Equaino!

• Ogeh O. Victor and Bridget Izobo are of Department of English and Literary Studies, Delta State University, Delta State

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