Home News Features Olaudah Equiano: Seven things you need to know about today’s Google doodle

Olaudah Equiano: Seven things you need to know about today’s Google doodle


The latest Google’s Doodle celebrates one of the most prominent Black anti-slavery activist, the first Black political leader and lobbyist in 18th century Britain. October 16th marked what would have been the 272nd birthday of Olaudah Equiano (1746-1797).

A Google Doodle is a special, temporary alteration of the logo on Google’s homepage that is intended to celebrate holidays, events, achievements and people.

Equiano’s famous autobiography gave detailed insights and first-hand account of the slave trade era where Africans were densely packed onto ships and transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies.




Olaudah Equiano also known as Gustavus Vassa was born on 16 October 1746 in Southern Nigeria (later in life his place of birth was given as South Carolina, confusing the issue somewhat).

According to Equiano, slave traders abducted him and his sister at the age of 11 and shipped them to Barbados with 244 other captives before they were moved to Virginia (at that point still a British colony).

In Virginia, Equiano was sold to Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who renamed him ‘Gustavus Vassa’ after the 16th-century Swedish king.

Equiano was renamed twice, he was called Michael while onboard the slave ship that brought him to America; and Jacob, by his first owner.


Equiano’s period as a slave involved working on a plantation in Virginia. He drew on personal experiences in the Caribbean to convey the harshness of plantation life in his writing.

“These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, by not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes.”

From here he was bought by a Royal Navy captain, Captain Pascal, after a Swedish noble who had become a king. He spent a lot of time at sea serving Pascal, including the Seven Years’ War with France where he worked as a valet and hauled gunpowder to the gun decks.

Upon his return to England, Pascal brought Equiano with him to London. Equiano spent his time here living with the Guerin sisters, relatives of Pascal, who resided in Blackheath at 111 Maze Hill.

It was here that he learnt how to read and write and improve his English.

After his time with Pascal, Equiano was sold to Captain James Doran who took him back to the Caribbean to Montserrat, where he was sold to Robert King, a successful merchant.

Equiano’s first London address, 111 Maze Hill


Robert King was Equiano’s last master. King had allowed him to trade in small amounts of goods on his own account while working on trading vessels in the Caribbean and North America. Equiano sold fruits, glass tumblers and other items until he was able to buy his own freedom for £40 in 1767.

Although King asked Equiano to stay on and work with him as a business partner now that he was a free man, he decided that it was too dangerous to remain; and indeed narrowly escaped being kidnapped back into a life of slavery.

Equiano became a free man in 1767. Like many free Black men, he moved to Britain to work as a sailor in the Royal Navy and on commercial vessels. His travels took him all over the world, including to the Arctic in an attempt to reach the North Pole as a member of the Phipps expedition of 1773, and to New York and Philadelphia.


Equiano eventually settled in London, where he’d been baptized earlier in his life at St Margaret’s Westminster, in 1759.

With first-hand experience of life as a slave, Equiano became friends with and supported many people involved in the abolitionist movement, the movement to end the slave trade. Some of his abolitionist friends encouraged him to tell his life story, and thus the idea of his autobiography was formed.


Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, was published in 1789. It became a bestseller and was translated into many languages, going through eight editions in his lifetime. He travelled around Britain and Ireland giving lectures, and advancing the abolitionist cause by giving voice to the horrors of slavery.

Equiano was foremost in a group of men and women who were publishing in English and introducing the British public to African thought for the first time. His autobiography was the first influential work in what became the slave narrative genre, which included written accounts of enslaved Africans in Great Britain and its colonies.


Olaudah Equiano became the country’s first Black civil servant In 1786 when he served as a commissary on a project which sought to remove hundreds of poor Black people from London to Sierra Leone.

“I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when in truth I knew it not: still the Lord pursued me although I slighted and disregarded it; this mercy melted me down. When I considered my poor wretched state I wept, seeing what a great debtor I was to sovereign free grace. Now the Ethiopian was willing to be saved by Jesus Christ, the sinner’s only surety, and also to rely on none other person or thing for salvation.”


Equiano married a British woman, Susan Cullen in 1792, at a Soham church. They had two children, Anna Maria and Joanna.

Of their two daughters only Joanna survived to adulthood and at the age of 21, she inherited £950 from her father’s estate. She married the Congregational minister Henry Bromley in 1821. They had no children. Joanna died in 1857.

Equiano continued to promote the antislavery cause throughout the British Isles until his death in March 1797. The location of his burial is undocumented.

Gustavus Vassa’s marriage certificate

In the case that Joanna did not survive until the age of 21, he had bequeathed half his wealth to the Sierra Leone Company to continue its work assisting West Africans, and a half to the London Missionary Society, which promoted education overseas.

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