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African Lives in Northern England

Olaudah Equiano

Picture credit; Frontispiece of his 1789 book, public domain,

To quote from his Wikipedia page, Olaudah Equiano (c.1745 – 31 March 1797) 

was a writer and abolitionist.... from the Eboe region of the Kingdom of Benin (today southern Nigeria). Enslaved as a child, he was taken to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a Royal Navy officer. He was sold twice more but purchased his freedom in 1766.

As a freedman in London, Equiano supported the British abolitionist movement. He was part of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group composed of Africans living in Britain, and he was active among leaders of the anti-slave trade movement in the 1780s. He published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), which depicted the horrors of slavery. It went through nine editions in his lifetime and helped gain passage of the British Slave Trade Act 1807, which abolished the slave trade.. He died in 1797 in Westminster.

In 2003, American author Vincent Carretta cast doubts on whether Equiano was actually African- or American-born, and suggested that his story in the Interesting Narrative was crafted in order to sell his book, in London and nationally. This created renewed interest in the author; another researcher, John Bugg, suggested that 'Equiano's intended audience was less the London literati than the anonymous workers of the industrial north.... Equiano appealed to a world of miners, glovers and grocers, calling on a community of readers who, he hoped, would realise the transition from literary sympathy to political activism'. This project of abolition from below, Bugg goes on, 'ultimately led him to the heart of English radical culture and harrowingly close to the Pitt Ministry's counterattack'. 

James Walvin, in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Equiano, says that,

Whether his account of enslavement and of the Atlantic crossing, written more than thirty years later, was a record of his own experiences or was composed from the recollections of enslaved Africans whom he met in America, Europe, or at sea, it forms perhaps the classic account of the experience that was the fate of millions of Africans in the era of Atlantic slavery.

Equiano's national tour in support of abolition brought him to Newcastle in September 1792. By then, as Creighton explains, the town already had a very active Abolition Society, set up in 1791. It had organised a large petition and helped to encourage other petitions in the towns and villages in Northumberland and County Durham. It had published its own version of the summary of the Parliamentary report on the trade, using an engraving by its supporter Thomas Bewick showing a kneeling slave with a plantation background. He based himself at Robert Denton’s bookshop, opposite the Turk’s Head in Bigg Market. When he left he wrote to the local newspapers offering his

'warmest thanks of a heart growing with gratitude to you, for your fellow-feeling for the Africans and their cause. Having received marks of kindness, from you who have purchased my interesting narrative, particularly from George Johnson, Esq. of Byker, I am therefore happy that my narrative has afforded pleasure in the perusal; and heartily will all of you every blessing that this world can afford, and every fullness of joy which divine revelation has promised us in the next.' (quoted in Creighton, date not given).

Johnson was a colliery viewer who had subscribed for 100 copies. In the 1793 edition of the Interesting Narrative, Equiano tells us that he went ‘90 fathoms down St Anthony’s Colliery at Newcastle, under the river Tyne, some hundreds of yards on the Durham side’. John Bugg suggests that this was not just tourism, but because 'miners had become a potent reference in the slave-trade debates. anti-abolition propagandists liked to claim that Caribbean slaves were better off than British miners'. Miners, he adds, also frequently figured as 'black' in eighteenth-century writing, as well as being known for their history of political activism. In 1793 the mayor of Newcastle had to appeal for military protection from their 'tumultuous spirit'.

This edition also included letters of introduction from well wishers in Durham and Hull.

There is an Equiano Society, which has published a wealth of material about him including a version of the Interesting Narrative as an e-book. It is also available as a printed book in a number of editions, and numerous digitised editions and abridgements are available on



In the future, don’t forget your past