Olaudah Equiano and the heartbreaking story of slavery behind today’s Google Doodle

The heartbreaking, yet ultimately uplifting life story of freed slave Olaudah Equiano is being celebrated by a relatively unassuming Google Doodle. 

Olaudah Equiano and the heartbreaking story of slavery behind today's Google Doodle

The Doodle shows an animation of Equiano writing his autobiography, flanked by 18th century slave ships. Chains are shown being broken either side of him and ropes are bound to the tale he is writing. Google typically writes a blog explaining why it has designed its daily Doodles, but today’s entry simply shows the Doodle’s reach. Instead, you can read about his life via Google’s Cultural Institute

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano and his sister were taken from their home in the Eboe province, in what is now southern Nigeria, when Equiano was 11 and sold by slave traders to masters in Virginia, in 1757. Royal Navy officer Lieutenant Michael Pascal paid £40 for Equiano, and renamed him Gustavus Vassa, after the 16th-century Swedish king. During his time with Pascal, Equiano was baptised and was taught to read and write and they lived in Blackheath at 111 Maze Hill.

Following tours with Pascal in Canada and the Mediterranean, Equiano was sold to Captain James Doran and taken to Montserrat before being sold to merchant Robert King. For the next three years, Equiano learnt to trade from King, while being his valet and barber, and eventually saved enough to buy his freedom, for £40. For the next two decades, Equiano travelled the world and continued to make money from trading. 

After Equiano returned to London, in 1786, he worked as a servant before joining the Sierra Leone resettlement project, a scheme set up to help freed slaves find work and accomodation. This inspired Equiano to se up the Sons of Africa group which campaigned for abolition through public speaking and lobbying parliament.

 As part of his 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Equiano included a petition addressed to Parliament at the start, and an antislavery letter to the Queen at the end. Equiano toured the UK and Ireland promoting the book and campaigning for abolition which earned him wealth which he reinvested into his campaigns and projects. 

You can read extracts from Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography here. A poignant passage, which describes the moment Equiano realised he was not going home explains: 

“I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly; and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo.

“I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything.

“I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced anything of this kind before, and, although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not.”

Equiano died on 31 March 1797 but it took 10 years for Britain’s Slave Trade to cease, and another forty years before slavery was abolished in the British Colonies.  

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