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The Fellowship to abolish slavery - Olaudah Equiano


Olaudah Equiano

This is the next part in the series to abolish slavery. The first section is here.

Promoting a national religious and moral revival at the same time that he began pressing for abolition, Wilberforce had travelled around Britain at a hectic pace. In February, 1788, while on the road, he became dangerously ill, and almost died. In his absence, William Pitt stepped in, and persuaded the House to take up the issue at its next session. He hoped Wilberforce would survive, and be there.

Wilberforce recovered by “a moderate use of opium which he found necessary to take for twenty years, though without increasing the dose” (DNB). He studied Thomas Clarkson's research, and on May 12, 1789, he opened the parliamentary campaign with a blazing speech of three and a half hours. Holding the House silent and mesmerized, he described the effect of the trade on Africans and the horrors of the middle passage, condemned the trade as a moral abomination, and answered critics who argued that abolishing the trade would destroy the British economy.

The Middletons had been co-ordinating the anti-slavery campaign, and James Ramsay had prepared briefs for Wilberforce and Pitt which contained many of the moral arguments and evidence they used. During the debate in the House, Crisp Molyneux, a planter from St Kitts, impugned Ramsay's character and professional reputation. Middleton and Wilberforce leapt to his defence. In the tumult that followed, Pitt, Edmund Burke, and Charles James Fox supported the abolitionist cause, but the slave planters said the facts that Ramsay had provided were false, and won a delay. Ramsay was devastated. On July 20, he suffered a haemorrhage and died.

The first of the members of the Fellowship was gone. Fittingly, a former slave by the name of Olaudah Equiano had arrived to take his place.

According to his autobiography, Equiano was born in 1745 in Africa, and kidnapped at the age of eight by slave raiders. He was sold onto an Atlantic slave ship, where, like the other Africans, he thought he had fallen in with evil spirits. It is not certain whether his description of the pestilential filth and misery of the Atlantic crossing is his own or composed from the recollections of enslaved Africans, but his life as a slave and his adventures after he managed to gain his freedom are a powerful witness to the cruelty of slavery and to the spirit of a man.

Equiano was sold to an English naval officer, Michael Pascal, who sarcastically gave him the name of the first Swedish king, Gustavus Vassa. Equiano served on British ships, and participated in several battles during the Seven Years' War. A young fellow sailor, a boy “who, at the age of fifteen, discovered a mind superior to prejudice" taught him to read and write. At the age of twelve, Equiano saw England for the first time, was thrilled to see snow, and became interested in Christianity, particularly its message of freedom. He was fascinated by “seeing these white people did not sell one another, as we did. . .and in this I thought they were much happier than we Africans.” He was also surprised and pleased to find in the Bible “the laws and rules of my country written almost exactly”.

In 1759, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, Equiano was baptized at St Margaret's Church, Westminster. He had attained the rank of able seaman, and he hoped that Pascal would pay him for the work he had done. Instead, Pascal had him shipped back to the West Indies and sold as a slave. The trauma of this betrayal was intense, particularly as his experiences with several people in Britain had been warm and affectionate. He now faced slavery at its worst – in the West Indies.

In the islands of the West Indies Equiano saw that slavery debased and tainted everyone it touched. His description of the rapes and violence and relentless exploitation of the Africans, so that even the little fish they caught to eat were taken from them, is shocking. His belief in British liberty and “old England” as the country of freedom is moving.

"Yet how mistaken is the avarice even of the planters? Are slaves more useful by being thus humbled to the condition of brutes, than they would be if suffered to enjoy the privileges of men? The freedom which diffuses health and prosperity throughout Britain answers you — No. When you make men slaves you deprive them of half their virtue, you set them in your own conduct an example of fraud, rapine, and cruelty, and compel them to live with you in a state of war; and yet you complain that they are not honest or faithful!" (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano)

Fortunately for him, Equiano had been purchased by a Montserrat-based trader who recognised he was a capable seaman. Sailing between the West Indies and North America, Equiano kept his wits about him, and began trading on the side. He made a friend of his captain, and survived being beaten almost to death in Georgia. Eventually he accumulated enough cash to purchase his freedom.

Before he did, he reached Philadelphia. Here he describes, somewhat ironically, a church sermon:

"I came to a church crowded with people; the church-yard was full likewise, and a number of people were even mounted on ladders, looking in at the windows. I thought this a strange sight, as I had never seen churches, either in England or the West Indies, crowded in this manner before. I therefore made bold to ask some people the meaning of all this, and they told me the Rev. Mr. George Whitfield was preaching. I had often heard of this gentleman, and had wished to see and hear him; but I had never before had an opportunity. I now therefore resolved to gratify myself with the sight, and I pressed in amidst the multitude. When I got into the church I saw this pious man exhorting the people with the greatest fervour and earnestness, and sweating as much as I ever did while in slavery on Montserrat beach. I was very much struck and impressed with this; I thought it strange I had never seen divines exert themselves in this manner before, and I was no longer at a loss to account for the thin congregations they preached to."

Equiano’s exaltation when he was finally able to purchase his freedom for £40 on July 11, 1766 quickly gave way to the terror of shipwreck. However his determination to survive was, to put it mildly, phenomenal, and he finally, and with considerable relief, left “the American quarter of the globe” and returned to “old England”. There he became a hairdresser, and learned to play the French horn, but the pay did not compare with a sailor’s, so he was soon back on board ship, sailing to the Mediterranean, Turkey and Greenland, on an expedition on which the young Horatio Nelson was almost killed by a polar bear and they barely escaped death when their ship was trapped in ice.

Back again in London in 1774, Equiano watched in horror as an African on his ship was trepanned, and carried off into slavery in the West Indies. He rushed off to obtain a writ of habeas corpus and delivered it to the slave owner, but he was too late to save his fellow African, who was now bound for St Kitts.

Desperately seeking help, Equiano went to Granville Sharp. Granville gave him all the help he could, but they were unable to save the kidnapped man. Yet out of this tragedy one good thing will come: Granville Sharp will introduce Equiano to the Fellowship.

Like Sharp, Equiano has sought legal redress for injustice. Like Ramsay, he will write about his slave experiences. Like Wilberforce, he will have a profound spiritual experience.

Equiano has been interested in Christ for years, but it cannot have encouraged him to see so-called Christians keep and mistreat slaves. At the same time, he frequently calls to God as his one and only companion in the surge and surf of life. Always clear-eyed about the imperfections of others, he has the rare characteristic of being equally clear about his own. He admits to breaking two of the ten commandments. His legalistic view of God struggles with his sense of God as friend, and his tentative belief that he can see the hand of God in his life.

Finally, after appealing "to the Searcher of hearts," and after months of theological wrestling, Equiano has a vision of Christ’s love while on board ship. When he tries to explain what he has experienced to the other sailors, the name of Christ was “to them a rock of offence.” He has no one with whom he can share his feelings, but his experience of love gives him strength.

His next attempt, to help freed Africans by establishing a country in Sierra Leone, is not successful. But on March 21, 1788 Equiano takes the remarkable step of sending a petition ‘on behalf of my African brethren’ to Queen Charlotte. And in 1789 he publishes his story, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, by obtaining prepaid subscriptions from dukes, earls, countesses, admirals, viscounts, and baronets whose names, reading like Burke’s Peerage, introduce his book.

Every member of the Fellowship – Elizabeth Bouverie, Thomas Clarkson, Lady Middleton, Hannah More, James Ramsay, Granville Sharp, John Wedgewood, and John Wesley – subscribe (Wilberforce is still too ill). A bestseller, Equiano's autobiography causes a sensation. It proves gracefully, reasonably, courageously, and indubitably that Africans should be free.

For the Fellowship, 1789 is a watershed year. The battles that lie ahead will test them to the core.