Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) was kidnapped from his African village at the age of eleven, shipped through the arduous "Middle Passage" of the Atlantic Ocean, seasoned in the West Indies and sold to a Virginia planter. He was later bought by a British naval Officer, Captain Pascal, as a present for his cousins in London. After ten years of enslavement throughout the North American continent, where he assisted his merchant slave master and worked as a seaman, Equiano bought his freedom. At the age of forty four he wrote and published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself, which he registered at Stationer's Hall, London, in 1789. More than two centuries later, this work is recognized not only as one of the first works written in English by a former slave, but perhaps more important as the paradigm of the slave narrative, a new literary genre.
Equiano recalls his childhood in Essaka (an Igbo village formerly in northeast Nigeria), where he was adorned in the tradition of the "greatest warriors." He is unique in his recollection of traditional African life before the advent of the European slave trade. Equally significant is Equiano's life on the high seas, which included not only travels throughout the Americas, Turkey and the Mediterranean; but also participation in major naval battles during the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War), as well as in the search for a northwest passage led by the Phipps expedition of 1772-1773. Equiano also records his central role, along with Granville Sharpe, in the British Abolishionist Movement. As a major voice in this movement, Equiano petitioned the Queen of England in 1788. He was appointed to the expedition to settle London's poor Blacks in Sierra Leone, a British colony on the west coast of Africa. Sadly, he did not complete the journey back to his native land.
Despite these attractive accomplishments, however, Equiano's most important work is his autobiography, which became a best seller, rivaled in popularity by Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. He published nine different editions before his death in 1797; including an American edition (1791), and German and Dutch editions, 1790 and 1791 respectively. By 1837, nine more editions had been published. Three editions were bound together with the poems of another former slave child Phyllis Wheatly, whose Poems on Various Subjects (1773) was the first collection of poems published by an African American. Together, their works form the genesis of a Black written literary tradition.