Family Story Walks: Olaudah Equiano

Artist Insight | 26 May 2023

To celebrate our new season of Family Story Walks, artist Juwon Ogungbe explains the stories behind some of Greenwich’s most notorious residents…


Olaudah Equiano – (1745-1797)

Olaudah Equiano was a writer and activist who drew from his experience of being enslaved to contribute to the movement for abolition of slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Born in the Eboe region of the Benin Empire of West Africa (located in modern day Nigeria), Equiano was caught and enslaved at the age of eleven.

In his book – The life of Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa, the African), Equiano tells of the happy life he led with his family, before he and his sister were captured and made to march from one slave trader to another. They were eventually shipped to Barbados.

From Barbados he was taken to the state of Virginia in the USA. ‘The Middle Passage’ as the journey by enslaved Africans across seas and oceans is often referred to, was a horrendous experience. Equiano along with many other Africans was kept in chains in the hold part of a ship, with luggage and inanimate items to be sold.

Equiano’s book is one of the few from that era that lets us know what it felt like to be caught and kept as a slave.

Equiano was sold to Lt Pascal – a Royal Naval Officer. Pascal took him travelling to many places and Olaudah learnt to be a sailor. Pascal even sent him to London to learn to read and write. This meant that Equiano didn’t have to work in the fields as a slave, but he still wasn’t free to live his life as he pleased.

At one point, Equiano thought Pascal was going to set him free. In those days, the slaves needed to have a document known as a manumission paper to prove that they were free in the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe. Lt Pascal let Olaudah down and sold him to someone else!

Luckily, Olaudah ended up with a master called Robert King. Mr King allowed him to earn money from the work he did, which Olaudah used to buy his own freedom. Mr King signed the manumission paper and Olaudah became a free man.

Later in life, Olaudah lived in Maze Hill, Greenwich and he came across Lt Pascal in Greenwich Park. Equiano could face Pascal as a free man, at last.

Equiano is now remembered as a significant figure in the histories of abolition and Black Britain.

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Who's Who

Juwon Ogungbe. A head and shoulders photo of a man with no hair and dark skin. He is wearing a maroon tshirt and black jacket. We can see bunting in the background

Juwon Ogungbe

Juwon Ogungbe is a distinguished opera singer and composer, as well as a performer in a range of other genres. He has composed for the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Southbank Centre amongst many others.

Juwon’s operatic works have been in various stages of development at Opera North, Grimeborn Opera Festival (Arcola Theatre) and at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, Zanzibar.

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – Juwon’s most recent music theatre piece was premiered in 2019 and several of his new works have been publicly performed in 2020.

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