Libraries and archives are filled with presences and absences, which reflect the histories of cultural and collecting practices and biases. The items chosen are only small fragments in a wide, expansive history, addressing aspects of the personal lives of their creators situated within their historical communities.
The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the Arican: written by himself (1789)
Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa (c. 1745–1797), was one of the most prominent and bestselling Black British authors of his century. Before permanently settling in London in 1777, he spent his life at the heart of the triangular trade between Africa, North America, and Europe, first as an enslaved person, then as a free man from 1766 onwards. During the 1780s, Equiano established himself as a leading Black and abolitionist intellectual, culminating in the publication of his biography The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African in London in 1789.
Senate House Library holds two 1789 copies of the Interesting Narrative, one in the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature and one in the library of Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, 1787-1809, and abolitionist campaigner. Its presence in both collections speaks to the importance of the work in the economic and moral debates surrounding the abolition of the slave trade. The text equally speaks to the increased presence of Black communities in Britain, especially from the 1780s onwards. Equiano’s book was one in a series of works published by Afro-British authors during the 18th century. For many of those who were also abolitionist authors, success rested on the claim to authority through an African birth. In his text, Equiano lays claim to both an African and British identity. He became an authoritative abolitionist voice resting on his African identity, and affirmed that he had adopted the cultural, political, religious and social values that enabled him to identify as English.
This is featured in the Rare & Special Collections pre-1871 section of the SHL150 online gallery.