100 best nonfiction books: No 79 The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano (1789)

The most famous slave memoir of the 18th century is a powerful and terrifying read and established Equiano as a founding figure in black literary tradition

Black literature begins with the slave memoirs of the 18th century. Equianos Interesting Narrative is the most famous of these, especially once it was taken up by supporters of the abolition movement, but he was not the first African slave to publish a book in England, or, if we remember Dr Johnsons manservant, Francis Barber, the first to have some experience of London literary life.

In the book trade, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho (1782) were probably the first to mobilise English readers against racial discrimination and the horrors of the slave trade. Sancho would pioneer a flourishing genre that runs from Ottobah Cugoano in 1787 (Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species) to Mary Prince in 1831 (The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave). Thereafter, during the 19th century, black literature would continue to flourish, in Britain, with Mary Seacole (no 62 in this series) and, in the USA, with Frederick Douglass (no 68). In the 20th century, this tradition was sustained by largely autobiographical prose, often focusing on the imaginative reworking of the slave experience. Some outstanding recent examples include Grace Nichols: I Is a Long Memoried Woman (1983), Caryll Phillips: Cambridge (1991) and David Dabydeen: Turner (1994). All of these titles owe some intellectual debt to The Interesting Narrative.

Olaudah Equiano(c1745-1797), also known as Gustavus Vassa, was an African writer, born in what is now the Eboe province of Nigeria, and sold into slavery aged 11. Equiano subsequently worked as the slave of a British naval officer, purchased his freedom in 1766 and went on to write his popular slave memoir. No fewer than 17 editions and reprints, and several translations, appeared between 1798 and 1827. In hindsight, The Interesting Narrative became an influential work that established a template for later slave life writing and subsequently an important text in the teaching of African literature. Indeed, to Henry Louis Gates Jr, Equiano is a founding figure in the making of an authentic black literary tradition.

Inevitably, perhaps, The Interesting Narrative has been dogged by controversy from first publication. Equianos story was initially discredited as false (despite a preface including testimonials from white people who knew me when I first arrived in England). Even now, there are scholars who cast doubt on Equianos veracity, claiming that he plagiarised his story from other sources. Whatever the truth, the surviving text of his Interesting Narrative is sufficiently its own, in style and character, to merit serious consideration. Equianos story is certainly remarkable.

From the outset, he is concerned to establish his credentials as an ordinary, long-suffering African boy who has endured much and triumphed over adversity. He describes, at some length, the Eboe customs he has grown up with: circumcision, witchcraft and tribal patriarchy. As well as cataloguing his primitive beginnings, Equiano also celebrates the exotic and fabulous natural profusion of Africa, consciously playing to western fascination with the Dark Continent: Our land is uncommonly rich and fruitful, and produces all kinds of vegetables in great abundance. We have plenty of Indian corn, and vast quantities of cotton and tobacco. Our pine apples grow without culture; they are about the size of the largest sugar-loaf, and finely-flavoured. We have also spices of different kinds, particularly pepper; and a variety of delicious fruits which I have never seen in Europe; together with gums of various kinds, and honey in abundance.

Equiano, for all his modesty the hero of his own tale, also singles himself out for his natural eloquence. Its his strategy in the memoir to convince his readers of the injustice of slavery by writing withal in a tone of reason and conciliation. While he can pile on the horror of the middle crossing, strangely, he lacks any resentment and does not castigate his white masters in print for their cruelty. His tone is nothing if not complicit: I was named Olaudah, which, in our language signifies vicissitude or fortune; also one favoured, and having a loud voice and well-spoken.

Having established his origins, Equiano moves to describe his enslavement and transportation to the West Indies, and thence to Virginia, where he served as the slave of an officer in the Royal Navy, Michael Pascal, who renamed him Gustavus Vassa after the 16th-century Swedish king. Equiano travelled the oceans with Pascal for eight years, during which time he was baptised and learned to read and write. Pascal then sold Equiano to a ships captain in London, who took him to Montserrat, where he was traded with a merchant, Robert King. While working as a deckhand, valet and barber for King, Equiano earned money by negotiating on the side, accumulating enough savings to buy his freedom.

From a documentary point of view, Equianos account of life in mid-Georgian Britain is fascinating. He gets taken up by white society and patronised by the great and the good, but he is never quite free of floggings and incarceration. Nevertheless, he does manage to save the money that will buy his freedom.

What follows are Equianos adventures on the high seas, mixed with his conversion to Christianity. In fact, Equiano spent almost 20 years travelling the world, including trips to Turkey and the Arctic. In 1786, in London, he involved himself in the movement to abolish slavery. He was a prominent member of the Sons of Africa, a group of a dozen black men who campaigned for abolition. After the publication of The Interesting Narrative, Equiano travelled widely to promote the book, whose immense popularity became integral to the abolitionist cause and made Equiano a wealthy man. In 1792, Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, and they had two daughters. He died on 31 March 1797.

After a strong opening in West Africa and his account of crossing to the West Indies, Equianos personal story becomes fragmented by Abolitionist special pleading. He closes his account with an appeal to his readers more tender sympathies: Torture, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity, are practised upon the poor slaves with impunity. I hope the slave trade will be abolished. I pray it may be an event at hand. The great body of manufacturers, uniting in the cause, will considerably facilitate and expedite it; and it is most substantially their interest and advantage, and as such the nations at large (except those persons concerned in the manufacturing of neck-yokes, collars, chains, hand-cuffs, leg bolts, drags, thumb-screws, iron muzzles, and coffins; cats, scourges and other instruments of torture.

A signature sentence

One morning, when I got upon deck, I saw it covered all over with the snow that fell over-night. As I had never seen anything of the kind before, I thought it was salt; so I immediately ran down to the mate and desired him, as well as I could, to come and see how somebody in the night had thrown salt all over the deck.

Three to compare

Mary Seacole: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857)

Peter Fryer: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984)

Henry Louis Gates Jr: The Signifying Monkey (1988)

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano is published by Norton Critical Edition (9.95). To order a copy go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/07/the-interesting-narrative-of-the-life-of-olaudah-equiano-100-best-nonfiction-books-robert-mccrum