Review of Emily J. Maurits, Olaudah Equiano: A Man of Many Names, Fearn: Christian Focus, 2022.

The story of the life of Olaudah Equiano is a fascinating one. He was born about 1745 in Benin, probably in modern day Nigeria. At the age of ten or eleven, he was kidnapped by African slave traders, and later sold to white slavers. Whatever it meant to him, it did enable him to see a significant part of the world – Barbados, Virginia, service in the Seven Years War, London, and the West Indies. Along the way, he heard about God, and was baptised, and purchased his freedom. In London, he worked as a hairdresser, learnt the French horn, and even went on an expedition to the Arctic. In 1774 he had a vision that it was Jesus’ blood which saved him.

The unusual subtitle comes from the fact that Equiano’s African name means ‘the fortunate one’ or ‘well spoken’. Yet he also became known as Michael, and later was given the name ‘Gustavus Vassa’, when he wanted to be known as Jacob. Nothing was straightforward.

Equiano was able to tell the infamous story of the Zong massacre where 130 slaves were thrown overboard in order to claim insurance. Granville Sharp, the amateur lawyer (and Greek New Testament scholar) was able to bring the culprits to account. In 1786 Equiano volunteered to help with the free African settlement of Sierra Leone, but he was dismissed before the doomed project even began.

Before he became a Christian, Equiano had heard George Whitefield preach in Philadelphia, and had been much impressed by his passion. On the inside cover of his Narrative, he commissioned a painting of himself holding a Bible open to Acts 4:12. On the final page he cited Micah 6:8. He married an Englishwoman, Susannah Cullen of Ely, on 7 April 1792. But Susannah died in 1796, aged only thirty-four, and Equiano himself died soon after on 31 March 1797, still in his fifties. His elder daughter also died, and only Joanna Vassa, who lived until 1857, was able to witness the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself, in 1807 and 1833 respectively.  

The reviewer always feels obliged to point out at least one error. On p.138 the American civil war is mentioned where the War of Independence is what is in view. That aside, this is a man we need to know about, and learn from, and this is a most accessible introduction.

– Peter Barnes