ESTABLISHING CONTEXT



Establishing context is important in understanding the significance of Equiano's World and the role that Gustavus Vassa played in the abolition movement. Vassa's autobiography does not always clearly establish context, and sometimes his own misunderstandings cloud an appreciation of his own evolution as an intellectual and political activist. Vassa's rendition of the notorious "Middle Passage" has to be understood in context, for example. Similarly, Vassa's exploration of different religions is worthy of reflection, while his role in the abolition movement has spawned an important scholarly literature. That Vassa's slavery overlapped with the Seven Years War requires an understanding of where he was and when, and the impact that his risky adventures had on him. His role in the first Sierra Leone colonization scheme and his importance in the abolition movement also require some discussion. Finally, Vassa's involvement in the radical politics of London in the early 1790s help to establish the context in which his autobiography was received.

Context

The Abolition Movement


Gustavus Vassa and the Abolition of the British Slave Trade

This website makes accessible an extensive research program on the abolition movement and the role of Gustavus Vassa, who is often referred to by his birth name, Olaudah Equiano, in that movement. This site includes scholarly articles, conference presentations, and interactive links that can be used for educational and innovative purposes.

Gustavus Vassa, the African, published his Interesting Narrative in 1789. The Narrative has been credited as crucial in the campaign to abolish the British slave trade, implemented in 1807, although Vassa died in 1797 and did not witness this legal victory. His Interesting Narrative is widely read in English literature and Black Studies courses, and remains in print in several popular editions. There are over 25,000 sites on the web relating to this most interesting African and black Briton. His story is sometimes thought to represent the classic slave narrative, and certainly characterizes the richness of eighteenth-century English literature. Considering that Vassa did not learn English until he was eleven, his achievements are all the more remarkable. By the late 1780s and early 1790s, he was arguably the most outspoken African in the Atlantic world, and it was the heady days of Revolutionary France, the demand for Parliamentary reform, the abolition of the slave trade, and the ending of slavery.

There has been a considerable body of information collected on Vassa, much of it published in the various editions of the Interesting Narrative, and most fully in the edition by Vincent Carretta. Moreover, there is some very good scholarly analysis of different aspects of Vassa/Equiano’s life and significance. This website is intended to build on that body of knowledge, but in recognizing the usefulness of this previous work, it is also important to recognize that a lot of work remains to be done, particularly with regard to the relationship of Vassa to the black poor of London, his friendship with radical leader Thomas Hardy, who was tried for treason in 1794, his marriage to a white woman, Suzannah Cullen, and their surviving daughter, Johanna. The site also features Vassa’s commercial activities and observations in the Caribbean, his involvement in the Mosquito Shore venture of Dr. Charles Irving and Alexander Blair, and Vassa’s fascination with the Muslim world of the Ottoman Empire. The papers of the leading abolitionists, intellectuals and political figures of the late eighteenth century and those who subscribed to the various editions of the Interesting Narrative are included, subject to copy right restrictions. Moreover, images and context are provided for those places and various individuals that were important in Vassa’s life.

The website intends to make accessible research and analysis to a wide audience.