5 min read

Equiano: How an ex-captive became the voice of abolition

How did a formerly enslaved person think about their faith, freedom, and vocation? Luke Bretherton explores the politics and theology of Olaudah Equiano, whose story was central to the abolitionist movement and continues to resonate today.

Luke Bretherton is a Professor of Moral and Political Theology and senior fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Portrait of Olaudah Equiano from the frontispiece of his biography

The most significant political revolution of the modern era was not that of America, France, Haiti, Russia, or China. It was the longer lasting, deeper rooted, and more pervasive revolution that is “humanitarianism.” Rather than a change in one form of political order, it was a revolution of moral sentiment that affects all political orders. The fruit of this revolution is that the acme of moral action is no longer love for a proximate “brother” but love for a remote “other.”  

A foundational text in this revolution is Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789). Equiano, a formerly enslaved person, was a key activist in the movement to abolish slavery. Published on the eve of the Parliamentary enquiry into the slave trade and three months before the French Revolution, his autobiography was hugely popular, running to nine editions and numerous printings during his lifetime.

His autobiography is vital reading because the abolition movement in which he played such a key part is widely understood by historians as foundational to the birth of humanitarianism. It is also seen as providing the template for other, subsequent movements for social justice.

Equiano’s work and its impact needs situating within what is called the Second Great Awakening, a moment of religious fervour on both sides of the Atlantic. Dated as beginning in 1790, the Second Great Awakening represented a huge revival in popular Christianity. Out of it came modern evangelicalism. However, unlike its contemporary expression, the evangelicalism of the late 18th and early 19th century was a key influence on a number of movements for social reform, including the abolition movement.  

In his narrative, he portrays himself as the true Christian and the true human. When he encounters the European slave traders on their slave ships, they are the real savages, and despite what they say, they are not Christians.

At the heart of Equiano’s Narrative are two stories of conversion. The first is his conversion to Christianity. The second is his conversion to abolitionism. These two conversions are interrelated. Through his conversion to Christianity, he discovers an understanding of what it means to be human that leads him to see all forms of slavery as wrong. This judgment against slavery includes not just the industrial scale form of slavery driven by the plantation economy, but also what some see as the more benign forms of his own Eboe society in West Africa. 

Through his conversion narrative he gains possession of himself, his history, and his people as historical subjects able to speak and act for themselves. He becomes a political actor contributing to and a leading figure within a new political form – the social movement – that contested a dominant feature of the political economy – slavery. Crucially, he refuses and refutes the racialized ways in which Africans are negatively portrayed. Rather than a chattel, he is a Christian and a citizen with a story to tell. He is not merely biology to be exploited. He has a biography. And he is one whose testimony stands as evidence in the case against slavery.  In staging this claim he reverses the order of who listens and who speaks – he speaks and English readers listen and take instruction from him. 

In his narrative, he portrays himself as the true Christian and the true human. When he encounters the European slave traders on their slave ships, they are the real savages, and despite what they say, they are not Christians. He also represents himself in the text as a new St Paul. He’s an apostle calling others to discover both Christ and their humanity in their encounter with him through reading his story.  

Equiano’s is a profound and original work that constantly draws on Biblical frames of reference to both denounce the world as it is and announce a new world. The Bible for him is simultaneously a means of demanding recognition and offering critique.  

In the frontispiece of the book he is pictured as holding a Bible which is open at the Book of Acts in the New Testament. Acts chronicles the adventures of the apostles after Christ's death and resurrection. The frontispiece is the key to understanding the story Equiano tells. He is not Odysseus who returns home after many trials and tribulations. Rather, he is St Paul: one who becomes an apostle, taking on a new name and identity in the process. Like St Paul, Equiano suffers whipping, imprisonment (in the hold of a ship), storms, and travels in chains all for the sake of preaching the Gospel. And like St Paul, who ends his journey in Acts in Rome, Equiano’s journey leads him finally to London, the centre of his imperial world.  From there he writes an epistle addressed to the churches who are failing to be faithful to the Gospel.  In doing so, he appeals, like St Paul, to a universal humanity now available in Christ, in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).      

The most significant political revolution of the modern era was not that of America, France, Haiti, Russia, or China. It was the longer lasting, deeper rooted, and more pervasive revolution that is “humanitarianism.”

There are those who read Equiano as simply a stooge for colonialism and capitalism. Yet they fail to convince. Such readings deny any connection to the abolition movement. And rather than being someone who is reclaiming his voice and agency, they turn him into a faceless and voiceless subject of forces beyond his control. 

To dismiss Equiano is to fail to see the truly revolutionary nature of the text he wrote. In his autobiography, Equiano describes the Christian masters who brutally tortured their slaves for the slightest offense, the ubiquitous rape of women, including very young girls, and the theft from slaves who had little or nothing. Alongside and in stark contrast to this brutality, exploitation, and alienation, Equiano narrates an alternative world, one characterized by intimacy and connection. In this world, he becomes friends with women and children, and forms equal partnerships with white men. The vision of freedom he presents does not entail violently taking control of the state (as was the pattern set by the French revolution). That vision of revolution simply changes who is in control of the state and the economy but does not change the basic form and character of relations between people. 

The freedom Equiano portrays is neither structural nor economic. Rather, he bears witness to a revolution of intimacy and sentiment. His life story embodies a changed structure of feeling, one where in place of the rape, whipping, chains, fear, disgust, and disdain that rules relations between blacks and whites there is the possibility of mutuality and respect. Equiano’s autobiography continues to reverberate as it calls us to a conversion of our hearts and mind so that we encounter others––no matter who they are or where they come from––as neither objects to exploit nor enemies to be feared but as neighbours in need of care. Such neighbour love may well be a fragile basis for hope in a world of carnage and desolation still living in the after lives of slavery. Nevertheless, it is as revolutionary now as it was in Equiano’s day. 

6 min read

Camden: what’s up in Keir’s backyard?

The new Prime Minister’s constituency has valuable lessons for the country.

Simon Walsh is a communications consultant, journalist and non-stipendiary priest in the Diocese of London.

Kier Starmer walks along a residential development's path with two other people.
Starmer and local councillors in Camden.

‘What good ever came out of Nazareth?’ was asked of Jesus. The same might now be said of Camden, which lies at the heart of the Holborn & St Pancras constituency. A safe Labour seat since the 1980s, its present incumbent is Sir Keir Starmer who has been handed the keys to Downing Street in the General Election.

His wallet apparently has on it ‘Take me home to Kentish Town’. Two buses link Kentish Town, where he lives, with Whitehall – a route of about four miles. He will go into government with a very full in-tray, and many of them are issues he knows first-hand from his own constituency. I know them too, having lived there for 20 years.

Sometimes I cover services for a clergy colleague in the nearby parish of St Mary’s, Somers Town. The church is on Eversholt Street which runs along the eastern side of Euston station, incidentally the capital’s first mainline railway terminus. Last year, as I arrived for a mass one rainy Saturday morning, a random group of people sheltered in the doorway. They were, I discovered, addicts waiting for a drugs drop. Towards the end of mass, one of the group – a young woman – came into the back of church and found a pew in which to start preparing her fix. Once I had disrobed, I asked if she wouldn’t mind doing it somewhere else.

Another time, in the same church, a young woman from Spain was asking for money. She had answered a job advert on social media to come and work on a chicken farm. Having arrived and paid her accommodation for a week, she found there was no chicken farm, and trying to find other work was almost impossible because of paperwork. What could we do to help? The church itself is in dire need of financial support too.

St Mary’s Flats... were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity.

Somers Town was transformed 100 years ago when its energetic parish priest, Fr Basil Jellicoe, created the first housing association. Dismayed by the squalor of Victorian tenements, he set about raising funds for The St Pancras House Improvement Society. Jellicoe was only in his mid-20s but had a solid Anglo-Catholic background founded on mission and a heart for the poor. The cramped and filthy conditions with extreme poverty were ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace’ – for him, the opposite to the sacraments.

By the time Jellicoe moved from the parish in 1934, the slums had been cleared and a number of the new blocks built, the first being St Mary’s Flats, with others given saints’ names. They were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity. Tragically, having worn himself out he died at the age of 36. His legacy is one of praxis – active Christianity meeting social problems where they are – and his model became the blueprint for many other housing associations since.

No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close. 

The area remains a swirl of social problems in addition to the drugs. Mental health issues are rife. There are plans to redevelop St Pancras Hospital which houses mental health services. The area suffers from traffic and noise pollution, and lacks communal spaces. Camden Council recently saw fit take one corner of a public green in Somers Town on which to build a tower block of multi-million pound flats, handy for nearby St Pancras Station. Crime rates are high with muggings and mobile phone thefts a daily reality. Last year, as mourners left a funeral one Saturday afternoon at St Aloysius Church just a few streets down from St Mary’s, a drive-by-shooting injured six people. Starmer called the incident ‘appalling’ and spoke of ‘extra patrols and community support’ after a conversation with police.

The area has become highly expensive. Local businesses are being priced out by increased rents. Very little social housing has been built this century. The average house price in NW1, which encompasses the Nash terraces of Regents Park, the council blocks and social housing of Somers Town, is £1.3 million. A two-bed flat is in excess of half a million quid. No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close – four in as many years recently. In his acceptance speech in Camden Council’s offices near St Pancras station, close to the world-renowned Crick Institute and Facebook’s UK headquarters, Starmer namechecked the mythical ‘girl from Somers Town’ and his hope for her future.

Charles Dickens went to school around here and knew these streets well. His 1848 novel Dombey & Son detailed the destruction and chaos caused in the area by the building of the railway line through it. 175 years later, it has been HS2, the great White Elephant which has dug up streets, seen whole blocks of accommodation and hotels demolished, diverted roads, and axed much-loved institutions like the Bree Louise pub. There has been no benefit to locals so far (quite the opposite, in fact) and it is a stain on both Labour and Conservative administrations. Sir Keir says he is furious at the ‘big hole’ left by the down-tools project. There is fear now that the redundant land will be subject to a ‘gold rush’ as developers circle to pick up some prime real estate.

Interviewed in June by the Camden New Journal, Starmer said: ‘The government has earmarked money for Euston. I want to see that money and obviously, if we come into power, we’ll see through all this money – and not stripped away from other projects which is the usual trick.’ He also said: ‘The other thing is we need housing. Camden desperately needs housing as many places do. So we will use it – if we are privileged to come into power – as part of our plan for 1.5 million homes.’

His manifesto has five pledges: 

  • Kickstart economic growth 

The cost-of-living crisis is biting hard here and the inequalities are stark. People need real money.

  • Make Britain a clean energy superpower 

It’s going to need more than a few on-street charging points for electric vehicles. And the carbon footprint of that HS2 project? 

  • Take back our streets 

He wants to halve crime rates but London has around 106 crimes per 1,000 people and his own constituency feels less safe than it used to. 

  • Break down barriers to opportunity 

Camden already ranks highly in the deprivation index where barriers are concerned: schools, homes, jobs… 

  •  Build an NHS fit for the future 

Again, the hospitals and GP services are cracking – high demand combined with under-investment is deadly. 

A prophet is not welcome in his own country, it was said. Although the new Prime Minister was elected with a majority in his home seat, it was down to 18,884 votes from the 2019 endorsement of 36,641 votes – a drop of almost 50%. In this election, an Independent candidate called Andrew Feinstein polled 7,312 votes with his pledge to improve life for local residents. Starmer’s constituents will be counting on him to fix the nation along with the problems on their own streets. Otherwise, safe seat or not, he may no longer be welcome in Camden either.