When Olaudah Equiano’s two-volume autobiography was published in 1789 in Great Britain, it was presented to members of Parliament and leaders of the anti-abolitionist movement. The great founder of Methodism, John Wesley, had it read to him on his deathbed. Many of the important personages in England were listed as subscribers to the former slave’s work, which is believed to have played a major part in the eventual abolition of the British slave trade. The remarkable narrative was published in the United States in 1791 and soon became a popular autobiography on both sides of the Atlantic. It was translated into several European languages and ran through many editions until well into the nineteenth century.
Equiano’s work is the prototype of the slave narrative, which became the chief instrument of the antislavery crusade. The former slave created a new literary genre when he combined the form of the spiritual autobiography with the story of the slave’s escape from bondage. This pattern can be observed in the fugitive-slave works of the nineteenth century. The most notable are Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Influences of the design also can be seen in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional slave book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and in many nonfiction and fiction works of twentieth century literature such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).
Critics see Equiano’s narrative as following not only a spiritual but also a secular pattern of autobiographical writing. The secular manner was popularized by Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1791), in which the emphasis is on character development and material success. In like manner, Equiano is careful to make his point that a black person can develop and become materially successful through personal enterprise. Equiano, however, also stresses the fact that spiritual, personal, or material achievement can only be realized when a man or woman is given the freedom to accomplish all of this.