What we know of Olaudah Equiano's life is mainly derived from his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Published in 1789, it became an archetypical slave narrative, the first of many published in an attempt to draw attention to the horrors of slavery. Scholars dispute many aspects of its authenticity, but the story would have been typical of thousands of slaves. Equiano was taken from his family in the interior of Africa, apparently in what is now Nigeria. He served as a slave in Africa, but eventually he wound up being purchased by Europeans and sailed to Barbados, and ultimately to Virginia, aboard a slave ship, where he describes the conditions as follows:
I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind...I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; I was soon put down hinder the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life...I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me...
Equiano survived, however, and was ultimately purchased by a British officer, and he served on board a merchant ship. There he learned to read and write, and converted to Christianity. (He also became known as Gustavus Vassa while enslaved.) He saved enough money to purchase his freedom, and worked on board several different ships, including some important scientific expeditions in Central America, before finally settling in England. He published his book as an expose of the evils of slavery and the slave trade, just at the moment when abolitionist sentiment was becoming very strong in England. His book was inspirational not just to this movement, but to a slew of slave narratives that would become a staple of antislavery literature.