Hidden Connections: A Terrible Testimony
The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano became a bestseller in Ireland
The most effective forms of publicity against the evils of slavery were the testimonies of the slaves themselves and several autobiographies by slaves who had achieved freedom had a great impact. The first of these, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African’ became a best seller in Britain and Ireland in the 1790s.
But the most famous slave narrative of all, published 50 years later, was the ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Written by Himself’, the work of a runaway slave from Maryland who had succeeded in fleeing to the northern states where he became an anti-slavery journalist and lecturer.
Both these talented men had learnt to read and write while they were slaves, an achievement that was both difficult and often dangerous. Their appearance before anti-slavery supporters, many of whom had never actually seen a black man, invariably had a startling impact.
Both Equiano and Douglass visited Ireland. As a freeman and a successful author, Equiano spent some eight months travelling around Ireland to promote his book, recording that he found “the people extremely hospitable, particularly in Belfast” (he arrived there in the year of the Volunteer procession celebrating the fall of the Bastille).
In 1844 Frederick Douglass left the United States for the first time in order to seek international support for the emancipation of the slaves in his homeland. He sailed for Dublin, where RD Webb produced the first edition of his book to be published outside America. In Ireland Douglass filled theatres and churches with his dramatic lectures, in which he recounted his suffering and that of his fellow slaves.
Olaudah Equiano’s portrait from the frontispiece of his autobiography, 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equaino: or Gustavus Vassa the African' (first published London, 1789). Equiano stayed in Belfast from December 1791 to February 1792 where he received a warm welcome. The Dublin edition of his book sold a massive 1,900 copies.
(From a miniature by Byrne: Date unknown)
Samuel Neilson, editor of the United Irish Northern Star, an abolitionist and one of Equiano’s principal hosts during his time in Belfast.
Belfast News Letter, 20 December 1791
Advertisement for Equiano’s autobiography