As a major historical figure pored over by academics and the subject of several books, one would have thought that there was little more to be learnt about Olaudah Equiano, the former slave whose best-selling autobiography became a major weapon in the abolitionist cause towards the end of the 18th century.
While there is a scholarly spat over the whereabouts of his birth, the minutiae of his life are well known, including where he was baptised, where he lived and where he worked. We even know that he wrote the bulk of his famous 1789 book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in Riding House Street, Marylebone, London.
What remained a mystery is where he was buried following his untimely death in 1797. But it now transpires that Equiano’s final resting place was in a cemetery next to the former Whitefield’s Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road after he was discovered listed in the church’s burial records.
“It is an amazing find and we are very excited by it,” said Arthur Torrington of the Equiano Society. “We have been trying to find out where he was buried since we started up in 1996 but wherever we looked we always drew a blank.”
But it is a circuitous discovery that also involved the US-based scholar Vincent Caretta contacting the current occupants of Whitfield’s Tabernacle, the American International Church, during research for his landmark 2005 biography Equiano, the African, acting on the hunch that this was one of Equiano’s places of worship.
But they had never heard of Equiano. To throw a further spanner in the works, the original church building had been flattened by a bomb during the war, and it was assumed the burial records had also been destroyed.
But in the summer of last year, Caretta heard that the church’s burial register was held at the London Metropolitan Archives. Equiano Society associate David Gleave went down to the archive to check this out and the following entry jumped out from the page: ‘6 [April 1797] Gustus Vasa, 52 years, St Mary Le bone’.
“Both the first name and surname are slightly misspelt but this is certainly our man,” states Gleave on his Historycal Roots website. “So Equiano had been ‘hiding in plain sight’, it was just a case of knowing where to look.”
However, it is unlikely that the site of his remains will ever be located. The small burial ground flanked both sides of the church and is now occupied by the Whitfield Gardens children’s playground and a paved area dotted with benches, popular with passersby.
Although an estimated 30,000 people were buried there, often one on top of the other, there is little indication of its former use save for the odd obscure headstone.
Last month, the Equiano Society’s touring exhibition, Equiano – An Extraordinary Life, opened at the American International Church, which moved in during the 1970s to serve American expats but now sees itself as a place of worship for all the community.
“It [the record] was a great find,” said Jonathan Miller, the minister responsible for the church’s outreach programme. “Equiano’s life really touched us – we can assume he worshipped here, and this is his final spot – and we are keen that he should be celebrated by the church.”
Alongside the Equiano Society, the church is approaching Camden Council with a view to having some sort of commemorative marker erected, and a meeting to discuss this with the mayor, Maryam Eslamdous, who attended the exhibition’s launch, is scheduled for next month.
Equiano states in his autobiography that he worshipped at St James’ Piccadilly, St Martin in-the-Fields and St Anne’s Soho. But circumstantial evidence also points to him attending Whitfield’s Tabernacle towards the end of his life, Equiano having favourably remarked on the preachings of the Billy Graham of his day – George Whitfield – during a stay in Savannah, Georgia, years earlier. Whitfield, a fire and brimstone evangelist with oddly conflicting views on slavery who nevertheless welcomed slaves into his ministry, founded his church in 1756 when Tottenham Court Road was no more than a country road.
Equiano lived at various addresses a short stroll away – Tottenham Street, John Street (now Whitfield Street) and Union St (now Riding House Street) – after moving from Baldwin’s Gardens just off Leather Lane in Holborn, which had become a too insalubrious area for someone who was fast acquiring a gentlemanly status. He also worked for the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in Warren St, many of whose beneficiaries also worshipped at Whitfield’s Tabernacle alongside prominent figures like Joshua Reynolds and David Garrick.
Equiano had finally settled in London in the 1770s after a life on the high seas as a free man. Captured by slavers as a boy in what is today Nigeria, he was transported to the Americas and eventually sold to a naval captain. Improbably renamed Gustavus Vassus after a Swedish monarch, he was taught to read and write and became a skilled sailor, experiencing many adventures.
England at the time was consumed by a heady mix of evangelism and political radicalism blown in from revolutionary France, with the rights of man a rallying cry for both. Slavery came to be increasingly seen as an abomination and Equiano threw his weight behind the campaign to abolish it, addressing public rallies and on one occasion writing to Queen Charlotte, wife of George lll, to get her on side.
But it was his autobiography detailing the horrors of slavery that would make him a household name. The book became an instant best seller and made him a wealthy man. In 2007, his image was included on one of a series of Royal Mail postage stamps to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade that his book, now published as a Penguin Classic, helped pave the way for.
“We are discovering new things about Equiano all the time,” says Torrington. “This is certainly not the end of the story.”
Equiano – An Extraordinary Life moves to Lewisham on October 15. For more details contact firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the Review on September 26 2019