Olaudah Equiano at St Anthony's Colliery, Byker
22 Jun 2020
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Site is now Walker Riverside Park
Featured as part of the Black History Collection.
'From 1789 to 1794, the ex-slave and celebrity author olaudah Equiano toured Britain and Ireland, signing and selling copies of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). Five decades before ex-slave writers such as Frederick Douglass and Henry “Box” Brown launched their well-publicized British and Irish lecture tours in the mid–nineteenth century, Equiano mapped much the same ground, as he traveled from town to city to town in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, presenting himself as The Interesting Narrative’s embodied voice.1 This was the first modern-style author tour in British history, a phenomenon that prompted Caryl Phillips, in his historical novel Cam- bridge (1991), to imagine the scene: “It was determined that I should tour England,” narrates the ex-slave Cambridge, modeled on Equiano. “Truly I was now an Englishman, albeit a little smudgy of complexion! . . . Across the full breadth of fair England we trod, the spectacle of my Christian wife and I sometimes provoking the vulgar to indulge themselves in a banquet of wicked jest” (147). Written by a cosmopolitan known variously as “Jacob,” “Michael,” “Vassa,” and “Equiano,” The Interesting Narrative is the patchwork of a virtuoso self-fashioner.
The primary record of Equiano’s book tour derives from the letters of reference he carried as he promoted his autobiography, which he included as marketing matter in the third and subsequent editions. 19 Published with The Interesting Narrative, these letters, as well as the subscription lists Equiano collected, catalog the sympathetic community he was building as he traveled to Birmingham, Cambridge, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Bridgnorth, Nottingham, Belfast, Dublin, Durham, York, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Hull, Devizes, Bristol, Sudbury, Worcester, Gloucester, Tewkesbury, and elsewhere.20 After each stop on his tour, Equiano re-created The Interesting Narrative’s subscription index by publishing the names of his supporters in local newspapers. Here, for example, is the note of gratitude he wrote for the 31 August 1790 issue of the Manchester Mercury, which was printed on the front page just below the banner:
"Having received Great Marks of Kindness from many Ladies and Gentlemen here, (who have subscribed to my Interesting Narrative) particularly Thomas Walker, Esq., the Rev. Dr Bayley, Mr Ralph Kirkham, Mr Isaac Moss, jun., Mr Richard Routh, Mr John Lowe, jun. & Family, & Mr Lloyd. I beg you to suffer me thus publickly to express my grateful acknowledgement to them for their Favours, and for the Fellow-feeling they have discovered, for my very poor and much oppressed Countrymen; these acts of Commisseration have fill’d my Heart with Gratitude, therefore, permit me Sir, on Behalf of myself and the rest of my Brethren, to offer this sincere Thanks, for the Testimony of your Regard to the Sable People. May your endeavours meet with the desired success."
Imaged as Britain’s other “black” population, miners were also known for their history of political activism. In 1765 four thousand miners went on strike in Durham, and as the century progressed, especially after the French Revolution, activist miners came under the War Office’s surveillance—in 1793 the mayor of Newcastle demanded military protection from their “tumultuous spirit”. Equiano would have recognized the analogy of the mine to the ships on which he served, and his interest in miners only increased on his book tour. In the sixth edition of The Interesting Narrative, he elaborates on his visits to various mines: “some curious adventures beneath the earth, in a river in Manchester,—and a most astonishing one under the Peak of Derbyshire—and in Sept. 1792, I went 90 fathoms down St. Anthony’s Colliery, at Newcastle, under the river Tyne, some hundreds of yards on Durham side”. Carretta has suggested that because The Interesting Narrative could be had from a circulating library in Newcastle, Equiano did not have “to work as hard as elsewhere” when he visited that city, and so “he had the leisure” to visit the local mine. But with the keywords Equiano uses in his mention of mines (Durham, Newcastle), he subtly maps an underground network of contemporary sites of resistance he had visited and whose support he now recognizes in print.'
John Bugg, The Other Interesting Narrative: Olaudah Equiano’s Public Book Tour
Listing Description (if available)
Illustration of Equiano after his freedom, likely towards the latter half of his life. Equiano was clearly an incredible man, and took advantage of his freedom by exploring the world and improving himself. Taking time to meet those who were the benefactors of his oppression is certainly a noble act. He almost certainly made strides towards racial equality even in the 18th century, and normalised to some extent free people of colour in white majority countries.