Famous Londoners – Olaudah Equiano…

Author and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano was, according to his own account, born in Africa, probably in southern Nigeria, in 1745.

Equiano, whose claim to have been born in Africa has recently been the subject of some dispute, wrote that he was kidnapped from his home as an 11-year-old child and sold to slave traders. He was sold again several times and eventually put on a slave ship to Barbados in the British West Indies before being sent on to the Colony of Virginia in what is now the US.

Olaudah Equiano (‘Gustavus Vassa’) by Daniel Orme, published by Olaudah Equiano (‘Gustavus Vassa’), after W Denton stipple engraving, published 1st March, 1789 (NPG D8546) © National Portrait Gallery, London

There he was purchased by Michael Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who, against Equiano’s wishes, renamed him ‘Gustavus Vassa’ after 16th-century King of Sweden (he had previously been given names Michael and Jacob).

Equiano accompanied Pascal back to England then served as his valet during the Seven Years’ War with France, a role which saw present at or participating in several battles.

He learnt to read and write during this period and was baptised as a Christian in St Margaret’s Church in Westminster on 9th February, 1759.

In December, 1762, Equiano was sold to Captain James Doran of the Charming Sally at Gravesend. He was transported back to the Caribbean where in Montserrat he was sold to Robert King, an American Quaker merchant from Philadelphia.

Equiano was put to work by King as a deckhand, valet and barber. King promised him his freedom for the price of £40 and he achieved this in 1766 at about the age of 21.

Despite King’s urgings for him to continue to stay on as a business partner, Equiano, who had narrowly escaped being kidnapped and placed back into enslavement, left for England in about 1768 where he picked up work on ships, including on an Arctic expedition, and also on a project to establish an (ultimately unsuccessful) plantation in Central America’s Mosquito Coast.

Back in England in the last 1770s, he settled in London and became actively involved in the abolitionist movement, sharing his experiences with the likes of Granville Sharp including what he knew of the Zong massacre – the mass killing of more than 130 enslaved Africans aboard the British ship, Zong, during a voyage in late 1781. He was also one of eight delegates from ‘Africans in America’ to present an ‘Address of Thanks’ to the Quakers at a meeting in Gracechurch Street, London, in October, 1785.

In the 1780s, he also became involved in aiding slaves who had been freed by the British during and after the American War of Independence and was at one stage involved in the ill-fated plan for a new settlement of so-called Black Loyalists, many of whom were former slaves, at Sierra Leone (although he never went there himself).

Encouraged by his abolitionist friends, he wrote his famous autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Published in 1789, it was a hit and during his lifetime went through nine English editions and one American as well as being published in various other languages. His book and his first person accounts of slavery are seen as instrumental to the passing of an act abolishing Britain’s slave trade in 1807 (almost a decade after his death).

He married an English woman, Susannah Cullen, in April, 1792, and lived with her in Soham, Cambridgeshire, where they had two daughters, Anna Maria and Joanna.

Equiano subsequently lived at several locations in London and by the time of his death, on 31st March, 1797, he was living in Paddington Street in Westminster. Such was his fame that his death was reported in both British and American newspapers.

Equiano was buried at Whitefield’s Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road on 6th April (the exact site is lost).

He is commemorated in Martin Bond’s 1997 sculpture Wall of the Ancestors in Deptford and a memorial tablet in St Margaret’s Church (there’s also a crater named after him on Mercury).

In 2007, a first edition of Equiano’s book was carried in procession at a special service in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the bicentenary of the passing of Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

What’s in a name?…Fulham…

Fulham-PalaceThis Thameside area in London’s west has a long and storied history and its name is a reflection of it.

Long home to the ‘country’ manor of the bishops of London (Fulham Palace, pictured above), the name Fulanham is recorded as early as the late 7th century.

While there’s been speculation in the past that the name Fulham (also recorded among other variations as Fullam) was a corruption of ‘fowl-ham’ – relating to the wild fowl that were to be found here – or of ‘foul-ham’, relating to the muddied waters, that’s now apparently generally deemed not to be the case.

Instead, its name most likely owes its origins to an Anglo-Saxon named Fulla and the Old English word ‘hamm’ – a term for a water meadow or piece of land enclosed in a bend in a river (in contrast to the more common ‘ham’ which refers to an estate or homestead) – and referred to the manor he owned here, its boundaries set by a bend in the Thames. (It should be noted there is evidence of earlier occupation of the site by the Romans and as far back as the Neolithic era).

In about 700, the manor of Fulham – which includes the area we now think of as Fulham as well as land stretching as far afield as Acton, Ealing and Finchley – was acquired by Bishop Waldhere of London from Bishop Tyrhtilus of Hereford. Since Tudor times, Fulham Palace was used as the country home of the bishops of London and in the 20th century became their principal residence. It was used as such until 1975 and now houses a museum and reception rooms.

As well as now being used for the area which once contained what became the village of Fulham itself, since 1979 the name has also been used in that of the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Interestingly, Fulham Broadway tube station was known as Walham Green when it first opened in 1880 and was only given its current name in 1952.

The bishop’s palace (and the nearby riverside Bishop’s Park) aside, other landmarks in the area include the Grade I-listed All Saints Church, which is largely late Victorian and which hosts the grave of abolitionist Granville Sharp, and the nearby Powell Almhouses which date from 1869.

It’s also linked by Putney Bridge with Putney on the other side of the Thames; the current bridge is the work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette and was built in 1882 – it replaced an earlier wooden bridge built in 1729 and overlooks where the annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race begins (other bridges spanning the river from Fulham include the rather ugly Wandsworth Bridge).

Known during the 18th century as something of a mecca for gambling, prostitution and other debauched leisure activities, these days Fulham is known for its football club, Fulham FC headquartered at Craven Cottage stadium (named for a cottage owned by Baron Craven which once stood here), shopping and is a sought-after residential location.