Olaudah Equiano begins his narrative by describing the customs of his native land in modern-day Nigeria. The customs are very different from those of England, but he also makes the case for their similarity to traditions of the Jews, even suggesting that Jews and Africans share a common heritage. This argument allows Equiano to begin to assert the full humanity of slaves and of black people in general, who only seem inferior to Europeans because they are cruelly subjugated by white people. While Equiano describes the practice of slavery as common among his own people, he contrasts slavery within Africa to the brutal racial hierarchy established by white Europeans.
Equiano recounts being kidnapped along with his sister by slave traders at the age of eleven. After spending time with a number of different masters in the interior of Africa, he was eventually separated from his sister and brought to the coast. There he saw a slave ship for the first time and was stunned by the cramped, unclean, even inhuman condition in which black Africans were confined on the ships. He was entranced and frightened, too, by the strange workings of the ship, which seemed to him to be driven by magic. He was initially terrified that the frightening-looking white men directing the ship were going to eat him, but the other captives eventually convinced Equiano that they were being brought across the sea to work for white men. After a long, torturous voyage, in which the conditions were so bad as to provoke some of the slaves to commit suicide, they reached Barbados, where Equiano witnessed families being separated without any thought to the pain and distress this caused. He himself was subsequently taken to Virginia, where he was isolated on a plantation. He spoke little English and had almost no one to talk to.
After a few months, a merchant and naval officer, Michael Henry Pascal, came to visit Equiano’s master and liked the look of Equiano. Pascal purchased Equiano and brought him to the ship to be taken to England. Pascal treated Equiano better than any other white man had in the past, though he also refused to call Equiano by the name of Jacob as Equiano preferred, instead naming him Gustavus Vassa. On the ship Equiano also befriended a young white boy named Richard (Dick) Baker, and the two became inseparable. In London Equiano lodged with relatives of Pascal, two sisters called the Miss Guerins, who were kind to Equiano and began to teach him to read and write. They also instructed him in the Bible and took him to be baptized. Equiano accompanied Pascal on a few more voyages in which they participated in battles of the French and Indian Wars, and then they left for Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. After a number of further battles, they returned to England, where Equiano began to hope he might gain his freedom. However, Pascal betrayed Equiano by preventing him from leaving the ship and forcing him into yet another form of slavery under Captain James Doran. Pascal also stole everything in Equiano’s possession besides nine guineas he’d saved over the years.
Under Doran, Equiano traveled to the West Indies, where the subjugated state of the slaves there deeply affected him and reminded him of his own enslavement. Soon Doran sold Equiano to a Quaker merchant, Mr. Robert King, who treated Equiano with greater respect and acknowledged his substantial skills as a seaman. King hired Equiano out to a captain, Thomas Farmer, and eventually permitted him to participate in a series of voyages between the West Indies, St. Eustatia, and Georgia—voyages that involved the transport and exchange of slaves and other goods. Farmer allowed Equiano to develop his own commercial activities: starting with three pence, Equiano slowly built up savings and goods to trade himself. All throughout their voyages, though, Equiano constantly struggled with unfair treatment by white men who refused to pay him or tried to cheat him. Equiano realized that as a black man it was impossible for him to get legal retribution. Finally Equiano managed to save forty pounds, which King had agreed would be the price of his freedom, and he bought his own manumission. Still, King and Farmer cajoled him into staying with them as an employee, to which he agreed. Equiano still observed a number of cases in which freemen were forced back into slavery—something which nearly happened to him as well—and this underlined for him the fragility of his freedom. On the way back from one trip to Georgia, Farmer grew ill and died, and Equiano became the de facto captain. He continued to travel and participate in the slave trade under a new captain, William Phillips, though Equiano was increasingly desirous of making his way back to England. After being betrayed by a number of different captains, he finally managed to return to the West Indies, where he obtained a certificate of good behavior from Mr. King and returned to England.
In England Equiano got back into contact with the Miss Guerins, who helped him attain a trade as a hairdresser, and also went to see Pascal, who seemed entirely unremorseful for his betrayal. After a time, Equiano grew restless and decided he could make more money at sea, so he worked on a number of voyages. During this time, he also began to struggle with his faith, wandering among churches and growing unsatisfied both with his questions about eternal life, and with the sinfulness he saw among apparent Christians all around him. In Turkey, Equiano became acquainted with a group of people who helped him better understand Bible verses. These Christians seemed far holier than many of those he knew in England. On one voyage back to England, he experienced a spiritual epiphany, which included a vision of Jesus on the cross: this proved to be a spiritual rebirth, solidifying Equiano’s faith but also distancing him from other sailors, who were more likely to belittle his conversion.
Equiano had been hired by Dr. Irving, who decided to establish a plantation in Jamaica and asked Equiano to join. On the voyage, he tried to instruct a Musquito Indian prince in Christianity, with uncertain results. Equiano helped Irving establish a plantation, and he himself treated the slaves kindly and generously. Eventually he wanted to return to England, but once again he found himself stymied by betrayals and cruel treatment by white captains. Finally he did manage to return to England, where he began to settle down, though he never remained on land for too long. He participated in one unsuccessful, though theoretically inspiring, voyage to Africa to return some former slaves to their place of origin. He concludes with a powerful rhetorical argument against the slave trade, calling on the Christian feelings of the British and making economic and commercial arguments for abolishing slavery and opening Africa up to British goods and products.