This month we look at a bronze bust of Olaudah Equiano – African, slave, author, abolitionist by sculptor Christy Symington, recently acquired for the Parliamentary Art Collection by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art.
In the late eighteenth century Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797) became one of the most prominent and influential black voices of the abolition movement in Britain.
Equiano was 11 years old when he was kidnapped, enslaved and transported to the West Indies; West Virginia; and England where he was baptised in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. In 1766 in the Caribbean he ‘bought his freedom’ and was recognised as a free man. Between 1766 and 1780 Equiano continued to travel, before settling in Britain in the 1780s. He became a prominent figure of the abolitionist movement and published his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in 1789. His account of enslavement and freedom captivated and shocked British audiences:
“The abolition of slavery would be in reality an universal good. Tortures, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity, are practiced upon the poor slaves with impunity. I hope the slave-trade will be abolished. I pray it may be an event at hand.” Olaudah Equiano
In Parliament Equiano attended debates in the House of Commons on slavery and the abolition of the slave trade in 1788 and addressed the government directly through published letters on the subject. He corresponded with parliamentarians and one of his letters to Lord Hawkesbury was presented to a Parliamentary Committee as evidence in 1789.
Beyond Westminster, Equiano’s story had a profound impact on the public attitude towards slavery and the slave trade. Following the publication of his book he toured England, Scotland and Ireland, selling copies of his book and speaking on his life and the abolitionist cause. His work undoubtably helped to shift public opinion, which contributed to the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. Despite his contributions to the movement Equiano is often not remembered alongside contemporary white abolitionists.
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This artwork will be on display in Portcullis House during Open House Weekend.
Image: Olaudah Equiano – African, slave, author, abolitionist by Christy Symington, Parliamentary Art Collection WOA S758. All images copyright the artist, © Christy Symington MRSS/DACS 2019