"Equiano and Birmingham"

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Description:All text by Dr Andy Green

Equiano and Birmingham: Researching the Links.

This exhibition is intended to generate more research into Olaudah Equiano’s visit to Birmingham in 1790.

Equiano was a highly controversial black author, traveller, trader and activist of the eighteenth century. His autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written By Himself” provides an important record of the slave trade. Research into Equiano’s life highlights the complexities and contradictions of the eighteenth century.

Many aspects of his life cause controversy: was he really born in Africa, as his book claims? How can we reconcile his reputation as an ‘antislavery activist’ with the suggestion contained in his narrative he was once involved in buying and selling slaves in the West Indies?

Equiano visited Birmingham in 1790 to promote his autobiography. During his stay, he published in the Aris’s Gazette a list of local people who had subscribed to a copy of his book. This list of names not only represent Equiano’s success as an author. They also give us an insight into eighteenth century Birmingham society. Who bought the narrative in Birmingham ? Why were they interested in Equiano’s life? What institutions, churches, businesses were they involved in? From what class, gender or racial background?

We know that some of his subscribers, such as ‘Joseph Priestley’ and ‘Matthew Boulton’ belonged to what was known as ‘The Lunar Society’- an important group of local inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs that also included the steam engine pioneer, James Watt. But what about the rest of the names of Equiano’s subscriber list? Who, for instance, was John Biddle? Mrs Wiggin? James Gottington? Edward Palmer? The subscriber list published in the Aris contains over sixty names; and many of these remain obscure.

Are you interested in Birmingham’s link to antislavery history? Do you belong to a community group interested in research? Are you part of a black history group who would like to find out more? Why not see if you can find out more about any of the names on the Subscriber list?

The following exhibition pages contain portraits, or other pieces of documentary evidence, that cast further light on the names on Equiano’s list of Birmingham subscribers. If you make your own discovery about any of the lesser known names, why not send connecting histories an e-mail and tell us your findings!