Olaudah Equiano: In Search Of The Slave-Turned-Abolitionist's London Memorials

By M@
Olaudah Equiano: In Search Of The Slave-Turned-Abolitionist's London Memorials
A blue-shirted bust of Oulaudah Equiano on a plinth. Greenery in background
Image by the author

Olaudah Equiano led a tumultuous life. Born around 1745 in the Kingdom of Benin (now Southern Nigeria), he was kidnapped and sold into slavery aged 11. He survived the transatlantic journey to Barbados, from where he was bought and sold several times.

Equiano was eventually able to buy his freedom, after which he settled in London (a city he'd visited as a young man, while under enslavement of an officer of the Royal Navy). It was here that he entered the history books by campaigning for the abolition of slavery and later writing a stirring autobiography: "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African".

The book was a bestseller and brought the horrors of slavery to a wider audience. Its publication helped build momentum towards slavery's eventual abolition in Britain.

A fuller account of Equiano's remarkable life can readily be found online. Here, we go in search of the London memorials to this pioneering Black author. Though numerous, they are mostly hidden away and little-known.

1. Statue on Telegraph Hill

A blue bust of Equiano on a pedestal in a green park

Equiano's most eye-catching tribute can be found high on the rise of Telegraph Hill near New Cross. The lower park contains a bust of the author, painted in brilliant colours. The likeness was created by children from Edmund Waller School near the foot of the park in 2008.

It stands on a ceramic plinth with three sides, which symbolises both the triangular route of the Atlantic slave trade, as well as the three phases of Equiano's life (child in Africa, slave and free man).

But why here? Equiano is thought to have lived in nearby Deptford while still enslaved. Here he began to learn to read and write, and became a Christian.

2. Bench plaque in Deptford

A bench plaque noting the life of Equiano
Image by the author

A much subtler memorial to Equiano can be found (if you look hard enough) in Deptford proper. Look along the northern fringes of Deptford Park, and you might spot this bench plaque which notes Equiano's local connection. It's worth scouting the other benches here, as several other former residents, such as super-sculptor Grinling Gibbons, are celebrated.

3. The Wall of Ancestors, Deptford

A wall of stone faces on a grey background
Image courtesy London Remembers

A third memorial (of sorts) in the Deptford area can be found at the base of the Aragon Tower, beside the Thames on the Pepys Estate. Here, a sculptural collection known as the Wall of Ancestors by Martin Bond shows the faces of 16 people with local connections. One of these is Equiano. He's the one on the bottom row, just to the right of the ruff-wearing Elizabeth I. The wonderful London Remembers website has details on the other dedicatees.

4. The museum bust

A bust of Equiano in a museum with a portrait of a bewigged naval gentleman in the background
Image by Allan Harris under creative commons licence

The Telegraph Hill bust isn't the only head-and-shoulders in town. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich displays a characterful likeness of Equiano by sculptor Christy Symington. It's based on (but not copied from) the only known accurate portrait of Equiano, from the front of his autobiography.

5. The Fitzrovia plaque

A green plaque to Olaudah Equiano on a red brick wall

The memorials in Deptford all relate to Equiano's short stay as a young man, when he was still a slave. When he returned to London as a free man, he took lodgings in the area we now know as Fitzrovia. A City of Westminster plaque on Riding House Street marks the site of his home, from which he published his autobiography.

6. The Fitzrovia mural

Equiano also appears on a small mural round the corner on Goodge Place.

A mural depicting eight local heroes, including Equiano in a red jacket

This is one of the less-famous works of the late, great muralist Brian Barnes, who painted many of the capital's most celebrated murals. See if you can work out the identities of the other local heroes on this mural.

Olaudah Equiano died in 1797, a decade before the Slave Trade Act began the process of outlawing slavery. He was buried in nearby Whitfield Gardens, that small patch of open land immediately north of Goodge Street station.

Despite all the memorials, London does not have a single street named after Olaudah Equiano*. He does have a crater on Mercury, though, so that's something.

At least 38 million people remain in slavery across the world today.

*A housing block in Holborn is called Equiano Court, but it's well hidden and doesn't carry a prominent name plaque.

Last Updated 22 April 2022

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