The name Olaudah Equiano may not be familiar to you, it certainly wasn’t to me. But it is now a name that I will never forget. His life is one that everyone should know about and whilst adults can learn about Ola in his bestselling autobiography that is widely read today - over two-hundred years after its initial publication - children can now become familiar with an adventurer, activist and author thanks to Catherine Johnson’s remarkable historical non-fiction narrative.
Born in 1745 in Essaka (a town in modern Nigeria), Africa, Olaudah Equiano was a happy child; playing with his siblings, enjoying family meals and listening to the elders. Life changed dramatically the day the men with the guns turned up. Kidnapped and then sold like a bag of flour, Ola would spend many years working as a slave at the hand of brutal masters. A dream of freedom never diminished though and a deal offered the opportunity for a different life. The value placed on a life in exchange for freedom…forty pounds. But could a slave really buy their way to freedom and truly live as a free man…
Meticulously researched, Catherine Johnson brings the horrors of the slave trade to life in an interesting and eye-opening account of the life of Olaudah Equiano. Covering a ten year period, we follow the trials and tribulations of a young boy who was kidnapped at the tender age of eleven, was put to work under the hands of different masters, would eventually buy back his freedom and go on to write one of the most important books in history.
Told with uncompromising honesty, it is at times brutal and Johnson does an exceptional job in ensuring the content is age-appropriate but in no means making light of the situation. Readers are left in little doubt about the horrors of the slave trade and how a person’s life, freedom, rights and choices were determined simply by the colour of their skin.
In a story that could be easily be full of doom and gloom there are many beacons of light amongst the darkness. An individual, who despite years of mistreatment, hard labour and where merely trying to survive was enough of a challenge, never gave up his dream of freedom, showed entrepreneurial spirit, and his resilience and determination are testament to the strength of the human spirit. There was great suffering but so much was overcome and much would be achieved long after Ola’s death thanks to the activist who campaigned for the abolition of slavery.
Whilst this is a challenging and confronting read, perhaps the biggest challenge readers face is left right until the end as we learn more about Ola in a detailed author’s note. In a story full of controversies, Ola’s actions after managing to free himself are arguably the most controversial of all. Why would a man who had experienced such brutality and unkindness manage slaves on a sugarcane plantain in South America? Was it to ensure that they were treated respectfully and with some degree of compassion? Readers are certainly left with much to ponder and discuss and many will be inclined to go and research more about one of the most important black figures in British history. The author’s note provides a great starting point for further enquiry and whilst Johnson acknowledges that some creative liberties have been taken in her retelling, it is for the most part as accurate as can be. An essential book for all key stage two classrooms and libraries.
As with all Barrington Stoke titles the book is published using dyslexic friendly font and colours so everyone can access this read. With huge thanks to the publisher for the copy I received in exchange for an honest review.
Recommended for 9+.